Whisper it softly: rail travel is getting back on track. I know, I know, long-suffering commuters on the UK network may not always feel that, but for those seeking to explore further afield, it is beginning to look as though we are entering a new golden age of the train.
Picking up where we left off in 2019, more of us than ever are beginning to discover that the way you travel is almost as important as where you travel and that the journey itself, far from being some unpleasant ordeal, can in fact enhance the holiday experience.
What could be more pleasurable than — possibly with a glass of wine in hand — winding through glorious mountain passes, along sparking stretches of ocean, past shimmering lakes and maize fields, coming into the heart of a neon-lit metropolis — all from the comfort of a window seat on a train?
There is clearly post-pandemic pent-up demand for travel of all kinds. But rail travel in particular is striking a chord among those wanting to get from A to B more pleasurably, more mindfully and, yes, in a more environmentally responsible way.
For some, the advent of more high-speed train services — the latest being Iyro (iryo.eu) in Spain — means that in addition to being nicer, rail is often now a viable and cost-effective alternative to flying.
Demand, though, is also growing for slower services, the ones that give you more time to sit and stare; to take stock; to chat to fellow passengers; to appreciate that less really can be more. On top of that there is a genuinely exciting expansion of sleeper services on the European mainland that is inspiring a whole new generation to go weak at the knees at the words . . . night train.
On a good day there are some pretty spectacular train journeys in Britain too. After all we’ve got serious locomotive history here. So from Northumberland to New Zealand and La Coruña to Casablanca, here’s our selection of new, noteworthy and inspirational train trips for 2023. Enjoy the ride.
Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco
1. Next stop, Casablanca
Is there anybody who does not feel a slight frisson whenever they hear the word Casablanca? And — as a result — who doesn’t want to go there? We can’t all be Bogarts or Bergmans, but we can travel flight-free to Morocco on a journey that, while mainly in Europe, crosses into Africa and opens up a whole new continent of rail adventure. Improved high-speed services through France and Spain make this perfectly doable, with stops in Paris, Barcelona, Madrid and Cadiz before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to land in Tangier. Next up Fez and . . . Casablanca. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Details Fifteen nights’ B&B from £2,105pp, including rail travel to and from London (byway.travel)
Inside the Two Stars 4047
2. Two Stars 4047, Japan
Everyone knows about the bullet trains (shinkansen) that whisk you through the Land of the Rising Sun at superfast speeds. But the country also has slower, more stylish “sightseeing trains”, the latest of which on the island of Kyushu — the Two Stars 4047 — runs in a loop connecting Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki, with stops for photos at places of scenic interest including the ever picturesque Omura Bay. The train’s carriages have wooden lattice windows, mosaic floors and a seating plan that incorporates sofas. “A luxurious way to travel in Japan for next to nothing,” says Anna Udagawa, the co-author of Japan by Rail (japanbyrail.com).
Details Takeo Onsen to Nagasaki from £27 one-way (jrkyushu.co.jp); holders of the Japan Rail Pass travel for free (japanrailpass.net). Fly to Osaka then take the train to Takeo Onsen
A train on its way to Christchurch, New Zealand
3. New Zealand in a nutshell
There are three standout train journeys in New Zealand — the Northern Explorer linking Auckland and Wellington; the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch; and, most scenic of all, the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth, which crosses South Island and affords spectacular views of the peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. This tour takes in all three, and much more besides — a ferry journey across Cook Strait, an exploration of Marlborough wine country and time in New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown. If you’ve been biding your time for that big trip, this could be the one.
Details Twenty nights’ B&B from £5,295pp, including flights, transfers, excursions and some extra meals (greatrail.com)
El Castillo temple in Chichen Itza, Mexico
4. Tren Maya in Mexico
We don’t often associate Mexico with rail (though the El Chepe through the Copper Canyon is one of the greatest train journeys on the planet). That could change this year with the opening of the first stretch of the Tren Maya, a vast project aiming to link all the main sites of interest on the Yucatan peninsula by rail, making them much easier to visit. The line due to open in December will connect Palenque with Chichen Itza — both famous for their Mayan ruins — passing through the Yucatan capital of Merida and winding up on the beaches of Cancun. In years to come the line will stretch down to the party town of Playa del Carmen and the ocean-facing Mayan temples at Tulum.
Details Trips on the Tren Maya are likely to be modestly priced and bookable through specialist operator Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.com)
Visit Berlin on the new sleeper service from Brussels
5. Brussels to Berlin night train
The regeneration of Europe’s sleeper train services gets fresh impetus in May with the start of a service linking Brussels to Berlin via Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam and the introduction of a new operator — European Sleeper, a Belgian-Dutch venture. Choose between an ultra-budget seat, a slot in a four to six-berth couchette, or a Sleepers Deluxe (max three beds). A departure at 19.22 gets into Berlin at 06.48, in good time for an early breakfast — or to join all-night clubbers.
