Julian Appleyard, Commercial Director of Great Rail Journeys, reveals his favourite train trips, his bucket list train journeys and why sleeper trains will be making a big comeback.
What’s been your favourite train trip?
I don’t think I can narrow my favourite train trips down to one, so I’m going to you my top three instead.
The Rocky Mountaineer has to be one. It is incredible for both luxury (in Gold Leaf service onboard!) and scenery – particularly on day two of our Great Rail Journeys tour travelling from Vancouver into the Rockies.
The Old Patagonian Express, ‘La Trochita’, in Argentina has to be another. It offers an incredible experience. Passengers are hauled in historic carriages on a 1922 Baldwin Steam locomotive, across the high Andean plain, with the Patagonian Mountains as a backdrop. There are very few Western tourists on board – the passengers are mainly local Argentinians – which adds to the sense of adventure.
Finally, and much closer to home, the Jungfrau Railway in Switzerland is one of my all-time favourite train trips. I might even say it is one of the most incredible railway lines in the world and a great bucket list rail journey. My father has been a climber and mountaineer all his life (he’s approaching 80, but still rock climbs) and I grew up reading the fascinating stories about the first attempts to scale the incredible North Face of the Eiger.
The railway tunnels through the heart of the mountain, stopping at a couple of viewpoints out over the North Face. Eventually it emerges at the Jungfraujoch summit station – a high altitude world of ice and snow. Both the views and the railway, as a feat of engineering, are breath-taking. I was also lucky enough to get to ride with the driver on the descent. You wouldn’t believe how steep it looks when you’re in the cab.
What country have you most enjoyed visiting by rail?
Mountains and breath-taking scenery are my thing, so from that perspective I would have to pick Norway. It is an incredibly beautiful country and pretty much right on our doorstep here in the UK. I’ve visited in winter and summer and both are incredible. I spent 10 years in my younger days living in the Alps, which are beautiful. But in my opinion, Norway surpasses anywhere else for stunning scenery.
Have you ever travelled by train overnight?
Yes, a few times – the most memorable was a trip in the US between Washington and Chicago on Amtrak. I loved waking up to enjoy breakfast, taking in wide open farmland landscapes before the iconic Chicago skyline came into view.
I also had the opportunity to travel overnight through Egypt, which was a completely different experience. I travelled from Cairo down to Luxor. Both are truly fantastic cities with so much incredible history and culture, and the journey between the two was amazing. Travelling up the banks of the Nile at sunset, looking across at the Feluccas sailing on the water is an experience I will never forget.
Can you remember your first train journey?
My earliest memory of travelling by train, and still one of my fondest, was a journey on the Welsh Highland Railway between Caernarfon and Porthmadog. I remember as a child being amazed by the huge steam locomotive. I travelled this route again recently with my daughter, which coincidently is now her first rail experience , and again, I was blown away by the incredible scenery. It’s wonderful to have so much beauty available to us right on our doorstep.
Where would you like to travel by rail?
It would definitely be South Africa. I’ve never been, but the more I see of it on film and TV, the more I want to go. The scenery looks incredible, the trains, especially Rovos Rail and the Blue Train, look wonderful and the culture looks fascinating. I’ve travelled through Morocco by train, which was quite an experience, but I’ve not been lucky enough to explore Southern Africa. My ultimate bucket list rail journey would be on the Rovos Rail route from Dar Es Saleem to Cape Town.
Who is your ideal travelling companion on a rail journey?
It would have to be my dog! He would let me sit back, relax and just enjoy the beautiful scenery from my seat on one of my favourite train trips. He would also be the perfect companion to explore each stop along the way.
Are there any bucket list train trips you’d like to take?
Yes, the TranzAlpine train in New Zealand. I’ve travelled to North Island but never got as far as South Island which looks just stunning. As a mountain railway it would be such an incredible experience, one that is pretty high on my bucket list of train journeys.
What’s the best thing about taking a train journey?
A train journey allows you to sit back, relax and really enjoy the experience of getting from A to B. You can enjoy in-depth conversations along the way, taking in the incredible, ever changing scenery outside the window. I find it so much more relaxing than driving, taking a coach or flying.
How do you see train travel changing in the next 10 years?
I think we will see on-going investment in high-speed lines and I think the popularity of train travel will continue to increase.
The environmental benefit of electrified-line train travel will also become an increasingly important factor. I also predict a development of modern sleeper services like the Caledonian Sleeper coming on-line to serve longer distance routes. While I think there will be more demand for a modern service, we continue to see high demand for our more heritage tours which feature wonderful, old fashioned steam trains. I’m really pleased that the popularity of these tours remain high as they really are spectacular.