What are Rail Expert Rob Carroll’s favourite rail journeys? The Commerical Director of Airedale Tours gives us the low-down on the world’s best buffet cars and why he loves travelling through Scotland on a train.
What’s been your favourite rail journey?
For very personal reasons I would choose the West Highland Line. My late mum was passionate about Scotland. At the time she passed away I was working for Great Rail Journeys and due to recce their first ever UK rail tour, a grand tour of Scotland. Still grieving I travelled up, fell head over heels in love with the country and its railways, returning again and again.
Being in Scotland so often with work gave me chance to connect with mum and I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity. Travel can be emotionally charged, but the scenery on the West Highland Line speaks for itself. The Firth of Clyde, Gareloch and Loch Long, a short glimpse of Loch Lomond’s bonnie banks, then it’s up into the Highlands over wild Rannoch Moor. This is one of my favourite rail journeys.
It’s so remote that there are no roads and you can spot deer scampering into the distance. Journey’s end for me would be Fort William, before enjoying the final leg, to Glenfinnan and the white sands, the following day.
Which country have you most enjoyed visiting by rail?
It would be easy to say Switzerland. It is peerless as a rail holiday destination, but I’ll opt for Norway instead. My first visit took me through Sweden, beyond the Arctic Circle in deep snow at the end of winter on the Ofoten Railway, descending from the mountains along fjords to the Norwegian coast at Narvik. The Bergen Railway takes some beating though, connecting Oslo and Bergen through a heavenly wilderness. It’s a journey well worth a day of anyone’s life.
Have you ever travelled overnight on a rail journey?
Yes and I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the downright ugly. I once sat on the floor of the train through the night on a severely delayed train from Venice to Ljubljana, knowing I had to be up at 7am for my first meeting. That wasn’t a sleeper train though. A cabin on Sweden’s Arctic Circle night train (now operated by Vy) provides comfort on a great adventure. And having travelled on the old-style Caledonian Sleeper a few times, I can’t wait to try their new cabins for size.
Travelling through Thailand on a sleeper service, with normal seats converted to beds, divided by curtains, was a real adventure. But for long-distance overnight travel, as long as you’ve got plenty of time on your hands, I’m a fan of AMTRAK as a way to explore the United States.
Can you remember your first train journey?
The first time I set foot on a train was in the 1970s at primary school. I remember very little about it now, except that it was the lovely railway from Sheffield to Manchester, the Hope Valley Line.
We were taken to Sheffield to join the train, trundling through the 3 ½ mile long Totley Tunnel on our way to Grindleford, where we sketched the western entrance of the tunnel from the platform. Like the resulting drawing, my memory is a bit sketchy too, but in fairness it was a long time ago.
Where would you like to travel by rail?
A year on from the start of the pandemic, for most of the time shielding at home, I can’t wait to get back out on the tracks. Small steps first, maybe Scotland or Wales. I’ve never yet had the time to do the Trans-Siberian though, so Vladivostok would be my ultimate answer.
Who is your ideal travelling companion on a rail trip?
My wife, Maeve. So often I’ve travelled alone, had jaw-dropping experiences but had nobody to share them with. Thankfully, she has also spent her life in the travel industry and so is also my fellow traveller.
Are there any particular train journeys you’d like to take?
My kids will groan when they read this. ‘Please Dad, not another rail holiday!’ I can hear them shriek. But I really fancy trying a varied two-centre holiday using the Alpen-Sylt Nachtexpress. It’s a new night service connecting the idyllic north German coastline with the Austrian Alps from Sylt to Salzburg.
Hamburg and Salzburg are two of my favourite cities and, after a few days by a North Sea beach and a night on the train, from Salzburg we could reach stunning Lake Traunsee with ease. By train, of course!
What’s been your favourite dining experience on a train?
The buffets on Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed ICE trains are the stuff of legend. In Britain the East Coast Mainline (currently LNER) provides an at-seat service in First Class without peer in this country. I also like SJ lines in Sweden for healthy nutritious food, which is not always easy to obtain when you are constantly on the move.
For overall experience I would go for AMTRAK’s overnight services. Sure, it’s hearty, unpretentious food, but I love the social aspect of mixing with other passengers at meal times.
What’s the best thing about taking a train journey?
Choosing rail travel as a holiday mode of transport has so many advantages. It is relaxing, comfortable and sociable. You can get up and have a wander around without feeling that you are disturbing anyone, so there is more freedom.
Plus, as the railways connect city centres rather than bypassing them, there is always something interesting out of the window, whether it’s great scenery or city life. And rail travel is environmentally friendly to boot!
What do you always travel with?
I always take a notebook and camera, whether I’m travelling for work or in my leisure time.
Rob is Commercial Director of Airedale Tours and also a Director of the AGTO (Association of Group Travel Organisers).