Great Railway Journeys

Great Railway Journeys, originally titled Great Railway Journeys of the World, is a recurring series of travel documentaries produced by BBC Television. The premise of each programme is that the presenter, typically a well-known figure from the arts or media, would make a journey by train, usually through a country or to a destination to which they had a personal connection. The first series, which used the longer title, was broadcast on BBC2 in 1980. After a 14-year hiatus, a further three series were broadcast between 1994 and 1999, using the shorter series title. Similar series were broadcast in 1983, Great Little Railways, and 2010, Great British Railway Journeys.

Great Railway Journeys
Title screen for most episodes from Series 2 onward.
Country of originUnited Kingdom
No. of episodes27
Running time50 or 60 min
Original networkBBC Two
Original release1980 
Followed byGreat British Railway Journeys

The first series is notable in that it featured the first television travelogue by comedian and comic actor Michael Palin (Confessions of a Trainspotter), who would go on to become as well known for his travel series (such as Pole to Pole and Sahara) as for his comedy.

English musician and sound artist Chris Watson worked as an audio recorder for the fourth episode "Los Mochis to Veracruz" of the fourth season. Having spent between five weeks to a month on the train, Watson used field recordings of the journey for his 2011 album El Tren Fantasma.[1][2][3]


Series 1: Great Railway Journeys of the World (1980)

Episode summary for Series 1:[4]

Episode No.Episode TitleUK Broadcast DatePresenterDetails of JourneyCountries Visited
#1.0Introduction (extracts from forthcoming episodes in the series)1980-10-23---
#1.1"Coast to Coast"1980-10-30Ludovic KennedyNew York City to Los AngelesUSA
#1.2"The Long Straight"1980-11-06Michael FraynSydney to PerthAustralia
#1.3"Deccan"1980-11-13Brian B. ThompsonBombay to CochinIndia
#1.4"Confessions of a Trainspotter"1980-11-27Michael PalinLondon to the Kyle of LochalshEngland, Scotland
#1.5"Zambezi Express"1980-12-04Michael WoodCape Town to Victoria FallsSouth Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia
#1.6"Three Miles High"1980-12-11Miles KingtonLima to La PazPeru, Bolivia
#1.7"Changing Trains"1980-12-18Eric RobsonParis to BudapestFrance, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary

Series 2: Great Railway Journeys (1994)

Episode summary for Series 2:[5]

Episode No.Episode TitleUK Broadcast DatePresenterCountries Visited
#2.1"Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar"1994-01-13Clive AndersonHong Kong, China, Mongolia
#2.2"Cape Town to The Lost City"1994-01-20Rian MalanSouth Africa
#2.3"St. Petersburg to Tashkent"1994-01-27Natalia MakarovaRussia, Uzbekistan
#2.4"Derry to Kerry"1994-02-03Michael PalinNorthern Ireland, Republic of Ireland
#2.5"Santos to Santa Cruz"1994-02-10Lisa St Aubin de TeránBrazil, Bolivia
#2.6"Karachi to The Khyber Pass"1994-02-17Mark TullyPakistan

Series 3: Great Railway Journeys (1996)

Episode summary for Series 3:[5]

Episode No.Episode TitleUK Broadcast DatePresenterCountries Visited
#3.1"Crewe to Crewe"1996-09-04Victoria WoodUnited Kingdom
#3.2"Aleppo to Aqaba"1996-09-11Alexei SayleSyria, Jordan
#3.3"Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde"1996-09-18Henry Louis Gates Jr.Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania
#3.4"The High Andes to Patagonia"1996-09-25Buck HenryArgentina
#3.5"Mombasa to the Mountains of the Moon"1996-10-02Benedict AllenKenya, Uganda
#3.6"London to Arcadia"1996-10-09Ben OkriEngland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece
#3.7"Halifax to Porteau Cove"1996-10-16Chris BoningtonCanada

Series 4: Great Railway Journeys (1999)

Episode summary for Series 4:[5]

Episode No.Episode TitleUK Broadcast DatePresenterDetails of JourneyCountries Visited
#4.1"India East to West"1999-01-05Ian HislopCalcutta to RajasthanIndia
#4.2"Granada to Salamanca"1999-01-12Michael PortilloSee episode titleSpain
#4.3"Tokyo to Kagoshima"1999-01-19Fergal KeaneSee episode titleJapan
#4.4"Los Mochis to Veracruz"1999-01-26Rick SteinSee episode titleMexico
#4.5"Guantanamo to Pinar del Rio"1999-02-02Nick HancockSee episode titleCuba
#4.6"St Louis to Dogon Country"1999-02-09Danny GloverSee episode titleSenegal, Mali
#4.7"Singapore to Bangkok"1999-04-06Stephen TompkinsonSee episode titleSingapore, Malaysia, Thailand

Great Little Railways

In 1983 the BBC made a further series on rail travel entitled Great Little Railways, this time exclusively featuring narrow gauge railways.[6] This series relied on narrators rather than presenters who appeared on camera. In some cases, the narrator did not partake in the train journey, and simply recited the writing of that episode's producer.

