High-speed rail is hot these days, as the Obama Administration promises to invest billions in faster train lines.
But another kind of rail service is generating excitement, too—and the attraction has nothing to do with speed. Luxury trains, offering the comforts of an upscale hotel, fine dining, and extras such as massages and onboard lectures, are drawing a growing clientele worldwide.
Unlike cruise ships, these trains offer a wide variety of coastal and inland scenery, from the Andes to the great cities of Europe. And they're a welcome respite from the hassles of air travel. Increasingly, vacationers "are looking for a slower, more contemplative way of traveling, rather than the feeling of being in a food processor," says Simon Piebow, managing director of Britain's Luxury Train Club, which organizes high-end train tours.
Vintage Rolling Stock Luxurious trains are nothing new, of course. The Orient Express, made famous by the Agatha Christie murder mystery, began service between Paris and Istanbul in 1883. South Africa's Blue Train came next, in 1923, linking Cape Town and Johannesburg.
But since the 1980s, new services have opened in locations as diverse as the Canadian Rockies and Southeast Asia. Just this spring, Russia launched a luxury train, the Alexander Nevsky (named for the heroic 13th-century Russian leader and saint), between Moscow and St. Petersburg. A few months earlier, Australia's Great Southern Rail unveiled a new super-luxurious Platinum service aboard its historic transcontinental train, the Ghan.
Indeed, high-end rail service can now be found in more than 25 countries on five continents. One glaring exception: the U.S., where the only scheduled luxury train, the GrandLuxe Express, went out of business last year. Formerly known as the American Orient Express, it had operated for more than a decade but never found financial success.
Most luxury trains use vintage equipment that requires costly renovation and maintenance, and operators have to pay hefty fees to railroads to use their tracks. That means fares are steep—and so are passengers' expectations. "If you're going to be paying top dollar, you should get top-dollar service," says Eleanor Flagler Hardy, president of Louisville's Society of International Railway Travelers, which publishes a magazine on luxury rail travel and handles bookings for some foreign rail-tour operators.
Sidetracked The global economic crisis has slowed some projects, including a planned luxury service from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet. Its scheduled April 2009 opening was postponed until next year. The Danube Express, which offers upscale tours around Central and Eastern Europe, canceled its 2009 season because of weak bookings, although it plans to relaunch in 2010. And some operators "are offering discounts where they never operated them before," Hardy says.
Still, tour operators say bookings remain surprisingly robust, especially for top-of-the-line accommodations. "Some people who were planning for the trip of a lifetime are putting it off, but the wealthy are still traveling," says Ian Lomas, product manager for GW Travel, a British outfit that operates luxury trains in several countries. For example, Lomas says all the Maharajah-class cabins—costing $17,000 per person—are sold out for upcoming 15-day trips on the company's Deccan Odyssey train in India, while some less-expensive cabins are still available.
Who's spending that kind of money on rail travel? Lomas says some 70% of his group's clients are 60 and older, and three-fourths come from Australia, Britain, and the U.S., with roughly equal numbers from each country.
It's a splurge, all right. But where else can you eat a gourmet dinner while chugging past some of the world's most spectacular scenery, then order a nightcap from your steward before drifting off to sleep to the lullaby of a locomotive in your luxurious private cabin?
See our slide show for an introduction to the world's top luxury trains.
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW