Browse all

When luxury travels on the rails

How the pandemic brought luxury trains back into vogue

 When luxury travels on the rails How the pandemic brought luxury trains back into vogue

Who remembers the Orient-Express? Perhaps no one except the most loyal readers of Agatha Christie, for whom the elegant carriages of Europe's most legendary train became, through the filter of literature, the exotic setting for a murder. But there is a reason why Agatha Christie, back in the 1930s, chose that very train for her novel. Quite simply, the Orient-Express represented, along with the Nile cruise, the ultimate luxury travel, a five-star hotel on wheels. In a world where fashion as we know it did not exist, where imported cigarettes and champagne were commodities of the highest luxury, traveling on the Orient-Express represented the international gold standard of wealth and aspirationality. It was a world of liveried waiters, chilled champagne, and sleeper carriages of polished mahogany. A world that seems far removed from our own, of international flights, of exotic locations reached in no more than a day's travel, of online bookings and user reviews. And while the typical modern trip once represented an aspiration, the massification of that experience has led to a loss of exclusivity to which the luxury industry has responded by looking to the past and, specifically, to trains

Holding the near-monopoly of luxury trains in Europe is the Belmond Group, itself part of the larger LVMH conglomerate. The group has six trains, spread between Europe, Peru and Asia, and the most famous of these is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. This very train, last April, hosted a huge troupe of mega-influencers (Chiara Ferragni preceded them visiting the train in October) who celebrated the inauguration of the Grand Tour itinerary by traveling from Rome to Paris for a night starring in an incalculable number of IG Stories and related reposts while the Italian press paled thinking about the astronomical price of the 4,000-euro ticket. A few days later, on May 15, the train headed to Cannes for the first time, loaded with other influencers, for the festival introducing, among other things, a pop-up spa by Dior. Also Belmond, last fall, collaborated with Wes Anderson on the redesign of the Cygnus carriage of the British Pullman train, calling on a company of celebrities and fashion personalities for the maiden voyage. And still in the UK, in the same window of time, arose the social media phenomenon of Francis Bourgeois, a model/tiktoker who began describing the minutiae of historic British trains, winning 4.3 million total followers between TikTok and Instagram as well as the sympathies of Gucci, which not only made him the face of the second Gucci x The North Face campaign but also included him on the armored guest list for the Milan show of the FW22 collection.


The luxury world's interest in rails and locomotives is no accident-especially considering how Belmond trains have been in business long before the lockdown. The reason for this sudden fascination is found in the changes brought by the lockdown in the tourism industry. The crisis of domestic airlines (in addition to the case of those in Italy, French and Austrian airlines have also faced numerous problems) and growing concerns about both Covid and sustainability have made rail travel relevant again, while at the same time highlighting a number of infrastructure issues that have arisen over the years such as upgrading to high speed and strengthening night trains. There is still a long way to go, but general public opinion would seem to be firm: according to The New York Times, «a recent climate survey found that 62 percent of Europeans support a ban on short-haul flights» designed to get people to travel more by rail. 


This broader cultural movement is also matched by the push toward slow traveling. A bespoke travel agency client also interviewed by The New York Times explained, «in the past, travel was about packing in as much as you can, running around checking boxes, which becomes mechanical. The pandemic taught us all that it’s OK to not go fast, to focus on what’s important». And so here is the return of train travel, which, in the case of luxury trains, can also turn the annoying and uncomfortable process of travel into entertainment. LVMH's investment in the luxury trains category through Belmond follows the model inaugurated by India, where the culture of train travel is highly prevalent with some routes active since the 1980s, and precedes that of other groups both in the U.S. and Europe, such as France's Accor and Italy's Arsenale, which have invested together with Trenitalia in The Orient Express La Dolce Vita train that, starting next year, «will touch 131 cities in 14 regions», as reported by Corriere, and will also arrive from Rome to Paris, Istanbul and the Croatian port of Split. «You’ll be able to go truffle hunting in Piedmont in the morning, then to the theater in Milan in the evening, and off to visit a tiny village in the Sicilian countryside the following day», CEO Stephen Alden told Condè Nast Traveller.

Indeed, much has been said about how, over the past few years, luxury has acquired a more experiential dimension. The acme of sophistication and elitism is no longer the baroque suite overlooking the city from the top of the 100th floor, but the resort in the savannah where you have breakfast with giraffes, the Instagram-friendly tiled riad, the glass-floored stilts looking into the pristine waters of Polynesia, and the hidden cove in the rainforests of Thailand. With this in mind, given also how air travel often forces various inconveniences such as long waits at the airport, forced proximity to crowds, and compliance with numerous safety regulations, it is understandable how, for certain routes, the idea of traveling comfortably in a train that looks like something out of a Visconti film, plus all the romantic vibes resulting from nostalgia for the world of the Belle Epoque, perhaps even with the option of indulging in a spa stay or having a cocktail in a 1930s dining car, can seduce luxury travelers. In May last year, the WSJ headlined an article with Air Travel Is Back, Including All the Things You Hated, explaining that «fares are rising, middle seats are no longer empty and everything from parking lots to security lines is getting more congested». The renewed need for space, a rejection of commercial tourism routes, and a sense of impatience with large crowds born of the post-pandemic have led to a resurgence in the popularity of trains.

The trend that would seem to emerge from this scenario is that of a slow re-orientation toward the rejection of the "masses." Just as the exit from lockdown has brought to public attention the concept of agoraphobia, used not so much to describe a chronic anxious state but the widespread distrust the public perceives toward enclosed and overcrowded places, the concept of travel has also begun to evolve by taking on a dimension that is increasingly distant from the masses and increasingly close to the individual experience: according to an Airbnb report from last year, there had been a robust movement of tourist flows toward rural locations, toward homes that became the destination of travel and not just a place to stay, and toward a cancellation of the barrier between traveling and living. The resurgence of trains, then, represents just that: transforming the means of transportation into a destination - with all the attendant ins and outs and, above all, with the possibility for the luxury industry to offer new and more exclusive experiences to its clientele. Nothing more is needed to demonstrate the strength of the train trend - we just have to get on board.