The Martin Pollins Blog

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Great Train Journeys – Alternatives to the Orient Express

Alternatives to the Orient Express

Bernina Express
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The hills are alive – with enchantment and scenery in the fabulous landscapes of the Swiss Alps. I refer, of course, to a ride on the scenic Bernina Express Train, also known as The Red Train.

You can travel from Tirano in Italy to Valposchiavo / St. Moritz / Davos and Chur in Switzerland on one of the most stunning train rides in the world, crossing the magical UNESCO Heritage Route between Thusis – Valposchiavo and Tirano.  The Bernina Express runs through the ancient landscape of Switzerland‘s beautiful Grisons (Graubünden), making short work of 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and steep inclines along the way. Special observation cars allow you to admire the route as well as the mighty glaciers, viaducts and even palm trees from the comfort of your seat.

Picture Credit: “Trenino Rosso del Bernina – Rhätische Bahn” by matteo.galli is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Bernina Express connects Chur (or Davos) in Switzerland to Poschiavo in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy by crossing the Swiss Engadin Alps. The train also runs along the World Heritage Site (2008) known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes for most of its journey.

The train has been operated by the Rhaetian Railway Company for the purpose of, well, sightseeing. It does that with panoramic coaches with enlarged windows. Although its name includes the word “express”, it isn’t really a high-speed train. The trip on the Bernina Express through this World Heritage Site is a four-hour railway journey.

The Albula line was constructed between 1898 and 1904; it has been operated by the Rhaetian Railway since its inauguration. The Bernina line was built between 1908 and 1910 and operated independently until the 1940s, when it was acquired by the Rhaetian Railway. The Bernina Express uses gradients of 7% to negotiate the difference in the height of about 1800 metres from the summit at Ospizio Bernina to Tirano.

If I were you, I would add it to my bucket list, although I haven’t (yet) travelled on this train.

Rocky Mountaineer
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Rocky Mountaineer is a Canadian rail-tour company based in Vancouver operating luxury scenic trains on three rail routes in British Columbia
and Alberta. A fourth route is planned in Colorado and Utah.

Rocky Mountaineer began as a once-weekly VIA Rail Canada daytime service between Vancouver and Calgary/Jasper in June 1988, called the ‘Canadian Rockies by Daylight’. 

In June 1989, VIA began its second season of the service, renaming the service as the Rocky Mountaineer. Scheduling remained the same as the previous season. After the end of VIA service in 1990, the route’s branding was sold to Armstrong Hospitality Group Ltd, which ran its first train in May 1990.

A train on the tracks Description automatically generated with low confidence
Rocky Mountaineer taken in Canmore, Alberta Page URL: HERE
Attribution: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Accolades abound: Rocky Mountaineer has been awarded the “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train” at the World Travel Awards seven times for its GoldLeaf service and was recognised by National Geographic Magazine as one of the “World’s Best Journeys” (2007). The Society of American Travel Writers, the world’s largest group of professional travel journalists and photographers, rated the Rocky Mountaineer as the world’s top train ride (2009).

It is the busiest privately-owned passenger rail service in North America, having transported over one million passengers since 1990.

Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf service has a custom-designed, bi-level, glass-domed coach with full-length windows and reclining seats that can be rotated to accommodate groups of four passengers. Service is provided by three or four onboard hosts and a culinary team with hot meals prepared on the train and served in the lower-level dining car. Beverages and snacks are also offered to guests throughout the journey. The two levels of the GoldLeaf coach are accessible by a spiral staircase or an ADA elevator.

Rocky Mountaineer trains operate exclusively during the day to maximise scenic views (of which there are many) – no sleeper service is available.

Having travelled on this train, I can thoroughly recommend it. The views are spectacular, and the service is six-star.

Rovos Rail
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Rovos Rail STeam Engine South Africa (2)
Picture Credit: “Rovos Rail STeam Engine South Africa (2)” by Tips For Travellers is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rovos Rail is a private railway company operating out of Capital Park Station in Pretoria, South Africa. It runs its train-hotel to a regular schedule on various routes throughout Southern Africa, from South Africa to Namibia and Tanzania. The trains consist of restored Rhodesia Railways (NRZ) coaches with two lounges, two restaurant cars, and private sleeping compartments, each with private ensuite facilities.

The train has three types of onboard accommodation, the smallest being a Pullman, at 76 square feet; the largest being the Royal Suite, which is half a train car, and 172 square feet. All types of cabins have an ensuite shower, sink and toilet. The Royal Suite also has a Victorian-style bathtub. Wow, talk about luxury, this train has everything you’d ever want.

The company was started in 1989 by Rohan Vos and is still family-owned. Their website says it all:

‘Since its establishment in 1989, Rovos Rail has earned an international reputation for its truly world-class travel experiences. In a series of bespoke train journeys lasting from 48 hours to 15 days, Rovos Rail links some of the continent’s greatest destinations with a variety of off-train excursions. Step aboard the vintage wood-panelled coaches and sit back as some of the most varied scenery imaginable unfolds beyond the windows. With discreet and friendly service, top cuisine and a selection of South Africa’s finest wines, Rovos Rail harks back to a simpler, more elegant era encompassing the timeless grace and high romance of African exploration. The beautifully rebuilt trains, which may be hauled by diesel or electric locomotives, carry a maximum of 72 passengers in 36 superbly appointed suites and are also available for charter, while the Events Train caters for up to 250 guests and is suitable for daytime journeys.’

Rovos Rail is another experience not to be missed under any circumstances. The company describe it as ‘The Most Luxurious Train in the World’. I loved it. Excellent.

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