Episode No.Episode TitleUK Broadcast DateNarratorWriterDetails of JourneyCountries Visited
1"The Gold Rush Line"1983-02-15Simon HoggartSimon HoggartWhite Pass and Yukon RouteAlaska, USA and Yukon, Canada
2"The Other Poland"1983-02-22Brian BlessedLyn WebsterNasielsk to Pułtusk & Komańcza to CisnaPoland
3"Slow Train to Olympia"1983-03-01Michael WoodMichael WoodAthens to OlympiaGreece
4"The Dragons of Sugar Island"1983-03-08Colin GarrattColin GarrattNegros IslandPhilippines
5"Line of Dreams"1983-03-15John ShrapnelGerry TroynaJodhpur and Jaipur [7]India
6"Journey to the Land Beyond the Mountains"1983-03-22Ray GoslingRay GoslingDouro Valley (including the Corgo line)Portugal
7"The Good and The Quick"1983-03-29Stanley ReynoldsStanley ReynoldsGuayaquil to QuitoEcuador

Great British Railway Journeys

In January 2010 BBC Two broadcast Great British Railway Journeys, a documentary with similar basic idea to Great Railway Journeys but with a different format.

Journeys are mainly focused on Great Britain, and is presented by the ex-politician and broadcaster Michael Portillo. The first series detailed four railway journeys following an 1840 Bradshaw's guide, split into a run of 20 separate episodes. The first series proved a success and a second series followed a year later in January 2011.[8] A third series followed in January 2012, including five episodes on railways in Ireland.

A fourth series aired in January 2013, also with 25 episodes, with the last five episodes focused again on railways in Ireland. A fifth series following in January 2014 with 20 episodes, making a total airing of 115 episodes across the five series.

Great Continental Railway Journeys

From 2012 BBC Two has also broadcast series of Great Continental Railway Journeys, a documentary with the same idea as Great British Railway Journeys, also presented by Portillo. It detailed railway journeys in mainland Europe, following a 1913 Bradshaw's guide to European rail travel.

Video and Books

Although there have been no complete series of Great Railway Journeys released on DVD, Michael Palin's 1980 and 1994 programmes are available individually (BBCDVD1626) and as part of a box set of his collected travel documentaries, The Michael Palin Collection (BBCDVD2214). All seven of the 1980 Series 1 programs, including Palin's Confessions of a Train Spotter, were released in 1986 in cooperation with the BBC on VHS tapes by Pentrex, a California railroad video company. They are now long out-of-print, but occasionally are offered from online sellers. The six episodes of 1994's Series 2 were also released on VHS. Often available in a six-pack of programs, though also out-of-print, they are commonly found for purchase online.

Books have been published to accompany the first three series, with a chapter by each of the presenters on their particular journey:

  • Frayn, M. et al. (1981), Great Railway Journeys of the World, BBC Books, hardcover, ISBN 0-563-17903-1
  • Anderson, C. et al. (1994), Great Railway Journeys, BBC Books, hardcover, ISBN 0-563-36944-2
  • Allen, B. et al. (1996), More Great Railway Journeys, BBC Books, hardcover, ISBN 0-563-38717-3

A similar book was also published on Great Little Railways:

  • Chamberlin, E.R. et al. (1984) Great Little Railways, BBC Books, hardcover, ISBN 0-563-20211-4


  1. Currin, Grayson; Masters, Marc (21 October 2011). "Turning the World Into Art". Pitchfork. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  2. Pescovitz, David (4 November 2011). "El Tren Fantasma: ambient recording of a ghostly train journey". Boing Boing. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  3. Turner, Luke (2 December 2011). "Chris Watson". The Quietus. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  4. Great Railway Journeys of the World at BFI Film & TV database
  5. Great Railway Journeys at BFI Film & TV Database
  8. "Michael Portillo films Great Railway Journeys". North Yorkshire Moors Railway. 10 June 2010. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
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