Our proud heritage is built on a determination to provide luxury train travel in the remotest of locations around the world and over the years we have introduced thousands of adventure travellers to a range of exotic and exciting destinations. As passengers currently aboard our special President’s Tour for 2019, the Madras Mail, join us in celebrating 30 years in operation, we have the chance to reflect on our history and how Golden Eagle Luxury Trains came to be the world’s leading operator of exclusive, long-distance rail tours. It begins with our President and Founder: Tim Littler.
A Lifelong Passion
Tim’s love of rail travel dates back to 1958 when, as an eight year old school boy, he and his friends would visit Altrincham railway station to watch the procession of steam hauled trains on their journeys to and from London and the south. In January 1963, aged twelve, Tim took over the operation of Altrincham Grammar School’s Railway Society and in 1966 he successfully operated his first rail tour, carrying 350 passengers from Manchester to Edinburgh. As an adult, Tim transformed his hobby into a business when he launched GW Travel Ltd in 1989, concentrating on providing specialist steam tours in Eastern Europe.
When Russia finally opened its doors to foreigners in 1992, Tim began operating rail tours through the Caucasus and Crimea. It was the exquisiteness of this region that made Tim believe it deserved greater recognition. He says: “It soon became apparent that regions like the Caucasus were simply beautiful and deserved to be seen by tourists.” Indeed, GW Travel, as Golden Eagle Luxury Trains was once known, was a pioneer in developing tourism in Russia away from the main centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. In 1992, when the first tour in the North Caucasus took place, the concept of a private train in Russia was still a novelty.
Of course, this meant there were some challenges to overcome. On this first tour, Tim remembers being pleased that the train was equipped with showers. However, it soon became apparent that they didn’t work. When he questioned this, the response was “the contract says there are showers – it doesn’t say anything about water!”
In a mammoth record-breaking event, GW Travel Ltd operated the very first private Trans-Siberian Express tour on 25th May 1996. The train was hauled entirely by steam, using seventy two locomotives. It travelled over 13,000 kms in 28 days, departing from Berlin and ending in Vladivostok. Despite this massive undertaking – and “logistical nightmare”, as Tim recalls – the train was still only 10 minutes late arriving into Vladivostok!
Our pioneering rail journeys continued 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 – a record that is never likely to be exceeded.
Recognising the increasing worldwide demand for luxury rail travel, the portfolio was extended. At the beginning of 2006 the company unveiled the Darjeeling Mail using the Deccan Odyssey, the first luxury train to traverse the Indian sub-continent between Bombay and Calcutta. As part of our 30th Anniversary celebrations in 2019, we are returning to offering private rail tours across India for the first time since 2012.
The announcement of our first departure in February 2019 of the Darjeeling Mail, a journey from Mumbai to Kolkata, proved enormously successful and sold out in a matter of weeks. Our exclusive President’s Tour, the Madras Mail, is currently underway and is joined by Tim and special guest speaker Christian Wolmar, an award-winning broadcaster, journalist and author of several railway history books. Christian will deliver insightful lectures on the construction and history of railways in India, guiding guests on an incredible journey through this vibrant subcontinent.
The Golden Eagle and Beyond
In 2007 a long-held ambition was achieved with the launch in Moscow by HRH Prince Michael of Kent GCVO of our flagship train, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. A $25m, 21-car purpose built train with all 66 guest cabins having fully en-suite facilities, it was the first of its kind in Russia.
In June 2012, we changed the name GW Travel to Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Limited to better reflect our core business. Since then, the company has continued to grow and in an exciting move, it took over the operation of the Danube Express in 2015. The Golden Eagle Danube Express has opened up an exciting range of rail journeys through Central and Eastern Europe and into the Middle East and we are continuously developing new ideas for journeys.
More recently, we were pleased to learn that Russia would be hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup™. We were even more delighted to announce that our Golden Eagle train would feature in the BBC Match of the Day opening titles, which proved a great opportunity for us to present our newly refurbished bar and restaurant cars. In fact, with Russia in the spotlight and travellers taking a greater interest in the region, 2018 proved to be our most successful year on record!
With the growing demand for new experiences amongst adventure travellers, our guests quite rightly have greater expectations. It will be up to us to not only meet these high expectations but exceed them. Looking forward to 2020 and many years beyond, we intend to continue in our mission to innovate, surprise and delight with a selection of pioneering journeys by private luxury train.