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Luxury trains evoke romantic era of rail travel

Written by: Staff

Edinburgh, Mar 28: Well-heeled tourists, eager to rediscover the romance of an earlier era, are taking to the rails in increasing numbers on board trains with names that evoke the age of luxury travel.

The dark blue and gold coaches of the Venice Simplon-Orient Express wend their way across Europe in a style that recalls the high life of the 1920s when champagne flowed and dinner jackets, jewels and gowns were de rigueur.

Passengers boarding the Royal Scotsman at Edinburgh's Waverley station are greeted by a piper, a red carpet and glasses of bubbly, and ordinary travellers gawp in astonishment as the nine red and gold carriages pull out sedately, heading for the Scottish Highlands.

''The luxury rail market is growing and a better understanding is being developed of the different types of luxury rail experience on offer,'' said Nick Varian, vice-president of trains and cruises for Orient Express Hotels, the Bermuda-based luxury hotel and travel group.

Operating such trains is steadily moving out of the reach of enthusiastic amateurs, and luxury does not come cheap: a two-day London-Venice trip on the Orient Express costs 1,390 pounds (2,428 dollars) one way for each of two people sharing a compartment, while the annual six-day Paris-Istanbul journey the old Orient Express route has a price tag of 4,100 pounds a head.

The Royal Scotsman, which carries a maximum of 36 guests, charges 2,990 pounds per person for its all-inclusive four-night ''Classic'' journey through the Highlands.

The Royal Scotsman is half-owned by two British businessmen and half by the Orient Express group, which will increase its stake over a period of years.

''There will no doubt be further consolidation from the supplier side of the market and economics and regulations will preclude the entry of many more enthusiastic amateurs,'' Varian told Reuters in an e-mail interview.

He said of the Orient Hotel company: ''New trains and destinations are likely to be introduced, but slowly with the emphasis on niche market experiences. Strong links with landmark hotels at each end of the rail journey is also likely to play a big part in the development of new routes.'' The company is an investor in about 49 luxury hotel, restaurant, tourist train which also include Asia and South America, and river cruise properties in 25 countries.

The train and cruise division account for about 20 per cent of investment and profit a year. Revenue income rose to 369 million dollars in 2004 from 329.4 million in 2003, with net earnings of 28.2 million dollars, compared with 23.6 million.

The Royal Scotsman, which includes a refurbished carriage used by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill towards the end of World War Two, has a crew of 14, including a top-flight chef.

Retired Royal Marine Brigadier Ian Gardiner, one of three senior ex-military officers who rotate as ''hosts'' aboard the train, says the key to a luxury trip is an attentive staff. ''It is theatre in so far as the stage is Scotland, the set is the train, the audience the guests, and the players are the crew on the train,'' he said.

''If the players are excellent, they can turn a mediocre play into an excellent play. The whole thing is that it all depends on people,'' he said.

On one trip, the well-stocked bar failed to produce a particular brand of American whiskey for a traveller from the U.S. state of Montana.

An urgent appeal went out and the whiskey was waiting at the next stop. ''That's service,'' the happy client said.

Asked if the threat of terrorism and political upheaval had affected luxury tourism, Varian said the diversity of the Orient Express portfolio lessened the impact of such threats to the business as a whole.

''Overall long-haul travel suffered post 9/11...particularly from the US and Japan, but this continues to recover. The UK market has been particularly strong in recent years. Neither London nor Madrid bombs had a long term impact.'' On the bird flu threat, he said there had been no effect so far, adding that the annual Paris-Istanbul trip in early September was fully booked in both directions.

''At the high end, leisure travellers tend to be more resilient because they are more globally aware and move around a lot in their working lives,'' he added.

Orient Express clientele varied according to season and train, but the ''big five,'' the United States, Britain France, Germany and Japan made up significant numbers. The Venice Simplon-Orient Express carried about 40 nationalities in 2005.

Varian said Orient Express had recently bought the carriages formerly used by the Great South Pacific Express luxury train in Australia and were looking at ways to re-introduce them in a different region. He hoped an announcement would be made in the coming months.

''We separately have an ongoing study with the Chinese Railway Ministry, but this is not yet close to being realised.

Looking further ahead, the other key markets where luxury train travel is most likely to expand are Russia and maybe South America.''


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