The Romance of Rail

Have you seen the bush by moonlight, from the train, go running by?

Blackened log and stump and sapling, ghostly trees all dead and dry;

Here a patch of glassy water; there a glimpse of mystic sky?

Henry Hertzberg Lawson, “On the Night Train”

“There’s something wonderful about boarding a train on a rainy day in a cold dreary place and, after a day or so of travel in a sleeper, arriving in a sunny place.”

Paul Theroux, author of “The Great Rai lway Bazaar“ and “Riding the Red Rooster”


The allure of train journeys never seems to fade, regularly resurfacing through a variety of products that continue to thrill and captivate travellers yearning for a more evocative and unique experience of seeing a new country.

For some time now, holidaymakers have been the fortunate ones enjoying the benefits of this type of transport, but these days meetings and incentive travel participants are increasingly coming onboard, opening up a new avenue of revenue for ambitious railway companies and furnishing a fresh platform for creative concepts.

The golden age of steam

Take for instance the North Borneo Railway (NBR) – the oldest running steam train in Sabah and Borneo – a joint venture between the Sabah State Railway Department and Sutera Harbour Resort that revived a precious relic of the Malaysian state’s colonial past.

“The train was just rusting away, and we offered to fix it up,” recalls Frank Liepmann, chief executive of Sutera Harbour Resort. It was launched with much fanfare in Kota Kinabalu in 2000 in time to mark the town’s transformation into a city, and has been charming visitors ever since. NBR features a British Vulcan steam locomotive, whose engine is designed for wood burning, certainly a costly but more environmentally friendly form of fuel. It also consists of five Japanese-designed carriages that were meticulously refurbished to bring back the 1900s. Some time this year, says Liepmann, a bar wagon will be added and, following the quaint tradition of the Long Bar at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, guests will be able to dispose of their peanut shells indiscriminately, sweeping them off the table and littering the floor.

Chartered trips will finally become possible, Liepmann revealed, once a second steam-fired locomotive – currently undergoing refurbishment – arrives in a few months. The journey, passing through lush landscape and fertile farmland, takes only about four hours, but has generated “huge demand”, Liepmann observes, adding: “Without a second train, it would be too risky to expand operations.”

The Magellan Sutera Resort, which manages the onboard experience, capitalises on the nostalgia factor, dressing staff in colonial outfits, issuing passengers with a vintage-style “passport” and ticket, and presenting tiffin-style meals.

Southeast Asian sojourn

The Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O), the Asian offshoot of the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, is still going strong after nearly two decades and is looking to attract more incentive business. Says general manager Leesa Lovelace: “It forms a small percentage of our bookings but it is an important one.”

While the novelty of seeing three countries – Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – in stylish comfort will always spark great interest, there is, in addition, growing demand for activities off the train. Says Lovelace: “We’ve built so many contacts over the years that are helping us to offer our guests a deeper immersion in the destination.”

These options have been incorporated in the new “Chronicles of South-East Asia” package designed for smaller groups (60 guests as compared to the usual capacity of 132), which invites guest lecturers to come along and provides for rounds of golf in Kuala Lumpur and walking tours of heritage precincts in Penang, among other side trips. Wine during meals is included in the price that starts at US$4,000, a first since the E&O began operations.

Customising a group’s experience with E&O poses no problem for Lovelace and her team. They can brand certain carriage areas with the company’s logo and images (although some clients prefer to go entirely in the opposite direction and keep a low profile), organise factory visits or facilitate a corporate social responsibility project for groups wishing to give back to society.

For those who may not be able to complete the entire journey, E&O can abbreviate the experience to between four and six hours, setting up special lunches or dinners onboard, which have proven to be extremely popular. Said Lovelace: “These can be arranged to take place before or after a meeting or conference. It’s the icing on the cake for the participant.”

Southern splendour

New Zealand is renowned for some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, especially down in South Island. National operator KiwiRail runs the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific trains from Christchurch, which on the former route takes travellers through a dramatic contrast of dry beech forests and tussock landscapes before climbing into mountain scenery across a series of spectacular viaducts, and on the latter route passes along the coastal plain to the famous whale-watching town of Kaikoura.

In recent years, KiwiRail has taken aggressive steps to enhance the tourism potential of these train products. A major move has involved investing in locally produced carriages, meant to replace older models from the venerable British Rail. Some new cars are now found on the Coastal Pacific with more to go into service later in the year.

