This year, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains is celebrating 100 years since the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway, coinciding with a special anniversary for Company Founder and President, Tim Littler. His company GW Travel Ltd (as Golden Eagle was formerly known) operated its very first private Trans-Siberian Express tour 20 years ago this May.
Tim launched GW Travel Ltd in 1989, concentrating on providing specialist steam tours in Eastern Europe. In 1992, after the Cold War had ended and Russia was allowing foreign tourists entry once more, Tim began operating rail tours through the Caucasus and Crimea. After visiting these regions, Tim explained how he made the decision to set up tours there: “…it soon became apparent that regions like the Caucasus were simply beautiful and deserved to be seen by tourists.”
Understandably, his plans were not without difficulties: “There were certainly challenges to arranging a tour at a time when the Soviet Union was breaking up, however, following a trip with a Sunday Telegraph journalist I decided the time was right to set the wheels in motion.”
On 25th May 1996, Tim ran his first private tour on the Trans-Siberian railway, departing from Berlin and ending in Vladivostok. Tim said of the inaugural run: “Our first ever trip along the Trans-Siberian route in 1996 was also a mammoth record-breaking event as it took us 28 days with 72 different steam locomotives to travel 13,000kms from Berlin to Vladivostok. A massive undertaking and a logistical nightmare when I look back now and despite this we were still only 10 minutes late arriving into Vladivostok!”
Tim has fond memories of his first tour of the Trans-Siberian railway and was full of praise for how smoothly the journey ran: “The 1996 tour ran like clockwork, in my letter of thanks to the President of Russian Railways I compared the operation of the train to Swiss Railways.”
Tim continued his pioneering rail journeys with another record breaking journey in 2000 from St Petersburg via the Baikal Amur Magistral (BAM), to the coast at Sovietskaya Gavan, to Vladivostok. Five days were then spent on Sakhalin Island covering their rail network, before returning via the Trans-Siberian to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk. From Irkutsk the train was electric hauled back to Moscow. The trip ran for 42 days from June 30th 2000 and covered 15,926 miles (25,630 km). It was the longest rail tour ever to be completed and is a record that is never likely to be exceeded.
Tim reflected on how times have changed for Russian travel since he began operating tours along the Trans-Siberian railway: “…Russia is certainly a more open and vibrant country than it was back in the late 1980s. I remember how it used to take us 2 to 3 hours just to get through immigration. By comparison, it sometimes can take as little as 2 or 3 minutes today.”
He also discussed how the financing of multi-million-dollar restoration projects has improved Russia’s appeal: “Russia’s new found wealth in the post-Communist era has also seen significant investment in restoring the rich heritage of the country. The six-year restoration and re-opening of the Bolshoi Theatre in 2011, at a reputed cost of between $700 million and $1 billion….is indicative of the type and scale of project restorations now taking place right across Russia.”
Following years of continued success operating journeys on the Trans-Siberian railway, GW Travel launched the Golden Eagle, a $25m, 21-car purpose built train with all 66 guest cabins having fully en-suite facilities, the first of its kind in Russia, unveiled by the President of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin and HRH Prince Michael of Kent on 26th April 2007. The Golden Eagle has been in service within Russia and Central Asia ever since.
Tim concluded: “…the Golden Eagle is one of the most prestigious trains in the world and is a testament to how far we have come and Russia has come in such a short space of time…. Guests have greater expectations – and it’s up to us to not only meet them, but exceed them…. I genuinely think we have achieved this.”
We are celebrating 100 years of the Trans-Siberian railway by running two alternative Trans-Siberian tours, exclusive to 2016. Find out more here.