During the Industrial Revolution at the start of the 19th century, speed was essential to compete with stage coaches. So it was that the great railway engineer Brunel devised lines that could whisk passengers along at 60 mph, six times faster than their slowest predecessors.
Many of these early lines survive and bear witness to Brunel’s vision, shaped as they are by his genius for strategic thinking.
While the modern world might be quick to dismiss rail travel as dated or outdated, there are still a number of luxury train routes that celebrate the best in Europe’s history. High-speed trains offer an efficient and comfortable mode of transportation, while still allowing you to witness Europe’s diverse landscapes and cultures in comfort. Whether you’re looking for an easy ride to Paris or a lavish journey into the heart of Asia, these high-speed trains will leave you feeling like royalty.
With the recent headlines about the Flying Scotsman’s low-speed crash, many travelers may be wondering what the future holds for this national treasure. But the iconic locomotive isn’t going anywhere. The Flying Scotsman—or, as it’s known in the UK, 60103—will continue to be one of the most famous steam trains on the planet, drawing huge crowds whenever it tours. When not parked at the National Railway Museum in York, England (where it’s on permanent display), it can also be found pulling excursions on British tourist railroads and mainline routes.
The train was built in 1923 by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and is the only surviving steam locomotive of its type in the world. It was originally painted apple green, but was repainted for World War Two in black and then returned to its original shade of green after the war ended.
Today, the iconic train is a cherished symbol of Scottish heritage, and its appearances are greeted with cheers by fans who adore it almost as much as they do the country itself. The locomotive has even been the subject of an illustrated children’s book and a poem, and is the star of a Christmas program of excursions at the NRM. It’s also been featured in a music video and has a check block made up of 37 threads, representing each year it has toured the Highlands.
If you’re planning on joining the adoring crowds, you can take a four-night trip aboard the Scottish Highlands train, which whisks passengers through windswept glens and past snowy munros to Scotland’s remote Kyle of Lochalsh. Guests stay in historic Pullman coaches, which have been updated with luxurious suites and jacuzzi ensuite bathrooms.
One of the world’s oldest and most storied rail routes, the Trans-Siberian links Europe with Asia through Russia’s far east. While the journey can be arduous, it is also fascinating and rewarding, taking travelers across a massive continent in an era when air travel was just beginning to gain popularity.
The route is divided into two sections; the standard Trans-Siberian runs between Moscow and Vladivostok, while the “BAM” line dips into northern Kazakhstan through the mining city of Petropavl before rejoining the standard route at Omsk. Western passport holders cannot travel beyond the Russian border in this way, as they require a double or multi-entry visa, which is difficult to obtain for short visits. It is possible to continue on from the Kazakh capital Astana and Almaty to Urumqi in northwest China, which has super-fast trains to Xian and Beijing, but this is not considered part of the Trans-Siberian.
Moscow and St Petersburg are major stops on any Trans-Siberian itinerary, offering significant sights that transport passengers back to historic times. The Hermitage Museum, Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof are all must-sees.
Beyond Moscow, the train heads deeper into Siberia to Irkutsk, known as the Paris of Siberia for its rich architecture and colorful lifestyle. Lake Baikal is also a highlight of this section, with legendary stories and unique natural scenery. This is also where you can try the local sparkling water that is named after the lake.
Russian railways no longer use Moscow time; stations and timetables now operate on local time instead. Learning a few phrases of Russian is helpful, especially as many signs and station clocks are written in Cyrillic. English is not widely spoken outside of St Petersburg and Moscow, but staff at hotels and tourist attractions that see lots of foreign visitors are often fluent.
The luxurious Golden Eagle Danube Express is a great option for those who want to enjoy the experience in comfort. Carriages feature restored 1923 Pullman coaches that have been fitted with luxurious suites and jacuzzi ensuite bathrooms. Fine dining and a selection of drinks are available on board.
For the true train buff, there is nothing quite like the experience of taking a vintage luxury train through Europe. It might cost more than zooming through the sky in a plane or bobbing along on an ocean cruise but it is undeniably worth it. Aboard a meticulously restored vintage train, you can see the towns and cities of Europe with unhurried intimacy as you glide through picture-postcard scenery that is truly mind-blowing.
The fabled TranzAlpine has been called one of the world’s greatest train journeys and it is easy to see why. Weaving coast-to-coast through the mountainous spine of New Zealand’s South Island, the train cuts through cliff-lined river gorges and over high mountain plains. It clings to the side of rugged and rocky cliffs and zigzags across bridges and viaducts including the iconic 72-metre high Staircase Viaduct. The train also travels alongside the sparkling currents of the Waimakariri River and through the light-green ambience of native beech forests.
This spectacular railway journey is perfect in winter with its gentle snowfalls and in summer when the vistas are blessed with a warm summer glow. Onboard, you will be enchanted by the heritage upholstery and Art-Deco decor and can indulge in a delicious menu featuring the regional culinary highlights of each town or city. In addition to the standard menu, there are special dining options including English high tea, a who-done-it murder mystery lunch and five course gourmet dinners.
In a time when globalisation is undermining local economies, these historic trains help bring people together to celebrate their common heritage and traditions and promote cross-cultural understanding. Travelling on a train is an opportunity to connect with Europe’s spectacular natural beauty and immerse yourself in its unique culture and local charm. The experience can be even more memorable if you book your trip with Railbookers who can arrange the train tickets as well as hotels and sightseeing tours so that all you need to do is sit back, relax and enjoy.
The Shinkansen, or “new trunk line,” celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014 and remains one of the fastest, most convenient ways to get around Japan. With top speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph), these sleek trains offer unmatched reliability. A careful melding of hardware and administrative systems allows the train to operate precisely down to the second, resulting in schedule delays that are only a few minutes long on average.
The first Shinkansen line opened between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. The made-in-Japan technology of these sleek trains has continued to evolve over the past half century.
To make it possible to travel at such high speeds, the Shinkansen uses a special pantograph that gathers electricity from overhead wires. This system is known as the “wing type.” The shape of the pantograph is designed to emulate the wing of a flying bird, which creates a stream of air that helps to propel the train forward at speed.
Other innovations include a centralized computer system that manages everything from track control to passenger information and even onboard entertainment. This ensures that the train can run smoothly and safely, so passengers can enjoy their journey without worrying about things like delays or a power outage.
In addition to the high-tech components of the rail system, the Japanese Shinkansen is also renowned for its service. Japan is famous for its uncompromising stance on quality, especially in matters of public safety, and the Shinkansen has an unparalleled record of zero fatal passenger accidents.
With newer trains coming to market constantly, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the different types of Shinkansen models. This helpful guide from JR East outlines the main Shinkansen models currently in use.
In the future, the Shinkansen will continue to grow and connect more of Japan. Plans call for lines to radiate northward from Tokyo to cities such as Niigata and Morioka, with a line eventually connecting to Aomori in northern Honshu and Hachinohe in Hokkaido.