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Iron Silk Road Still A Slow Train Coming


FAR flung Dhaka in Bangladesh might not seem like the obvious destination from Yorkshire train platforms but rail lovers and ardent romantics in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s famous novel are getting excited about the latest long distance express trip to the Orient.

Nearly 50 years ago, some of the world's top planners and engineers had a dream to bind together the vast expanse of rail tracks across Asia and Europe to create the world's longest train ride.

Now thanks to some United Nations pen pushing, an accord involving more than 20 nations, and a determined ‘ticket to ride’ on the part of the traveler, travelers who find the train more romantic than the plane will soon by able to take a ride on a new express trip to the Orient.

When a long-anticipated rail tunnel under the Bosphorus in Turkey which links Europe and Asia Minor is completed, adventurers will for the first time, in theory at least, be able to catch a train to St Pancras’s glittering new station, hop onto Eurostar to Brussels and then onto Vienna, the Bosphorus crossing, Iran, Pakistan, India, and then the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka – all in just 23 days.

But the dream of an express route to the East is, in the best traditions of rail travel, proving to be a long wait.

Two years after an accord was reached, only limited progress towards a goal has been made.

The goal of a Trans-Asian railroad with links to Europe has mostly remained a blueprint for years.

Thanks to an effective shunt from The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP), which effectively oversees the project put formally place in 2006, more than 20 countries across Asia have been working to align a myriad of rail gauges and connections with each other and with their European counterparts.

While freight is the key target of the efforts, gap year students and thrill seeking travellers will in theory be able to take advantage of the better connections, utilising fast links to London.

The 7,000-mile Trans-Asia railway will follow one of the old Silk Roads through Istanbul, Tehran, Lahore and Delhi via Vienna, Cologne, Amritsar and Calcutta before reaching Dhaka and possible later links east into China. 

Already romantically dubbed the ‘Iron Silk Road’, it is already being described by some as “the world’s greatest railway journey”.

The usual modern day rail route to the Orient and the far East has been the trans- Siberian railway via Moscow, with a branch to Beijing through Mongolia.

International accords were signed in 2007 and work has slowly been progressing since. Key to the success of the scheme is the completion of the Bosphorus rail tunnel which has proved to be a ‘slow train coming’.

The discovery of a major archeological find close to Istanbul has also set the multi billion dollar project back four years, some reckon.

Gauge differences between Iran and Pakistan have also proved historically difficult to smooth traffic.

Rail lover Mark Smith, who got engaged on the Venice Simplon Orient Express, says the dream route – while not ‘bookable’ by conventional means – will be a boon for Yorkshire train buffs and romantics alike.

Mr Smith, author of the award-winning ‘The Man in Seat 61’ world rail travel website (, says:

“Leeds, Sheffield, York and other cities are well connected to St Pancras, and from there, the world is now just a few days away by rail.

“Unlike the traditional Orient Express, travellers will have to change trains and plan their own route to Bangladesh when the route comes to full fruition. However, the long years of wait for a quicker, convenient route to Bangladesh, China and Asia and the Near East – the traditional concept of the ‘Orient’ – are coming to an end.

There are some security concerns in southeastern Iran that need to be recognised, and getting an Iranian visa can be time-consuming though by no means impossible these days. 

“There's also no one agency or website and certainly no ticket office that can arrange all these tickets so the days of the ‘one-step ticket’ to Bangladesh is some time away; Yorkshire travellers would need to assemble the relevant tickets and visas themselves from a variety sources, but some journeys can be booked locally.

“The route has been discussed among rail enthusiasts for years and the key to it is the Bosphorus rail tunnel crossing which would certainly speed the journey, though alternative crossings are available.”

Mark adds: “It’s unlikely that a dedicated sleeper train such as the Orient Express would ever run from Europe along the so called Iron Silk Road but if anyone has the desire and money to make the trip, when the Bosphorus Tunnel opens it will soon be more convenient.

“Agatha Christie's 'Murder on the Orient Express' wasn’t set on the Orient Express - it's set on the ‘Simplon Orient Express’. 

“By the 1920s and 30s there were a whole inter-connecting network of Wagons-Lits company trains with 'Orient Express' as part of their name in addition to the Orient Express itself. 

“The ‘real’ Orient Express has always run from Paris Gare de l'Est via Munich, Vienna & Budapest, whereas the Simplon Orient Express started running in April 1919, taking a Southerly route from Calais and Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, with a portion for Athens. 

“It’s not to be confused with the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) run by VSOE Ltd, a special train of restored vintage ex-Wagon-Lits Company sleeping cars. This is the one most people have heard of, costing about £1,400 or more per person from London to Venice.”

“Bangladesh  is a fascinating country with a rich and varied history and at present fairly few tourists.  Bangladesh has a largely British-built rail network linking most major towns and cities, including Dhaka & Chittagong.”

Roger Bareham, a retired rail enthusiast from Otley, Yorkshire, said:

If only I was younger I would be queing up to go on the trip. However  23 days seems a little long for me.....but it sounds a wonderful trip, and I know long train trips abroad are big business.

Trains like the VSOE, and trans Canada and America have always held a thrill for people and a touch of the exoctic. This will most certainly be the ‘daddy’ of them all, plus a very real sense of adventure.”

And it seems the tunnel under the Bosphorus, the site of Hercule Poirot’s embarkation onto the Orient Express on his return to Paris, might not be the only key to intercontinental travel.

The TKM-World Link is a planned link between Siberia and Alaska providing oil, natural gas, electricity, and railroad passengers to the United States and Canada from Russia.

The plan includes provisions to build a 103 km (64 mile) road and electrified high-speed rail tunnel under the Bering Strait which, if completed, would become the longest tunnel in the world

Proposals for such a tunnel were approved by Tsar Nicholas II in the early 20th century but were abandoned during the Soviet era. If finally built, the tunnel would in theory allow rail connections between London and New York, the ‘ultimate’ rail journey.


* Mark Smith is the author of ‘The Man in Seat 61’ – the essential guide to train travel in Europe and the associated website