Howard Trinder was bitten by the railway bug when he stood as a child in a Paris station and read down a departure board offering direct sleeper trains to Venice, Istanbul and Berlin. Throughout his subsequent 30-year career in British Rail, he retained his dream of reviving a golden era of rail travel, with its hand-built carriages and glamorous evenings in a restaurant car trundling across Europe.
Later this week, the improbable vision of this self-confessed "rail nut" son of a Durham ticket inspector will become reality, when the gleaming 12-carriage Danube Express, built at a cost of more than £5m from rolling stock that once belonged to the Hungarian postal service, pulls out of Budapest on its first journey to Warsaw.
The trip will herald the arrival of the first luxury train service in continental Europe since 1981, when the Venice-Simplon Orient Express – the modern successor to the 1930s express which epitomised high-end rail travel – was revived. The Danube Express will be the only opulent sleeper service operating between such evocative destinations as Berlin, Istanbul and Prague.
Mr Trinder, 56, a bluff Yorkshireman, has sunk into his venture much of the fortune he made two years ago, when he sold the rail travel company he set up after leaving British Rail shortly before its privatisation. He spent 20 months painstakingly overseeing the construction of the customised "deluxe" sleeping cars to ensure they meet his specification of an en suite bathroom in each berth and a restaurant car that comes complete with a hired pianist.
"As a child," he said, "my family would always travel by train on holiday to the Alps or the Mediterranean because my father would get concessionary fares all the way across Europe. I remember standing on a platform in Paris when I was eight or nine and seeing the trains lined up for various destinations that seemed so far away and exotic.
"Then as a young man when I was working for BR we still had the same concession so I travelled everywhere in Europe by train and I've always wanted to return to that era when rail travel was both romantic and exciting. Fortunately, things have turned out in such way that I've been able to make my nostalgia and my lifelong dream a reality."
In the mid-1980s, Mr Trinder and his fellow BR colleague Ian Macbeth began Mac Tours, a small holiday rail company that, at the time, only specialised in tailor-made train holidays for British Rail employees who were privy to a whole range of discounts on rail travel across Europe. Eventually Mac Tours began offering European train excursions to the wider public and demand soared. In 1994 they created a new company, Great Rail Tours, which became the market leader in luxury travel by train. The year before Mr Trinder sold his company for an undisclosed sum it carried more than 20,000 passengers and turnover was close to £40m. The company's original founders have always refused to say how much they sold Great Rail Tours for but Mr Trinder freely admits it was "the equivalent of a National Lottery win".
Which bodes well. Launching a luxury train service – where a three-day journey from Budapest through the Balkans to Istanbul costs from £990 per person – at the height of the credit crunch, and on the eve of a likely recession in its core UK market, might not seem the most auspicious timing for the realisation of an Englishman's continental rail dream.
The new company aims to take 50 per cent of its bookings from British customers with the remainder coming from North America and elsewhere in Europe. But while other tour operators struggle to maintain booking levels for their five-star offerings, the high-end rail travel sector is booming. It is estimated that each year about 25,000 Britons use luxury rail services, from the legendary South African Blue Train to the Royal Scotsman that plies the Highlands, in a UK market worth an annual £20m.
Demand is such that several new so-called "touring" trains are being launched over the next 12 months, including a Belgian-built sleeper train that will operate in Switzerland and two new ultra-luxurious "Palace on Wheels" trains to cater for monied passengers in India, where three such services already exist. The jewel in this emerging global railway crown will be the three Tangula trains, costing a total of £48m, which will launch next year in China. The total number of high-end sleeper services around the world now exceeds 20.
Simon Pielow, the managing director of Train Chartering Company, an upmarket rail consultancy, said: "Luxury train travel is benefiting from the general phenomenal growth in rail travel, which is helping it to buck the trend. There are several reasons for this but one of the key ones is that it is rightly seen as being greener than jumping on a plane. For those with a bit of money to spare, it allows them to feel they are travelling responsibly while at the same time providing a great dinner party one-liner."
Mr Trinder is hoping that the navy blue and cream livery of the Danube Express will feature prominently in the holiday anecdotes of the well-heeled. In its first year of operation, his train, which has a full complement of 85 passengers, will navigate through 19 central European cities between Germany and Turkey. He will no doubt benefit from the practical experience of his co-director Peter Hedderly, another train buff. Hedderly successfully introduced a luxury train service to the Trans-Siberian railway line, which had usually only been popular with impoverished backpackers willing to endure the Soviet-era décor so long as the tickets were cheap.
In contrast, the interior of the Danube Express is all about luxury. Each of the "deluxe" and "classic" sleeping cars has just five compartments, featuring the amenities of a modern hotel suite. For small groups of especially well-heeled clients, an even more luxurious "presidential car" can be attached.
The process of building the Danube Express, which will be jointly run with Hungarian National Railways, involved the complete restructuring of the 1950s postal carriages with a new outer skin and the installation of retro-style sleeping compartments designed personally by Mr Trinder, at a cost of about £500,000 per car.
He said: "It's all been done at the cost of some blood, sweat and tears but I'm completely delighted with the result. I truly believe there is no better way of travelling than letting the world slip past your window on board a train."
The great railway journeys
*The Orient Express
The modern-day successor to the great express that took 20th-century aristocrats and film stars from Paris to Istanbul in an opulent atmosphere now runs from London to Venice over two days in original sleeping, restaurant and bar carriages from the Twenties and Thirties. Passengers cross to France in a coach via the Channel Tunnel.
*The Blue Train
Billed as the ultimate in rail travel, the South African train comes with gold taps, a bath and a GPS map monitor in each cabin to show its precise location. It also has an onboard boutique selling black and yellow diamonds for passengers who become bored on the journey between Cape Town and Pretoria.
China's new state-of-the-art touring train, operated by a European hotel chain, will feature flat-screen televisions and internet access from each compartment along with specially enlarged windows. It will travel from Beijing to Tibet.
*The Golden Chariot
One of India's new host of luxury trains running on the subcontinent's sprawling network, it boasts cabins with hand-carved wooden panels and hand-woven silk sheets. The service runs from Bangalore to Goa over seven nights.
*The Grand Trans Siberian Express
At 5,800 miles, the journey of the Trans-Siberian is the longest available to train fanatics. The journey from Moscow to Beijing is completed over two weeks in air-conditioned cabins.