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Full steam ahead: the revival of luxury train travel

Today, the journey has become as enjoyable as the destination itself, as more of us choose to take it slow and experience the scenic route. Business Destinations explores the revival of luxury train travel

Once seen as an outdated mode of travel – particularly with the advent of the first commercial air flight in 1914 – train travel is now making a big comeback
Once seen as an outdated mode of travel – particularly with the advent of the first commercial air flight in 1914 – train travel is now making a big comeback 

Everything nowadays seems so rushed. We don’t just live by the hours, but by the minutes, hurrying from one appointment to the next, lamenting moments wasted in traffic and racing to reach destinations as quickly as possible.

It’s no surprise, then, that there is a mounting backlash against the relentless pace of 21st-century life – a backlash that’s not just justified, but perhaps necessary. Enter the delightfully slow tempo of luxury train travel.

Once seen as an outdated mode of travel – particularly with the advent of the first commercial air flight in 1914 – train travel is now making a big comeback. Of course, we aren’t talking about sardine-tin-style early-morning commuter trains. Today, thanks to cutting-edge technology, world-class design and even Michelin-starred chefs, sleeper trains resemble five-star hotels, offering a totally unique way to travel through a country, or from one to the next.

Japanese ingenuity
Despite a long period of being overlooked, the demand for luxury train travel is now chugging away – steady and sure. “It has been becoming more popular year on year since Planet Rail was set up nearly 10 years ago in 2008,” said Guy Saunders, founder of the company, which specialises in bespoke luxury rail trips.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of customers looking for luxury train travel, whether this be first class rail or the ultimate luxury of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express or the Pride of Africa train. The recent Murder on the Orient Express film has reminded people about the appeal and charm of rail travel in a bygone era.


Cost of the Train Suite Shiki-shima


Cost of a couple’s ticket for the Twilight Express Mizukaze


The number of passengers the Train Suite Shiki-shima carries


Suites on the Train Suite Shiki-shima


The number of passengers the Royal Express carries

“We have also seen an upsurge in the number of people booking our Orient Express trips. They love the fact that they can travel out to Italy and return by train with no need to go anywhere near an airport. Venice is definitely our number one destination.”

While the popularity of luxury train travel is a worldwide phenomenon, the country leading the charge is Japan. This started in October 2013 with the inauguration of Kyushu Railway’s Seven Stars – the country’s first luxury sleeper train.

Featuring wooden panelling throughout and extravagant lounges where passengers can mingle to the sound of live piano music, there is a warm, classic feel about the space that is a startling but welcome change from the cold, generic feel of most public transport.

Seven Stars was a runaway success.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japan released a further three such vehicles last year. When the dazzling Train Suite Shiki-shima was unveiled in April 2017, it made news around the globe. With a champagne gold exterior and ultra-sleek design, its appearance screams ‘futuristic’ – you’d expect nothing less from the nation that brought the world the bullet train.

Inside, the train showcases the very best in Japanese artisanship, both old and new; wooden latticework and fine works of furniture feature throughout. Carrying just 34 passengers in six suites, cars are spacious, with futons that fold up during the day to make them even roomier.

The train’s deluxe suite includes its very own Japanese-style bathtub that faces the rolling countryside, offering another gratifying experience to passengers. Observation cars, found at the front and rear of the train, feature arching windows on either side of the train, which provide another connection with the passing landscape.

All food is cooked on-board by Katsuhiro Nakamura, who was the first Japanese chef to receive a Michelin star, giving the Shiki-shima an edge on any of the world’s best hotels. This rings particularly true given that the total cost of creating the mobile auberge, which boasts so much more than any stationary location, came close to $90m.

Quickly following suit last June was West Japan Railway’s Twilight Express Mizukaze, which features 10 art-deco-style cabins. Among them, its top offering is a 375sq ft suite; a two-night stay racing along the Japanese coastline comes with a $22,000 price tag per couple.

With services commencing on September 1, 2017, the Royal Express then came gliding onto the scene, providing another luxurious way to see the beauty of Japan – though, with space for 100 passengers at a time, a less exclusive one.