Details Brussels to Berlin from £44 (seat), £70 (couchette) and £115 (Sleepers Deluxe) one-way (europeansleeper.eu). Fly or take the Eurostar to Brussels
The London to Venice journey stops in Innsbruck, Austria
6. London to Venice
There are more famous ways of doing this particular journey, but this new tour seeks to extend it over a much more leisurely ten days — and at a very affordable price. There are stops in Paris, Lausanne, Innsbruck, Munich and Cologne and passages through mountain scenery (in Switzerland and Germany) combine with cityscapes and the sheer drama of arrival by train into Cologne (for the cathedral) and La Serenissima itself. The aim is to make the travelling as relaxed as possible, with almost no potentially stressful same-day connections. La dolce vita indeed.
Details Nine nights’ B&B from £1,499pp, including all rail travel (tailormaderail.com)
The Douro Valley, Portugal
7. Pilgrimage to Pinhao
Another well-priced, well-paced tour, this one is packed with cultural, historical and culinary excitement. A series of rail journeys will take you from the ancient lighthouse city of La Coruña along the sacred pilgrim’s trail to Santiago de Compostela down through the Galician fishing port of Vigo before crossing into Portugal for the delights of Porto and a wonderfully scenic train journey along the vineyard-lined Douro Valley.
Details Eleven nights’ B&B from £1,825pp, including flights, all rail travel and some excursions (wexas.com)
● Best sleeper trains in Europe
● The world’s most luxurious train journeys
Spot bison in forests around Bialystok in Poland
8. Krakow to Vilnius
Remember when you could travel all the way through central and eastern Europe for next to nothing? This new route recalls those times. Though services to the Baltic states have historically been hampered by Soviet-era gauges that are wider than the standard ones of Poland and western Europe, this journey takes you from the edge of the Tatra mountains and the magnificent city of Krakow to the skyscrapers of Warsaw and bison-rich forests around Bialystok. Then it’s on to Lithuania and the medieval wonders of Kaunas and Vilnius. It lasts just over 12 hours, with a quick change of train in Mockava, and it provides a tantalising glimpse of a future when — at the end of the decade — it should be possible to take the train all the way to Tallinn.
Details One-way Krakow to Vilnius from £27 (ltglink.lt). Fly to Krakow
Villefranche-sur-Mer in the French Riviera
9. Slow trains through France
Like the idea of slow travel but looking for a few more creature comforts — and perhaps a little closer to home? This gentle meander through the French countryside and along the Côte d’Azur on some of the lesser-used local lines should fit the bill. There are stays in the spa town of Vichy, Nîmes — the “French Rome” — Avignon, Marseilles and a host of Riviera delights on the way to Nice. There will be boat trips, a masterclass in perfume-making and a trip on the Train des Merveilles (Train of Wonders) taking you deep into the Alpes-Maritimes and the Vallée des Merveilles. Magnifique!
Details Eleven nights’ B&B from £3,400pp, including all train travel, tours and experiences (originaltravel.co.uk)
The Golden Pass Express
MOB GOLDEN PASS
10. Golden Pass Express, Switzerland
The Golden Pass Express, an exciting development in Swiss rail travel, was only introduced in December, making 2023 the year to discover it. Scenically it whisks you from the shores of Lake Geneva and the jazz vibes of Montreux past lakes, mountain passes and the super-swish resort of Gstaad before reaching Interlaken. Amazingly, along the way the train changes its height and the gauge of its wheels. Enjoy this journey as one of three stellar rides on a tour that will also take you on board the Glacier Express and Bernina Express trains.
Details Five nights’ B&B from £1,629pp, including flights into Geneva and out of Zurich (railbookers.co.uk)
The Flying Scotsman gliding through the North Yorkshire Moors
11. Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh
Nothing sums up the romance of rail travel as powerfully as Flying Scotsman, the locomotive that came into service 100 years ago and became the first to break the 100mph speed barrier. Spruced up for the centenary, it will be in service on a number of steam train specials this year, none more evocative than the summer jaunt between London and Edinburgh via Northumberland, the route it made its own.
Details Four nights’ room-only in York (one night) and Edinburgh (three nights), departing on June 30, from £1,175pp, including return rail to London and excursion to Forth Bridge (railwaytouring.net)
Downhill Strand on the Castlerock coast, Co Londonderry
GARDINER MITCHELL PHOTOGRAPHY
12. Londonderry to Coleraine
Michael Palin described the route between the walled city of Londonderry and Coleraine as “one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world”. It’s short in duration (40 minutes) but long on visuals — along the banks of the River Foyle and its estuary and past the dunes of Benone Strand and the coast at Castlerock. From Coleraine it is but a hop to the Giant’s Causeway. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, this is a telling journey to incorporate into a wider exploration north and south of the border.
Details Londonderry to Coleraine from £15 one-way (translink.co.uk)
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