Rail revival: A renaissance for high-end train travel

The Belmond Andean Explorer chugs along through the Peruvian altiplano, carrying passengers in comfort and luxury.
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The best seats aboard Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa are undeniably on the back deck of the observation car. They're just wooden benches, really, average in design, but this open-air balcony is where you feel the train. This is where you watch the track spit out behind you like an infinite ladder, where you rock to the vehicle's steady rhythm, where you soak in the details of passing the landscape, from the flowers sprouting amid track-side trash to the dogs lying lazily in sunny backyards.

An hour into my three-day journey from Durban to Pretoria, South Africa, I have already laid claim to a patch of bench and arrived at the distinct conclusion that this is the place to be.

The highlight of a Rovos Rail journey is watching the scenery whiz by from the simple wooden benches in the open-air balcony of the observation car.

The champagne and gin and tonics are flowing, while fellow guests exchange where-are-you-froms and we rumble through Zulu villages in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. We are lightly liquored up, entranced by the passing scenery and gently giddy with the anticipation of a journey that will cover roughly 435 miles, from the Indian Ocean, past the Drakensburg Mountains to The Jacaranda City.

The train enters a tunnel cut into one of those countless hills, and for a few seconds everyone is silent, marinating in darkness. When we burst out the other side, a hazy bridal veil of a waterfall is pouring over the edge of a ruddy cliff at least 100 feet up. There's a collective gasp, then a moment of silent confirmation: Yes, this is why you take the train.

Founded in 1989 by Rohan Vos, Rovos Rail operates four trains that embark on journeys around Southern Africa on itineraries lasting anywhere from 48 hours to 15 days.

Giraffes spotted during Rovos Rail’s Durban Safari.
Giraffes spotted during Rovos Rail’s Durban Safari.

On the Namibia Safari, guests travel 2,000 miles from Pretoria to the Namib Desert, stopping to tour the mining city of Kimberley, visit the expansive Fish River Canyon and overnight among the salt flats and red dunes of Sossusvlei. On our Durban Safari, we squeezed in a pair of game drives between all the multicourse meals, arriving in Pretoria very full and with a new appreciation for baby rhinos.

On all of Rovos' departures, guests are ferried in graciously appointed trains with wood furnishings, classic decor and en suite baths. Dinners are formal and paired with excellent South African wines, and passengers are attended by an exuberant crew (one to every five or six guests) who greet them after every excursion with flutes of Champagne.

Cellphones and laptops are confined to private cabins, and there's no WiFi service onboard.

"We're trying to bring back the art of drinking," our train manager, Renolda Motha, says in jest by way of explanation.

Rovos Rail general manager Damian Sadie puts it another way: "We've essentially captured what train travel was like in the 1920s and added what Africa has to offer."

Rovos is not alone in recapturing that magic. The golden age of rail travel might be well behind us, but across the globe, luxury trains are experiencing a renaissance. Some transport visitors to iconic destinations aboard storied trains that heave centuries of history along the rails. Others offer modern decor and experiential itineraries that cater to the contemporary traveler.

Either way, industry insiders agree that interest among travelers is on the rise, and the key to continuing the growth of luxury rail is to make a romanticized travel trope relevant again.

Channeling a long, proud tradition

It's impossible to talk about high-end rail travel without acknowledging the Orient Express.

The celebrated train created by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers first rolled out of Paris on in 1883, bound for Istanbul and a place in history with its sleeper cars decked in elegant furnishings and fine linens. Known as "the king of trains and the train of kings," the Orient Express famously carried European royals, spies, artists and politicians, spawning legends, novels and imitators, some of which borrowed its hallowed nickname.

The lushly appointed bar car on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express includes a piano.

Today, its rightful heir is Belmond's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which crisscrosses Europe from March to October, stopping in cities like Paris, Berlin, Venice and Istanbul on itineraries that range from daytrips to 10-night extravaganzas.

Now an icon in its own right, the lavish train was launched in 1982 (nearly 100 years after the original), complete with vintage cabins, three restaurant cars and meticulously restored wood inlays and Lalique glass.

"Those carriages are works of art," declared Gary Franklin, Belmond's managing director for trains and cruises.

In the three decades since the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express' debut, Belmond's fleet has expanded to include trains in Asia, the U.K. and South America.

In 2016, the company unveiled the Belmond Grand Hibernian, which chugs across Ireland from whiskey tastings to private castle tours.

In 2017, the Belmond Andean Explorer began whisking passengers through the Peruvian altiplano in bright cabins with handwoven fabrics, local-stone bathrooms and oxygen masks should the elevation prove uncomfortable. Travelers explore islands on Lake Titicaca, view ancient cave paintings and relax in the piano bar car after dining on modern Peruvian fare.

Today, Franklin said, Belmond carries more than 60,000 passengers annually aboard its seven trains. But in addition, a handful of other recent launches have helped herald luxury rail's revival around the world.

In 2013, Cruise Train Seven Stars debuted on Kyushu Island, claiming the title of Japan's first luxury sleeper train. Just 14 of its suites are imbued with local craftsmanship and aesthetics, from delicate wooden screens to artisan washbasins. The same year, Tren Crucero began rolling past volcanoes and cloud forests in Ecuador, transporting 50 guests who overnight at local haciendas and hotels on their way between the mountains and the Pacific.

In 2014, Imperial Russia began high-end journeys on the revered Trans-Siberian Railway, tracing 14-day routes from Moscow to Beijing; and in 2015, Canada's Via Rail added the upgraded Prestige Class to departures of the Canadian, offering larger cabins, all-inclusive food and beverage, exclusive lounges and concierge service over the 2,700 miles from Toronto to Vancouver.