True travel
As demonstrated by the recent introduction of these striking locomotives, the popularity of luxury train travel continues to grow apace. What is key in this trend is that the unique mode of transport allows an insight into a country that is rare, if not impossible, to otherwise come by. “It is a far more authentic travel experience than jumping on a plane and suddenly arriving in a different country. You get to see the scenery change and new landscapes unfold,” said Saunders.

Passengers are thus treated to a spectacle – and a real sense of expedition – but without the hassle of driving and navigating or of having to repack each day.

Natasha Baker, Sales and Marketing Manager at Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, explained the joy of such trips: “The train journey is not the only highlight – it is the exploration of destinations along the way, many of which would be difficult to access by any other means and perhaps are forgotten from itineraries due to that reason, making them even more special to visit.”

Baker added: “At present, our most popular departures are on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express between Moscow and Vladivostok and the Arctic Explorer between Moscow and St Petersburg, in search of the Northern Lights. Both journeys are completely unique in the way that these routes are very challenging to complete by any other means of transport and offer experiences that are unavailable to other travellers, whether that’s on-board vodka tastings or lectures from expert astronomers.”

Despite a long period of being overlooked, the demand for luxury train travel is now chugging away – steady and sure

It’s easy to see why those who love to travel are drawn to this unique mode of transport. Saunders discussed the natural buzz felt by passengers: “On scheduled trains there are passengers from different nationalities getting on and off, so you can hear conversations in many languages and really get a snapshot of a country. It is a more social and communal experience and a lot more varied, both in terms of the landscape and the people joining and leaving the train.”

Romantic expeditions
A strong sense of romance is another unique feature of lavish rail travel. It’s reminiscent of beloved classic movies, old-school luxury and the wistful journeys of simpler times. “There is something very nostalgic about travelling by private luxury train,” said Baker. “It transports us back to the golden age of rail travel.”

This need to connect with the old is symptomatic of today’s tech-fuelled society, in which so many interactions are made via screen and efficiency rules above all else. Long train trips remind us to slow down, enjoy the company of those around us and take in the wonderful sights that this world has to offer. That such environments have the opulence of top-class hotels and the impressive food offerings of Michelin-starred chefs only adds to the drama and sense of occasion of a trip.

“The notion of slow travel is becoming increasingly popular as consumers look to get the most from their valuable leisure time. Travelling on one of our private luxury trains enables you to enjoy the ever-changing scenery of the destinations we travel through at a leisurely pace and in five-star comfort and style, a concept that is viewed far more desirably than using transport as just a method of travelling from A to B,” Baker noted.

Top four luxury trains

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

The most famous luxury train on the planet has to be the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Promising to transport its passengers back in time, its rich furnishings, antique fixtures and art deco details scream old-school glamour.

A variety of cabins are available, and while they all share the sheen of polished wood and sumptuous fabrics, the Grand Suites, launching in 2018, provide guests with a truly unforgettable experience.
Each suite offers a double bed, living area, free-flowing champagne and complimentary designer bathrobes. The space and comforts on offer are simply extraordinary.

When taking in the sights of London, Venice, Prague, Budapest, Verona, Paris and Istanbul – as well as all the splendid landscapes in between – it’s easy to see why this particular train has a special place in the hearts of those fortunate enough to have travelled on it.

Train Suite Shiki-shima

The Shiki-shima, with its name meaning ‘the Island of Four Seasons’, is the epitome of the current resurgence in luxury train travel. The 10-carriage sleeper train combines contemporary design and cutting-edge technology with the elegance of Japanese craftsmanship to create a stylish amalgamation of old and new.

Costing a whopping $90m, this slick creation of Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, who also had a hand in the design of various Ferrari and Porsche models, boasts the best in modern train design. Its innovative motor allows this locomotive to travel along both electric and diesel engine train lines.

At 110km/h, it moves much slower than the country’s bullet trains, which boast a top speed of 320km/h. Yet, passengers revel in this slower pace – as indicated by the train’s long waiting list. With the beauty of Japan in tow, demand for a place on board won’t be declining any time soon.

The Golden Eagle

Nostalgic touches are aplenty on board Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ eponymous Golden Eagle train. With plush red seating, beautifully crafted stained glass windows and intricate woodwork, the Bar Lounge Car is the perfect space to relax and mingle with fellow passengers.

