Luxury train travel | the romance of rail | trainspotter shares his tips

Charisma and character - and just a little bit game-changing. Action!

From Japan to Canada, Switzerland to the Scottish Highlands, top-end train travel can be addictive. Just ask trainspotter Rylie Heathfield…

As a boy, Rylie Heathfield could go one better than a bedroom full of Thomas The Tank Engine books and toys. Across the valley from his aunt and uncle’s property east of Melbourne was the famous Puffing Billy, chugging through the fern gullies and mountain ash rainforests of the Dandenong Ranges. He would race out every day to see which of the century-old steam engines was in service. Open days and train rides were part and parcel of his childhood.

Seeing picturesque Europe from the tracks: luxury train aficionado, Rylie Heathfield

Now a 27-year-old rail travel specialist for Flight Centre in Melbourne, with 22 countries in his passport, Heathfield’s passion for trains is undiminished. He might not be as nerdy as Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, but he can wrangle stats…

“Japan opened the world’s first high-speed rail line, between Tokyo and Osaka, in time for the 1964 Olympics – it reached speeds of 210 km/h. Today China has the fastest train with speeds around 350km/h … Did you know that when a train is travelling over 320km/h, the pressure when exiting a tunnel is so high you can experience what’s called a tunnel boom, similar to a sonic boom?”

Japan’s luxury train, Seven Stars in Kyushu, out and about

There’s a growing interest in luxury train travel, says Heathfield, for people who have done the group tours, enjoyed river cruising and are looking for a new point of difference. In 2020, as many as 35 shiny, sophisticated rail experiences showcase 60 countries in an environmentally friendly, relaxing, and convenient way.

Here, Heathfield shares the love…

Japan is the best country at rail by far. Everything runs like clockwork. If a train is more than five minutes late each passenger is given a certificate to show their employer or school the reason for being late.

Elegant and minimalist styling-up aboard Seven Stars in Kyushu. Photo courtesy Japan Rail

Seven Stars In Kyushu is luxury travel at its finest. With its rich timbers, observatory windows, plush decor, this luxury sleeper on Japan’s Kyushu Island is not just a train but also a showcase for the best of Japanese artistry; the washbasins, for example, are limit-edition handmade porcelain. First thing you notice is the perfectionism, even the screws are perfectly aligned, and everything served to you is perfectly symmetrical, which is striking given the movement of a train. A clarinetist and pianist might accompany the evening meal with music that melds with the landscape.

Attention to detail and fine food on board Seven Stars in Kyushu. Photo courtesy Japan Rail

Switzerland’s Bernina Express is a UNESCO world heritage journey. It has mind-blowing scenery, bringing you right up close to mountains, glaciers, lakes, and one of the oldest castles in Switzerland. There’s an open-air carriage from which to feel the crisp air as you journey around mountains, through tunnels, over aqueducts and right through the middle of cobblestoned towns. To be exact: 55 tunnels and 196 bridges, including a massive spiral viaduct. It’s one of the best three and a half hours you’ll ever spend. Bernina Express is one of Switzerland’s Grand Rail Tour portfolio, which features in Flight Centre’s 2020 Wow list along with the Luzern-Interlaken Express, the Gotthard Panorama Express, and the Glacier Express, the latter offering foodies a seven-course dining experience with a private butler.

Bernina Express on the Landwasser Viaduct. Photo: Christoph Benz/Swiss Travel System AG

Rovos Rail’s three-day journey between Pretoria and Cape Town in South Africa is a step back in time. I have a real soft spot for Art Deco styling. Opulently restored dining cars date back to 1924 and also borrow from Edwardian times. There are fluted teak pillars and arches, mahogany tables and panelling, tassel-tied curtains, and Art Deco ceiling lights. The tables are dressed in fine silverware, and South African wine is in play! The countryside on this 1600km trip is spectacular and unique – massive straight-up-and-down mountains, long flat valleys, and picturesque farmland.

What I love most about trains are their histories. The original Rocky Mountaineer track, for example, was built to unite Canada; it was completed in 1885. Today, travelling on this line, you are passing through the same valleys and tunnels carved out of the mountainside 134 years ago. Awesome.

And the precision! Take the first Gotthard Rail Tunnel, through Switzerland’s Saint-Gotthard Massif, completed in 1882. It was 15km long, linking Göschenen in the north to Airolo in the south. They started at each end of the mountain and the fact they were able to meet in the middle with almost no variance is just astonishing.

Switzerland’s Golden Pass line offers a journey aboard three trains, breathtaking scenery guaranteed. Photo: Valentin Flaurand/MOB 2018

Travel tips? Always pack light. Trains might have great luggage storage but it’s never fun lugging suitcases on and off any form of transport. Ensure you are seated in the middle of the carriage. This is where the suspension is working at its best. Book a window seat. This is where all the action is. Understand that you can’t always be forward facing. Take a book and don’t be afraid to take a nap in the comfy seats: whilst train travel can be very scenic, it’s also super relaxing.

Music sets the mood for any type of travel. Most luxury trains will have some form of music on board, traditionally classical. I love the work of American composer John Williams, so I have that on my playlist, and then I add in some iconic movie themes – Star Wars or Jurassic Park. They complement the magnificence of the scenery.

Aboard the Jacobite steam train is one of the most romantic ways to see Scotland

On my bucket list? The Indian Pacific and The Ghan (Australia), the Empire Builder (US, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland) and the Jacobite (Scotland). The latter is said to be one of the greatest railway journeys, a 134km round trip through the Scottish Highlands. Both the train and the route of the Jacobite steam train inspired the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. You can’t miss the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Built in 1901 by Robert McAlpine, it was one of the first rail viaducts made of concrete and acclaimed as an engineering feat.

The Ghan travels 2,979 km through the Australian outback, from Adelaide to Darwin

For details of Flight Centre’s WOW2020 list, visit  











Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

'Luxury train travel | the romance of rail | trainspotter shares his tips' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.