Tourist destinations elsewhere in the world offer an experience that lies somewhere in between. Public transport users in sparsely-populated New Zealand outwith the two biggest cities long ago forsook trains for coaches and planes, but sufficiently many tourists board the TranzAlpine route across the South Island to have justified investment in attractive new rolling-stock. Australia is a mixture, with quality long-distance trains out of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane for both locals and visitors, while The Indian Pacific and The Ghan which cross the continent once-weekly offer high-end accommodation and off-train experiences but no longer convey economy carriages.
Post-war investment in long-distance North American rail soon gave way to mass desertion by travellers attracted by the speed of flying, the economy of Greyhound coaches and the convenience of the freeway. Away from the inter-city routes of the north-east, Amtrak provides a basic network focused on Chicago to serve people with an aversion to air travel, locals bound for intermediate places and tourists curious to see the country at ground level, but recent economies in catering may have diminished its appeal, while stumps of some closed routes offer tourist-only products. Canada's two transcontinental routes are sharply differentiated, The Canadian purveying faded glory in 1950s carriages with a variety of overnight accommodation, while The Rocky Mountaineer is a modern glass-roofed tourist train with quality catering, off-train excursions and all overnight stays in hotels. Mexico has only one surviving long-distance route, through the Copper Canyon, where a daily local train shares the track with another offering ex-US dome cars for tourists.
For most inhabitants of these countries, long-distance rail is an unfamiliar experience which must be packaged to enter their comfort zone - in the way that before the pandemic cruise-operators had succeeded in repackaging sea travel. Marketing thus becomes key, and between the lockdowns last year in Britain there were two notable developments - The Staycation Express offering journey opportunities for tourists in upmarket carriages on the scenic Settle & Carlisle Line, and the launch by Locomotive Services Limited of two luxury trains for hire, including the Blue Pullman recreation of an iconic 1960s design – while the steam-hauled Jacobite went from strength to strength, offering twice-daily service through up to half of the year.
With a summer of holidaying at home in prospect, further development of these ideas is in prospect. But if bespoke private operations are going to cream off the tourists, will it be left to the likes of Community Rail Partnerships to promote the service trains on which visitors and public transport-users have hitherto coexisted?
International rail expert Keith Fenwick for CILT