Heatwaves, cold snaps and staff shortages: all can, and do, strike down Britain’s often costly rail services. Most Britons will, on more than one occasion, fork out the equivalent of a return flight to the Continent only to find their train cancelled or delayed. Therefore, when the news of a genuinely low-cost rail service arrives, it makes travellers question why not all routes can meet this standard. In October 2021, Lumo will launch its service between London and Edinburgh with one-way fares coming in as little as £10. A flash of hope, perhaps, for the future of train travel on home soil.
Venture across the Channel, however, and you’ll find a glut of good-value – and often beautiful – rail journeys. If your return-to-the-office commute has come with a hefty train fare, you may want to look away now. A weekday open return from Preston to London, for example, could set you back as much as £378. For around that same price, you could spend 15 days winding your way through mountains, along rivers and between the valleys of Europe. Here are six stunning trips to try.
This four-hour route between Chur, Switzerland and Tirano in Northern Italy is all the better for the train’s sightseeing cars (with extra large windows) as it passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges. The route vies with that of its sister train, the Glacier Express, for the most beautiful Alpine Route, plus it’s direct, so there are no stops to disturb you from taking in the views – they range from ice (the Morteratsch Glacier) to pretty villages and engineering feats (such as the Brusio spiral viaduct). The railway itself is Unesco-listed. A one-way ticket in second class, with a reserved seat, will set you back around 79 Swiss Francs (around £62). That’s around the same price (£62.40) for an anytime day return from Southampton Central to Clapham Junction. shop.rhb.ch
Two weeks of Interrailing
It’s not just for students, or 18-year-old gap year travellers – and, for many British holidaymakers, a mini adventure could be just the ticket. For the time being, of course, you will be subject to the Covid-related entry rules of each country. You can buy passes up to 11 months before you plan to start your trip, however. Invest the cost of an anytime return from Preston to London (£378.60, Monday to Friday) in two weeks of railbound freedom in 2022 (€443/£377 for a 15-day ‘adult’ pass). interrail.eu
Mainz to Koblenz
Take this route along the Rhine Valley, passing fairytale castles that inspired Disney, vineyards, the Lorelei Rock and the river itself. The rock’s namesake is a legendary, melancholy siren whose song was said to distract passing fishermen from the risk posed by treacherous rocks, leading them to drown.
As you watch the world pass, you can sample the crop of the Rhine’s banks (perhaps a Riesling or a Müller-Thurgau) from the onboard minibar. Plus, Koblenz is one of Germany’s oldest cities and makes for a fascinating end point. Be sure to make a stop at the Münzplatz: here the Romans founded the “fort at the confluence” (of the Rhine and the Mosel), which gave Koblenz its name. A single journey on the express train (it takes around 50 minutes) will set you back €17.90/£15.25. Almost the same balance (£15.10) would secure you a first class ticket from Watford Junction to London Euston (journey time approximately 15-25 minutes). bahn.de
Norway’s Northern Lights
Take a 10-hour journey on Norway’s longest continuous passenger route (450 miles), the Nordland Railway. If you’re a slow television fan, you may know that a Norwegian broadcaster once screened the entire journey. A night trip, taken between September and March, could reward you with the spectacle of the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky. It’s dark from early afternoon until late morning, so book yourself into a sleeper compartment to have the views all to yourself. If you catch a service during daylight hours, you’ll see the fjords, forests and waterfalls, while ordering tasty dishes such as hot smoked salmon with pickled onions to your cabin. A twin sleeper compartment is available for £56pp, that’s just £6 more than a single, one-way ticket from Penzance to Bristol Temple Meads (typically around £50). vy.no
Trenino Verde, Sardinia
Explore Sardinia in the comfort and style of the 1950s on the Trenino Verde (green train). The line will take you from the island’s rugged interior to its idyllic coast, passing by pastel-dotted ports and stopping at secret beaches. The rickety route had a fan in DH Lawrence. He said of the isle’s rail network: “We take the slow train, no matter where it goes”. Expect to see errant livestock along the track, carefully shooed away by the driver. Starting from £3 per hour, that’s 80p cheaper than the eight-minute journey from Clapham Junction to Victoria. treninoverde.com
Bohinj Railway, Slovenia
Slovenia is not your typical holiday destination but it might be time to think again. If you’ve yet to make it to there, the Bohinj Railway is an enticing starting point. A steam locomotive carries you through 26 tunnels and crosses the world’s longest stone arch railway bridge over the Isonzo Gorge. The two-hour journey is available for £41 through ABC tourism. That’s just £4 more than a return ticket from London Paddington on the Heathrow Express. abc-tourism.si
Reader Service: Planning on travelling to the continent? Make sure you book European travel insurance before you go.