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The Trans-Siberian Railway, the Blue Train, and the Orient Express are among the usual suspects when it comes to naming the top train experiences in the world. But during the past few years, there’s been a spate of growth on the rails, with new destinations being primed with a coat of classic varnish.
Train travel may seem rather anachronistic. But according to a recent report from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, in many parts of the world, train travel appears poised for an upgrade. In fact, the report calls 2017 “the year of the train.”
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Part of the appeal is that “private luxury trains allow those with a degree of adventure to explore without sacrificing creature comforts,” according to rail travel evangelist Andy Brabin. Currently with travel consultancy Discover by Rail, Brabin adds that the growth in interest in trains coincides with the desire for slow travel. “Slow travel… exploring at ground level… gets the train traveler closer to the destination,” he says.
Another part of the advantage of train travel for those accustomed to luxury is that it allows them to explore undeveloped and out-of-the-way places. Annie Lucas, vice president of MIR Corporation, notes, “So many of these newer routes are places — the Silk Road, Persia — that conjure strong images; they have mystique about them. But due to their geographic magnitude or the forbidden frontier aspect, train travel may be the only way to explore them.”
Arnaud Champenois, Belmond’s senior vice president, marketing and brand also suggests that travel by train creates a sense of community that may be lacking in today’s 24/7 world. “Train travel has certain nuances that we have learnt over time. It is very important to create a sense of family on board a train — in terms of staff dynamic and how staff interact with guests. When a group of strangers travel together in close proximity we want to create a sense of celebration and togetherness.”
When it comes to international luxury train operators whose routes span many countries, some of the biggest guns are Lernidee, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, Rovos Rail, and Belmond, the rebranded (in 2014) incarnation of the Orient-Express collection. There are also several train operators confined to one specific route or country, such as Tren Crucero in Ecuador and Renfe, which operates luxury trains in Spain.
The biggest luxury train news this spring comes out of Japan. As reported in Skift earlier this month, Train Suite Shiki-Shima offers a four-day, three-night journey connecting Tokyo and Hokkaido. The beyond opulent operation started on May 1 and is currently fully booked, despite ticket prices between $3,000 and $10,000, through March 2018. In a game of Japanese one-upmanship, the Twilight Express Mizukaze goes into service in June, plying the tracks between Kyoto and Shimonseki. The art deco-style train markets itself as “a hotel rolling through the Japanese landscape; superior quality with a touch of nostalgia.” Prices are hardly throwbacks, though. Tickets start at $2,400 for the cheap seats and soar up to $11,000 for a suite that encompasses an entire rail car.
Also this spring, the Belmond Andean Explorer started up service in Peru. The luxury sleeper offers one and two-night itineraries through Cusco, Puno and Arequipa. Since 1995, Belmond has been running the Hiram Bingham daytime excursion train between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Speaking of train routes on high, Golden Eagle is starting a new trip through western China to Tibet in October. The train will traverse the world’s highest (16,640 feet) railway line.
Out of Africa
Rovos Rail is the premier luxury train operator in Africa, running the bulk of its 30-year-old classic five-star operation in Southern Africa. That said, it does operate an epic 15-day journey through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania on the Pride of Africa. What’s new down under is the 2016 Rovos Rail purchase of the Shongololo Express. While Shongololo’s trains are more three-star in nature, that line offers excursions to countries previously unexplored by Rovos, including Swaziland and Mozambique.