Tim Littler's fascination with trains goes back almost as long as he can remember. Not only that, he also has an enviable track record in persuading others to share his passion for the subject. 'It's in the blood,' he says, 'I used to run a railway society at school and even then I'd organise trips so that other people could share in the fun of it all.' Littler went on to a successful career in the family wine business and could have been forgiven for thinking that his love for trains and rail travel would prove to be just an enduring hobby. All that changed in 1989, however, when he organised a trip for some friends to visit the vineyards of the Champagne region of France. Unsurprisingly, his chosen mode of transport was the train. 'It all went very well,' Littler recalls, 'and people said to me: "Have you ever thought of doing this professionally?"' He hadn't, but the idea appealed and he began to look into the possibilities for upscale rail tourism. 'It coincided with the last days of steam trains in eastern Europe and so my first commercial trip [under the banner of GW Travel] ended up being in Russia in 1992. In some ways this was quite a challenging proposition, but in others it was very easy. We were providing a source of foreign currency that, at the time, was in incredibly short supply.' As a consequence, margins were far more generous than they would have been in western Europe. 'That first trip would have made a profit with just four paying passengers; and we had a full train for eight days. Later I found out that when we agreed the cost for the trip, the Russians couldn't believe how generous we were being.' Since then, the company has truly spread its wings and has taken tours to all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union, in addition to China, Africa, western Europe, India and Canada. It has also focused increasingly on the luxury end of the market, a move that was embodied by the 2007 launch in Russia of the flagship Golden Eagle – a fully en suite private train that cost £12.8m to produce. That project followed in the wake of the company's restoration, in 2001, of a P36 – a 1950s-era steam locomotive – the largest in Europe – that was one of 251 of its type built during the Soviet era. Most of these were allocated to haul the Soviet Union's most prestigious trains; such as the Red Arrow that ran between Moscow and St Petersburg, often ferrying leading Communist Party bosses on official business. Golden Eagle's P36 locomotive began its career on that line, before being transferred to Pechora (north of the Arctic Circle) and then to the Trans-Siberian railway in the late 1960s. By the 1990s, however, it had fallen on distinctly hard times and was being used as a stationary boiler at a lumber plant near the Mongolian border – where it was discovered by Littler during his initial Trans-Siberian tour. For a railway enthusiast, this was too much of an opportunity to pass up and he promptly bought the locomotive. What happened next, however, was the stuff of film scripts. Before Littler could take possession of the engine and move it 4,350 miles to St Petersburg for restoration, it had been purloined by a group of Russian enthusiasts. 'They managed to drag the locomotive over 4,000 miles to the Ukraine,' Littler recalls. 'How you move 175 tonnes of scrap metal by rail without permission and smuggle it into another country without anyone noticing is a mystery – but at the time Russia was the "Wild East" and anything was possible. We assumed we'd lost it, but in 1999 the Ukrainian tax police confiscated the locomotive as property without owner and put it up for sale. So we bought it. Again.' After three months' intensive work, P31 returned to action in April 2001. In June the same year, the locomotive took the eastbound Trans-Siberian Express out of St Petersburg for the first 100km of its journey to Vladivostok. The venerable steam engine has also transported Golden Eagle passengers to cities as diverse as Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, Rostov-on-Don in the Caucasus, Novosibirsk in Siberia and Murmansk, north of the Arctic Circle. And, even in extremes of climate and on long stretches of track, it continues to perform the tasks for which it was designed more than 60 years ago and to give passengers a thrill they are unlikely to find anywhere else. This year also marks the hundredth anniversary of the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Measuring 9,288km it is the longest single-service railway in the world and crosses eight time zones as it passes across the Steppe and over the Ural Mountains. To mark the centenary, Golden Eagle is featuring additional journeys along the route. Adds Littler: 'The Trans-Siberian will always be our core project. It's one of those journeys that so many people will have read about and thought: "I want to do that one day." Our Silk Road trip is similar, but not quite to the same extent. We're also going to Tehran; which is very exciting because Iran has so much to offer, with such a varied culture and very friendly people.' So does Littler have a favourite, among the many destinations offered by his company? 'I really love the Silk Road trip,' he admits. 'I love them all, of course – they're all so different and provide so much to see. 'The Trans-Siberian is fascinating; it's the longest railway in the world and it goes through the most fantastic scenery. The Silk Road basically goes in the same direction, but the difference is you're following a route that dates back more than 2,500 years. Places such as Bukara, Khiva and Samarkand have been in existence for thousands of years and they're absolutely amazing in terms of architecture and history.'
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