The new face of luxury: Train travel

Lately, it's seemed like a lot of travelers have a one-track mind. With President Obama's push for high speed trains beginning to bear fruit in the United States, many rail fans are contemplating a future in which airplanes won't be the only regional travel option.

In this brave new world, passengers could go from New York to Chicago in a few short hours, working on their computers and making cell phone calls all the way. En route, they could walk from car to car, eat at their own schedule, or even simply look out the window as the countryside speeds by. Best of all, they wouldn't have to face the misery of airport security checks, and ticket prices would likely be comparable to or cheaper than current airline charges.

While we wait for America's travel infrastructure to catch up with that of 1960's-era Japan, some companies are offering a glimpse at the comfort and romance that first made train travel a legendary experience. The leader of the pack is probably the Orient Express, perhaps the world's most storied train, which began offering service in 1883.

While it no longer offers service from Paris to Istanbul, it has expanded its lines around the world, and currently runs trains in England, Scotland, Southeast Asia, Peru, and Continental Europe. With private cabins, gourmet meals, and personal stewards, it offers a travel opportunity that is in many ways comparable to a cruise.

Other companies offer comparably luxe travel options. For example, Australia's Great Southern Railway has "The Ghan," a 2,979-mile rail trip across the continent. Platinum service comes with large, wood-paneled cabins, stewards, full-sized bathrooms, and access to gourmet restaurants. With the addition of glassed-in lounges and promenades, the train is perfect for luxury-minded travelers who want to enjoy a nice long trip in considerable comfort.

Even Russia has gotten into the act with its Alexander Nevsky line. Although it only runs from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the train has private compartments, room service, and "VIP coaches." This being Russia, the bathrooms are shared and video surveillance is offered "to ensure customer safety." Still, with overstuffed armchairs and hand-woven carpets, it offers a level of sumptuousness that reminds the passenger more of Czars than of Commissars.

None of these options are cheap; in fact, the Orient Express runs close to $2,500 per person for a trip from Venice to Krakow. However, on these trains, transportation is secondary to experience, and the trip is -- in many ways -- the destination. For travelers in a hurry to get from point a to point b, there are far faster ways to go, but few offer the historic joy or romantic experience of classic train travel!
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