Chris Tarrant is famous for making and breaking dreams on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but since he retired as quizmaster, he’s been indulging his own daydreams.
“Now I’m at that stage in my life where I’m not working anything like as hard as I used to,” he tells Radio Times. “I’ve really slowed down because I’ve got to a point where I don’t need to and I’m just enjoying my life.”
His idea of taking it easy often looks like hard work, though. In Extreme Railway Journeys, Tarrant explores far flung tracks, which are sometimes extreme in the sense of being extremely slow and uncomfortable.
The latest series sees him chugging from Bangkok to Mandalay on the infamous Death Railway, traversing the Andes, braving Arctic Siberia, crossing Cuba, speeding through Japan on a bullet train and luxuriating on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Below, he reveals which trains he’d happily board again – and which should come with a health warning.
Best for luxury: Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer
“The Canadian Pacific Railway goes right across the Rocky Mountains, which is one of the most beautiful railway rides of your life.
“We went right across Canada – from Toronto, through Winnipeg, and all the way to the port of Vancouver. The trains are double-deckers so you get this wonderful vista: a thousand lakes, snow everywhere, the Rockies. We went in the spring, which is an absolutely stunning time to go.”
What Tarrant wouldn’t recommend is hitching a lift in one of the helicopters that regularly fly into the Rockies and drop dynamite to prevent avalanches – as he did.
“Avalanches have killed hundreds and hundreds of people over the years in Canada because they come down the mountain and wipe out the whole railway line,” he explains. “Then when a train comes round the corner it completely derails, or else the avalanches actually hit the trains. So experienced crews go up in helicopters and literally bomb the snow to stop it building up, so it becomes a small snowball rather than a big rolling avalanche.
“It’s probably the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. A big blizzard swallowed us so the pilot couldn’t see what he was doing and we’d got a helicopter full of dynamite.”
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Best for speed: Japan’s Shinkansen
In episode five, Tarrant catches one of Japan’s famous bullet trains – and decided that they deserve their nickname.
“We covered something like 80,000 miles in this series and the Japanese trains stand out head and shoulders above everybody else in terms of efficiency,” he says. “No train was ever a minute late, not one.
“We had a speedometer and one of their trains was doing 208 miles an hour, and we were just sitting there: cup of coffee on the table, nothing shaking, talking to each other at the same level you and I are now. The only thing you notice is the countryside racing by.
“I don’t usually get very excited about the trains. I love railways – the way they serve people, the way they open up huge areas of Planet Earth, the extraordinary people you meet along the way. But I have to say, the bullet trains were just beautiful.
“If you stand on a platform when they go through without stopping, you get that thing you get with jets: the noise comes through after the train has disappeared. It’s just fantastic.”
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Best for soaking up the scenery – but beware cabin fever: Russia’s Arctic railway
“We set off from Moscow and went 2000 miles north into Russia’s Arctic Circle, to the most northerly railway station on Earth. The journey took 11 days and nights but on the map we’d only covered a fraction of Siberia – it’s as big as Canada, the USA and Western Europe all put together
“We had all sorts of things like survival tents and food supplies in case it all went wrong. Nothing did but it was very, very slow because the tracks were constantly iced up and the train driver is trying not to come off them. You would not want to be derailed in the middle of Siberia, God no!”
“Siberia is stunning but after two or three nights, it gets kind of relentless. You can’t get off because it’s at least minus 20 and drops to minus 60 overnight. And you can only go on for so long looking out the window and going: there’s the snow, there’s the snow, there’s a reindeer, there’s the snow. There are no trees, nothing.
“Then after hundreds and hundreds of miles of nothing, you suddenly come to a town called Bovanenkov that is heaving with people and Mercedes. The gas fields around it produce enough gas to heat the whole of Western Europe for 75 years so there is amazing wealth.
“On the train we talked to some guys who work up there on the mines, and I’m going: ‘Minus 60, middle of nowhere… sounds pretty horrific?” And they kept going: ‘Good job! Good job!’
“They get paid a lot of money by Russian standards so compared to an awful lot of people’s existences, it’s a good little number. There are clearly some gentlemen with huge amounts of money up there running the whole thing.”
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Extreme Railways begins on Thursday 1st October, at 9pm on Channel 5