From the Yaroslavsky terminal in Moscow to Vladivostok on the east coast of Asia, the Trans-Siberian railway is the spine of Russian infrastructure. It was imperial envy that brought the now revered Trans-Siberian into the world. At the turn of the nineteenth century Britain, Canada and the United States had developed impressive transport networks across vast distances. Such was Russia’s size that effective transport was hard to deliver across its many vast provinces. These swathes of land, with the largest being Siberia, empty of people and industry were ripe for colonisation.
Minister of Finance Sergei Witte, directed by Tsar Nicholas II and his government, oversaw the most expensive project in Russian history. Measuring more than 9,259 km in length, while spanning seven time zones, the line crosses the Volga and four other rivers.
The cost of travel is roughly the equivalent of a budget flight, though the train might not be able to reach Vladivostok in eight hours. As for the scenery along the way, Anton Checkov is known to have said; ‘as you travel, the only thing that reminds you of man are mileposts and telegraph wires humming in the wind’.
The Venice Simplon-Orient Express
Made famous by Agatha Miller, under the nom de guerre Agatha Christie, the VSOE trains are a restored version of the 1920’s model that took the upper classes on their grand tours of Europe. Running the Paris to Istanbul rout is still a profitable enterprise due to the large number of people wanting to experience a certain kind of luxury. For the uninitiated, it would seem odd to pay many thousands of pounds to be denied air conditioning, personal toilets and no showers. However, the answer to this lies with the mystique of the journey; Art Deco styled halls, beauty and sophistication.
The Caledonian Sleeper
Driving a relentless charge through the Scottish highlands and operated by First ScotRail, The Caledonian Sleeper connects London’s Euston Station with Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Fort William, Glasgow and Inverness. Used by Londoners to access Highland pursuits, the train has garnered the affectionate nickname ’The Deer Stalker’. One of the rumours about this service is that it is only kept running due to useful support of MPs with constituencies in Scotland who want an easy way to access their Scottish estates.
The Bergen Line
The highest train journey between two cities – The Bergen Line is a 371 km Norwegian railway that links the west coast port of Bergen to the capital Oslo. Opened in 1883, the Bergen train ride has often been voted one of the most scenic routes in the world, with a particular highlight being the passage over Hardangervidda, Europe’s highest mountain plateau and host to the largest stock of reindeer.
The Blue Train
Another luxurious service, the Blue Train traverses a route from Pretoria to Cape Town. While not used by the majority of South Africans, the line is still regarded highly by railway enthusiasts around the world. A butler service, smoking rooms and an observation car contribute to an experience that is hailed by its operator TFR as a ‘magnificent moving five star hotel’.
The Khyber Train Safari
Vintage BBC News website stories are a mine of fascinating information. Owen Bennett-Jones reported in February 1999 on a newly opened Khyber steam safari train running from Peshawar in Pakistan to Landi Kotal on the border of Afghanistan. The line sadly closed in 2006 due to floods, but the experience has been described as a throwback to another age. Run on the first Sunday of every month, following a track dubbed the ‘iron horse’ and offering the local population free rides, the service was the brainchild of Zahoor Durrani and has recently been reopened, though not on its original route. Current instability aside, this of all the journeys mentioned seems to me the most unusual and adventurous. Wish me luck.
Photo courtesy of midland.road