“We want to reposition our services from being just a means of transport to a real tourism attraction,” explains Richard Keenan, marketing manager of KiwiRail’s Tranz Scenic Division, Rail Passenger Group. He says they intend to diversify from catering to their traditional markets of Australia, the UK and US – “which have been big business for us” – to even more glittering prospects in the markets of Southeast Asia, India and China. Once most of the new cars are in place, KiwiRail will aggressively promote in the conference and incentive travel sector, offering possibilities of themed carriages and onboard entertainment.

“We can work with suppliers, which specialise in staging events, to provide value-added services,” says Keenan. Currently, none of the carriages, except for one with a ceiling-mounted screen, are equipped to accommodate a proper meeting set-up. Internet access is also a challenge due to constant movement, but Keenan affirms that KiwiRail will work on creating a conducive work environment.

Exploring the rockies

Many in Asia, except perhaps the very well travelled, will be unfamiliar with the Rocky Mountaineer, but for 22 years this luxury train product has been traversing four highly scenic routes lined with plunging gorges and breathtaking mountain passes into Jasper and Banff National Parks. In fact, the 3.5-hour journey between Vancouver and Whistler in British Columbia was declared by the Society of American Travel Writers to be “One of the Top 10 Train Trips in the World”.

Boasting three service lines – GoldLeaf, SilverLeaf and RedLeaf – the company can tailor any of them to the needs of a company meeting or incentive travel group, even mix-and-matching various coaches to suit the size and activities of clients. “Pick and choose the look of the train,” says the brochure literature. Says Robert Halfpenny, Rocky Mountaineer’s director, sales, Asia-Pacific, event planners will have much to work with, such as the two-level dome coaches which are popular for the unparalleled views they afford, a parlour car with LCD screens and a boardroom table, and a number of private meeting rooms. Other benefits offered include customised headrests with the company logo, cocktail receptions and gourmet dinners and land excursions.

All aboard! Today’s train journey is certainly one ride the business events sector won’t want to miss.



Eastern & Orient Express


North Borneo Railway


Rocky Mountaineer


TranZAlpine/Coastal Pacific



North Borneo Railway

(Twice weekly, Wednesday and Saturday)

  • 0930 Boarding at Tanjung Aru Station – breakfast is served
  • 1000 Depart for Papar
  • 1040 Stop at Kinarut Town for a visit to Tien Shi Temple and a look at local shops
  • 1100 Reboard the train
  • 1145 Arrive in Papar for a visit to the wet market and local shops
  • 1220 Reboard the train
  • 1230 Depart for Tanjung Aru
  • 1240 Tiffin lunch onboard
  • 1340 Arrive in Tanjung Aru Station


Eastern & Orient Express – Tales of Laos

(Four days/three nights)

Discover the hidden beauty of Thailand and Laos as you travel through verdant jungle for three nights and four days, including Phimai, Khao Yai National Park, and the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River.

Day 1


  • The journey begins with an afternoon departure from Bangkok’s bustling Hualamphong Station and a warm welcome by your steward. In the privacy of a well-appointed cabin, you are served afternoon tea and pastries.
  • View the changing vista and the sunset from the observation car as the train journeys into northeastern Thailand. Later that evening, enjoy an aperitif accompanied by live piano music in the plush bar car before savouring the first dinner onboard. Retire to your cabin, which has been transformed into a cosy bedroom.

Day 2

  • Breakfast is served in your cabin before the train arrives in Hin Dat, where passengers disembark for an excursion to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Phimai, one of the most important Khmer ruin complexes in Thailand.
  • Then, it’s back to the train for lunch as the journey continues to picturesque Khao Yai, where an afternoon is spent touring the vineyards and sampling wines. Evening brings dinner and swapping stories about the day’s adventures. Spend an enjoyable evening in the bar car listening to a pianist. Overnight onboard.


Day 3

  • After breakfast, the E&O Express crosses the Mekong River via the Friendship Bridge linking Thailand to Laos. Passengers disembark for a full day’s excursion of the capital city of Vientiane, including the historic Settha Palace Hotel. View the contrasts of gilded Buddhist temples alongside French colonial architecture in the timeless and relaxed atmosphere of the city.
  • Reboard the train late in the afternoon and depart for the return journey to Thailand, relaxing in the observation car or saloon lounge. Enjoy cocktails and another delightful dinner. Overnight onboard.

Day 4

  • Indulge in a leisurely breakfast as the train proceeds to Bangkok, arriving mid-morning.


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