Bathed in warm lighting and gold décor, a variety of delicious foods are prepared by the on-board restaurant team and served in the bustling dining carriage. Guests can enjoy each meal as they watch snow-capped mountains and dreamy sunsets pass by.

There are three types of cabin to choose from, the biggest being the Imperial Suite. At 120sq ft, it has space for two king size beds and includes a private en suite with underfloor heating and a power shower. The suite also features the amenities of any top-class hotel, as well as a fully stocked complimentary minibar, which guests can enjoy as they revel in the sights streaming by.

Twilight Express Mizukaze

Another new edition to the Japanese landscape, the Twilight Express Mizukaze offers a charming stay for guests hoping to see the very finest sights that the nation has to offer. Created by West Japan Railway, this hotel-concept train travels through Kyoto, Izumo and Itsukushima, in addition to passing by Mount Daisen, the Sea of Japan and many more must-see destinations.

When not enjoying sightseeing excursions, passengers can take in the rolling scenery from outdoor viewing platforms or in futuristic observation carriages. The on-board food brings more treats – cooked by renowned Michelin-starred chef Yoshihiro Murata, it is served in a spacious art-deco-inspired dining car.

The train’s top suite is by far its biggest gem. With a whole carriage to itself, it features its own dining room, a master monochrome-clad bathroom and a private balcony.

Fun on board
What’s perhaps most exciting about the luxury train revival is that we are seeing this trend play out across the globe. South America saw the inauguration of its very own luxury sleeper train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, in 2017.

Belmond, the hotel and leisure group behind the train, is also responsible for none other than the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Its new offering is the perfect illustration of our growing desire to enjoy the journey just as much, if not more so, than the destination. On the Andean Explorer, passengers can receive massages and facials in spa compartments. And when they’re in the mood for fun, they can take part in activities such as ceviche-preparing lessons.

Along this vein, others are jumping on board too: the Trans-Siberian Express from Golden Eagle has recently introduced meditation and yoga lessons en route from Moscow to Vladivostok. The Belmond Grand Hibernian allows passengers to sample Guinness and oysters on its way to Ireland, while the Belmond Royal Scotsman provides options to visit waterfalls during the voyage. Clearly, Belmond – and others – are onto something here: a train trip is now becoming a holiday in itself – and an exceptional one at that.

Environmental bonus
Adding to the allure of trains is the smaller carbon footprint they leave behind in comparison to planes. “Rail travel is a far more environmentally friendly way to travel, and with climate change such a looming spectre, this is very important to me,” Saunders told Business Destinations. In fact, according to Saunders, it is up to 10 times better for the environment. “It is definitely a factor, because you can feel comfortable that you’re doing your bit for the environment by choosing to travel by train.”

The unique mode of transport allows an insight into a country that is rare, if not impossible, to otherwise come by

The sentiment conveyed by Saunders correlates with a rising demand for eco-friendly trips. Although environmental awareness is less pronounced in the tourism industry than it is for, say, consumer and food products, a shift is starting to transpire.

Indeed, the United Nations declared 2017 to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, with evidence suggesting that the key factor behind this change in mindset lies with Millennials. As awareness continues to grow, so too will the demand for transportation that produces less pollution than the gas-guzzling aeroplanes we so often use when vacationing.

Full steam ahead
A new era in travel is here. And, incidentally, it harks back to one of old: the golden age of train travel. Not too long ago, many assumed this mode was heading towards extinction, lost in the battle of convenience and seen as outdated, stuffy and simply too slow.

But thanks to a mounting desire for unique experiences, a rise in all things nostalgic and greater environmental awareness, we are now seeing the much-welcomed revival of luxury train travel.

For romantics, history lovers, travel buffs and connoisseurs of grandeur, together with those who see their holidays as a time to indulge and take it slow, there is perhaps no better way to travel than by luxury train. And fortunately there is now an abundance of choice in such splendid vehicles and an array of destinations to visit on them.

As indicated by the millions being poured into luxury locomotives, and the inevitable competition that arises when rival companies strive to offer the most opulent of anything, this new golden era has only just begun.

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