Most recently, Japan's ultraluxury Train Suite Shiki-Shima departed on its maiden voyage in 2017 with a front observation car offering a conductor's-eye view, deluxe suites with fireplaces and a lounge car designed to evoke sunlight coming through trees.

The bar car in the Belmond Andean Explorer, launched in 2017, is appointed with colorful textiles.

"It's growing all the time," Todd Powell, CEO of Vacations by Rail, said of the luxury rail market. Well-traveled people are looking for new experiences, he said, and trains provide an overland adventure on which visitors get a feel for a country while enjoying exceptional service. 

"Next thing you know, there's local musicians, and you're on the platform of some rail station, and everyone's dancing," Powell recalled, laughing, about a trip on the Belmond Royal Scotsman.

Though Vacations by Rail offers a wide array of train-based itineraries, Powell said, luxury rail has seen a notable boost in recent years.

"Year over year there's been some significant growth, double-digit growth, over the last few years," Powell said.

Rovos Rail now carries 10,000 passengers a year on about 250 departures, and "for the last four years we've grown 30% year over year," Sadie said, adding that the company is expanding its Victoria Falls trips and its annual journeys, which stretch for nine days or longer.

They're also busy building a fifth train, expected to launch in 2019 on a 15-day route between Angola and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The spa car on the Belmond Royal Scotsman, where guests can get facials and massages.
The spa car on the Belmond Royal Scotsman, where guests can get facials and massages.

On the Belmond Royal Scotsman, the company has increased capacity to keep pace with demand, and Japan's Shiki-Shima is fully booked through September, with interest so intense that prospective passengers have to apply for a departure and are chosen via lottery.

Simon Pielow is co-founder of Luxury Train Club, a website dedicated to selling and promoting high-end rail, including about 33 trains in 36 countries. Since launching the business in 2013, the club has grown to almost 19,000 members, who sign up for free and receive monthly newsletters and discounts on all reservations.

Pielow said that roughly 10% of club members book a trip every year, and revenue has been growing by 50% year over year.

"It's quite difficult to keep up. We're having to bring on more people," Pielow said.

Travelers are seeking out rail for a variety of reasons: the geeky appeal of a rebuilt steam engine; the nostalgic allure of clacking along the track; the opportunity to slow down, disconnect and see an intimate view of landscapes that might otherwise be inaccessible to most visitors.

Powell said he sees exclusivity as a crucial component of luxury rail's promise.

"It really is about providing that higher level of service to a smaller group of people," he said. "When you're off the train, there could be access to private art that you wouldn't get if you were part of a larger group."

"Obviously, you have to feel special as passengers," Pielow said, describing the first glimpse of a vintage train waiting at the station with uniformed attendants ready to whisk you aboard. "The whole experience is one of pampering."

Aboard Rovos Rail, the staff is warm and attentive, delivering impeccable service with a "we're all in this together" vibe. Every time I leave my cabin I return to find it tidied and often with a token left behind: a selection of cookies or a miniature bottle of Champagne. When we ask to commandeer the bar car's sound system for a Halloween-themed dance party on our final night, the staff happily obliges, joining us in the "Thriller" dance when they are not mixing cocktails.

"We believe that one of the big things about Rovos Rail is guest interaction," said Sadie, who acknowledges that the No. 1 customer request is WiFi. "It's going against the grain of why we want to have this experience. We're not happy about it. But I think we have to be flexible and look at the possibility of having that in the future."

A deluxe cabin on a Rovos Rail train.

As luxury rail expands, the customer is changing. Years ago, Sadie said, the Rovos Rail guest was an older traveler, at least in their 50s. In recent years, the clientele has begun to trend younger, especially on the company's shorter itineraries.

"When we started, we had the perception that the age of travel on luxury trains was age 60 until death," says Pielow. "Now, we believe that the median age is around 45."

And client demands are evolving, as well. Some trains now offer more off-train activities, for which riders disembark to visit local communities, tour museums or ogle rhinos and elephants, as we did on a game drive through Nambiti Private Game Reserve. Others focus more on the onboard experience, the carefully crafted interiors and stunning panorama outside your window that changes with every second down the track.

"The nostalgia part of it only goes so far," Powell said. "You can't have everything based off nostalgia. As the generations come up, there's not as much of a connection."

Franklin said Belmond's recent changes have been, in part, in response to customer feedback, guests saying they'd love to ride through the Peruvian Andes or to try a cooking class in Thailand.

The Belmond Royal Scotsman and Belmond Andean Explorer have new spa cars, and the Eastern & Orient Express is adding bike tours to some itineraries. Aboard the Belmond British Pullman, which offers daytrips into the countryside, celebrity chefs now make pop-up meals, "where everyone's dressed up and there's a real sense of occasion."

Even the grand dame of luxury rail has had some work done. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express today glides through Europe with WiFi and air conditioning, something Nagelmackers couldn't have possibly imagined when he unveiled the original 135 years ago. In March, the train will reveal new Grand Suites with elegant art deco interiors inspired by Paris, Venice and Instanbul.

"The golden age of travel is something that people have close to them," Franklin said. "The nostalgia around that is important. That whole romance about rail travel is never going to go away. We don't want our trains to be museum pieces. These are incredible, beautiful works of art, but we need to make sure we're relevant."

As we pull into the station in Pretoria -- tugged by a locomotive named Shaun that shoots puffs of white steam into the air -- that duality is readily apparent. I have been seduced by two nights riding the rails, and I find I'm already nostalgic for what I so recently experienced: a new golden age of luxury train travel.

Correction: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will debut its Grand Suites in March, not May as was noted in an earlier version of this article.

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