Making tracks

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Trains, not planes, may be the transport of the future, for the sake of the environment and the beauty of the scenery. Alison Brace steams through her top 10
Trains, not planes, may be the transport of the future, for the sake of the environment and the beauty of the scenery. Alison Brace steams through her top 10

If the calamitous opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 has finally persuaded you to turn your back on air travel, then maybe it's time to recapture the romance of rail this summer. And it's easier than you think. With the help of the internet and websites such as the excellent and, booking your train adventure is only a click away.

Almost half the British public have vowed to fly less this year to help the environment, so why put up with long queues and little leg room? Let the train take the strain, stretch out and take in the finest scenery.

"Trains are definitely the best way to experience a country," says Victoria Sill, a 24-year-old train enthusiast who is head of French and also a Spanish teacher at Cranford Community College in Hounslow - striking distance from Heathrow.

"I hate flying because of all the hanging around at terminals. With a train it's you and your bag hopping on, and your journey starts there."

John Orr's love of trains dates back to the maths teacher's days at boarding school in Wales. "I tell my 11-year-old son, Andrew, that I used to go to school by steam train."

"I used to take the steam train from Euston. My mum used to give me 126d for lunch, which was served by white-coated waiters. It was nearly silver service," says John, 55, who teaches at Hampton School in southwest London.

John's life-long love of trains is so ingrained that he and his wife Barbara bought their holiday home in Swanage by the side of the Dorset town's steam line to Corfe Castle. A comforting chug-chug can be heard from the living room.

"It's a nostalgia thing for me - it's about getting away from it all. It's not just the journey, it's the stuff that goes with it - the infrastructure and the mechanical clobber. There's a magic about steam trains. To me, they are alive."

Times may have moved on, but Mark Smith, a career railwayman from Buckinghamshire who set up, reassures us that the romance of rail is far from dead. You can still get anywhere in the world by train (and the odd boat). His website shows you how with links through to the relevant ticketing agencies.

For real rail buffs, don't set off without your Thomas Cook overseas rail timetables, first published in 1873 and updated every month. They remain the ultimate series of reference titles for train travellers. See

1. Settle to Carlisle railway

Although the journey time is one hour and 40 minutes, it's not for nothing that this stretch of line, opened on May 1, 1876, is described as England's most scenic railway.

Between Horton and Ribblehead, the line climbs 200ft in just five miles. There are 21 viaducts to cross, including the famous 24-arched Ribblehead viaduct. The station at Dent Head is described as the bleakest mainline station in England.

For an even more magical journey, try one of the steam charter services that also run on this line. See for timetables and for charter trips. Standard day return is pound;18.90, pound;49 by steam train.

2. Fort William to Mallaig

Scotland's most famous train journey, known as the West Highland Railway, starts near the foot of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis and takes in 42 miles of mountains, lochs and fabulous views of the Outer Isles.

It passes over the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, as seen in the Harry Potter films, and from Mallaig you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Skye. Daily services run from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but for an extra special trip, the Jacobite steam train runs every day from Fort William (except Saturdays) from May through to October 10th. Telephone West Coast Railways on 01524 737 751 for bookings or see their website at

Also check Scotrail's website for timetables at www.firstgroup.comscotrail. Cheap day returns start from pound;10.90.

3. Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes

You don't have to be a train buff to enjoy this thrilling 200-mile train journey, known as Le Cevenol. Opened in 1870, the line was originally for transporting wine to Paris from Languedoc. Le Cevenol forms part of the non-TGV route linking Marseille to Paris and boasts 106 tunnels and numerous viaducts, including France's highest stone viaduct at Villefort.

See for more details and to combine this with a walking holiday. Check out or for travel details. Prices start from pound;30.50.

4. The Glacier Express

Take yourself on a seven and a half hour journey through the magnificent Swiss Alps. The Glacier Express - "the slowest express train in the world" - takes you from Zermatt, the car-free village at the foot of the Matterhorn, across 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and then across the Oberalp Pass at 2033 metres.

The train, complete with panorama cars, may tilt, but the revolutionary wine glasses that grace the restaurant car over lunch always stay upright. Prices start at EUR88.65. See for details. Great Rail Journeys - - also offer a First Class 10-day winter tour from London. Prices start at pound;1,325.

5. Snowdon Mountain Railway

This summer sees the opening of a new pound;9 million visitor centre at the top of Snowdon, England and Wales' highest peak at 3,560 feet.

But if trains rather than trekking are your thing, then why not chug your way to the top, thanks to Britain's only public rack and pinion railway.

A steam train pushes the carriage up the hillside from Llanberis, taking you through woods to the treeless expanse of the mountains - a journey it has been making for 112 years.

It is often a hit with children who can round off the experience by buying a stamp at the top and sending it from the UK's highest postbox, complete with a Summit of Snowdon postmark.

For details and prices see and also Adult return costs pound;22, child pound;15.

6. Paddington to Penzance

Arguably one of the UK's most loved railway services. Leave London's Paddington station shortly before midnight any day of the week except Saturday, and wake up on the Cornish coast.

Booking two singles in advance can bring the price down to as little as pound;30 for the return journey on First Great Western's Night Riviera Sleeper. A supplement is required to secure a berth.

Call 08457 000 125 for more details or visit for special offers.

7. Madrid to Seville

How many of us have flown to Spain, but not really experienced it in all its geographical glory?

The 186 mph AVE train may get you from Madrid to Seville - the sunny capital of Andalusia - in just 2 hours, but it's not so fast that you don't get to appreciate the Sierra Morena - the longest of Spain's mountain ranges - and the changing terrain as you sweep through Cordoba to the glaring heat of the South.

There is at least one AVE train an hour from Madrid to Seville - and they are punctual. In fact, your ticket will be refunded in full if the AVE is more than 5 minutes late.

You could make this the final leg of a trip from London. For as little as pound;108 you could take the Trainhotel from Paris to Madrid, after hopping on a Eurostar train. See for details or try and

8. Nice to Digne-les-Bains

This 150km line runs past the spectacular scenery of the Var Valley and passes through 25 tunnels and more than 16 viaducts and 15 metal bridges.

Alphone Beau de Rochas, the engineer who invented the four-stroke engine, had the idea for the Chemin de Fer de Provence in 1861. Construction work, however, only began in 1891 and it wasn't until 1911 that the railway line finally reached Nice, such was the enormity of the engineering feat to construct it.

Leaving the palm-fringed seaside resorts of the Cote d'Azur behind, the three and a half hour journey takes you through fields of aromatic Provencal lavender into the stunning Alpine gorges and mountains beyond.

For more information, plus latest price details for special steam train outings, see

9. London to Venice aboard the Orient Express

If it's luxury you're looking for, then why not take a trip on the Orient Express to Venice? You might be blowing the budget, but the experience on board will be every bit as memorable as the scenery outside the carriage.

A British Pullman takes you from London to Paris, before boarding the blue and gold carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Enjoy five-star treatment and food as the train travels through the Swiss Mountains and Austrian Alps before arriving in Venice. Return tickets are pound;2,140 and include all accommodation and meal costs. See for more details.

10. Oslo to Bergen

This journey offers a chance to see the dramatic mountain and fjord landscape of Norway on Northern Europe's highest railway.

The Bergen Line connects the two most important cities in Norway and the train journey, described as one of the top 20 railway experiences in the world, takes you "over the roof of Norway".

Harsh and changeable weather poses the biggest challenge for the railway workers who keep the line open. There are roughly three trains a day and prices are around 739 Krone (pound;75) for a return trip, but they can be as little as 299 Krone (pound;30).

See Norwegian Railways for details at or visit for links from the UK.

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