London to Vilnius: my rail odyssey to the Baltics

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As the construction of a high-speed line ushers in a new era for travel between Poland and Estonia, our writer takes the slow train and explores cities that are new to him

Think of those great train experiences, the classic iron-road odysseys that fill your heart with joy. Forget, for a moment, that these days the Orient Express doesn’t actually go to the orient and that the Flying Scotsman might involve a bus replacement service. Modern rail travel can still have magic. When I hear that a new high-speed line is being built to connect Warsaw with Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, I know what I want to do. I want to go from London to the Baltic states by rail before it gets all sleek and swanky (the line is due to open in 2028). I want the whiff of Soviet times, a bit of what the Germans call Ostalgie. And having recently done London to Marrakech on the train, I know that there is no rush, and that there is extra joy to be had in well-chosen stopovers. I grab a map.

In the past couple of years, Europe has been experiencing a boom in new rail services, partly driven by environmental regulation, but also consumer demand for flight-free options. France, for example, has banned short domestic flights where a train journey of under two and half hours is available. New night sleepers connect Amsterdam with Austria, and Paris to Berlin. Stockholm is directly linked to Hamburg and Berlin, making London accessible inside 24 hours.

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