WE TRAVEL FASTER and farther now, but if the

journey rather than the arrival was ever the point of it all, it has been lost. There is something about a space- suited figure walking on the moon that makes one wonder if precious human quiddity isn't being sacrificed for values that can be computed.

The Victorian lady travelers Dorothy Middleton writes about with such charm, admiration, and affection were taking no giant steps for mankind, or (with one possible exception) for womankind either. They were impelled by the desire to get away from it all--from households and women's role in them, even from husbands, if they had them--though most didn't. Yet they felt a deep responsibility toward "the high ideal of womanhood" and honored it by their dress (their horror of trousers was intense), their sexual modesty, their zeal for improving the lot of others. These "globe trottresses" might ride in oxcarts or palanquins in the wild, and wade through bogs up to their necks, but back in London they wouldn't have been caught dead riding on anything so unladylike as an omnibus.

Isabella Bird is the most engaging of them, and her spirited classic, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, has made her one of the best known. She suffered agonies from a bad back, insomnia, and nerves, but once she began traveling, in her forties, she was transformed. She exulted in hurricanes, galloped around Hawaii astride ("cavalier fashion"), and spent a thrilling night in a tent at the fiery brink of Mauna Loa. She rode alone through Colorado, where she fell in love with a fascinating one- eyed desperado named Mountain Jim--"Mr. Nugent," to her. At 50 she married a Dr. Bishop, who declared, "I have only one formidable rival in Isabella's affection, and that is the high tableland of Central Asia." He did not long survive. She lived among the hairy Ainu of northern Japan, she traveled extensively in China, witnessing the crucifixion of criminals and outfacing angry mobs, explored India, Turkey, Tibet, Russia. In Persia, doctoring the ailing poor, she rode a mule alone through a blinding mountain blizzard ("plain prose ceased to be," she wrote, describing it) which she survived but her mule did not. She died at 73, her trunks packed and ready. She was, as the author says, high-minded, very intelligent, humorous, gallant, and good without the least complacency. It is impossible to think of this overwhelming little woman in plain prose.

Marianne North traveled with a narrower purpose, to paint the earth's tropical flora. By the time she died at 60 she had done more than 800 pictures; they hang in a gallery at Kew. In search of flowers, she traveled through rivers of mud, jungles, and mountains, wearing a linsey petticoat, a woolen mackintosh, and a straw hat, carrying with her three marsupial mice acquired in Tasmania. Finally, deaf, exhausted, and afraid, she went to Africa to paint a last specimen. Her three-volume Recollections of a Happy Life is full of exquisite description and humor. "She painted as a clever child would," said her sister.

Fanny Bullock Workman, a rich American, spent years "awheel," bicycling in Europe and Africa with a dim husband, a tea kettle on the handlebars, a Kodak at the ready. But her destiny was in the Himalayas, where she "discovered," climbed, measured (with some exaggeration), and renamed peaks ("Mount Bullock Workman," 19,450 feet) that were already known to science. She had little interest in people, but kept her cool at all times, even dangling in a crevasse. Her photographs were grand, though none can be more memorable than one of her, a stout figure on a snowy peak, displaying a placard calling for "Votes for Women."

May French Sheldon, another American, traveled in Africa to study customs. She was B,eb,e Bwana (boss lady) to her bearers, who liked her, and carried her about in a palanquin. From her alpenstock fluttered a banner inscribed Noli me tangere; for meetings with chiefs she packed a court dress and a long blond wig. Her adventures nearly killed her, but she succeeded in proving that women make dauntless explorers.

A different sort was Annie Taylor, who miraculously survived brigands, blizzards, wolves, treacherous guides and hostile officials in Tibet, which she had gone to "claim for the Master." Her Christian mission was fruitless, but she spent the rest of her life hopefully living among the stupendous mountains in a cozy hut furnished with books, samovar, and potted primroses. Kate Marsden, a trained nurse, made it her mission to succor the lepers of Siberia. She sacrificed her health and almost her life on an immense journey of many thousands miles, swaddled in thick clothes, nourished by 40 pounds of plum pudding, in search of her patients in the remote Arctic. By sledge (the Trans-Siberian Railway was barely started), boat, and pony she crossed bogs, forests, and a hellish terrain where subterranean fires flickered through the crumbling earth, at length succeeding in what no Russian had troubled about, opening a fine hospital that remained in operation until leprosy ceased to exist in Siberia. She is honored in Russia, forgotten in England.

Mary Kingsley was the intellectual of them. She spent only two of her 38 years in travel, but out of them came a marvelous book West African Studies, crowded with what might be a lifetime of adventure, observation, and unorthodox opinion. Dressed in long skirt, high-necked blouse, and pillbox hat, she went to Africa to finish her anthropologist father's work, studying "fish and fetish." The blouses had unforeseen uses: she once gave 12 to a threatening warrior, and her thick skirt saved her when she fell into a trap armed with sharp stakes. Even the hat was useful for collecting dried human remains. An expert navigator, she sailed down a river with a quilt for a sail, taking soundings with her umbrella. She believed missionaries did more harm than good, disturbing a highly evolved social system, replacing it with a Christianity ill-understood and ill-exemplified. She died, aged 38, nursing Boer prisoners in 1900.

Forty years before these women started their drastic searches for self-affirmation, Thomas Cook, secretary of a temperance society, set out to organize outings by railway for its members. From healthful seaside visits (seawater was both bathed in and drunk mixed with milk), these evolved into self-improving trips to the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was not difficult for Cook to arrange low fares with the many competing railways in exchange for a guarantee of more passengers. He took up pawnbroking to aid tourists without ready cash, and was soon chartering transport for excursions and selling tickets for routes developed by him--forerunners of Cook's Tours and travel agents. By the 1860s he was sending "excursionists" to gaze at Mont Blanc and handling their foreign exchange transactions too. In 1873 he began issuing the first travelers' checks ("circular notes"), and 20 years later was encouraging ski holidays. His activities generated the Swiss hotel industry.

The "Cookites" penetrated Italy, where vacationing shopkeepers could rejoice in being called "milord" by cynically smiling natives, though the old British residents of Florence and Rome were less delighted to see their countrymen. Soon they were in the United States, visiting Civil War battlefields and the Great West in Pullman cars. Cook found American tourists demanding and crass, as did Mark Twain, who complained of their coarse talk and boisterous laughter "when all the others were quiet and well-behaved." The year 1872 saw the first round-the-world cruise, though only 11 passengers signed up. They found China dirty, Japan clean, the Indians drunk. Despite this, Cook was soon catering to Indian princes, who traveled with family, concubines, servants, pet tigers, sacred cows, elephants, and artillery.

Cook was never fazed. He arranged luxurious caravanseries for visitors to the hotel-scarce Holy Land, and was soon the largest employer in Egypt, sending various royalties and celebrities up the Nile in luxurious steamers. He was so much the master of the situation that in 1884 the British government called on him to arrange a military Cook's tour to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum. When the great ocean liners appeared in the 1880s, Cook was there, arranging "tours by sea" to the North Cape and the Balkans, and when the Orient Express began its run in 1883, followed by the Blue Train (largely used by the idle rich to travel from Paris and Rome to the Riviera), Cook got his well-heeled middle- class clientele aboard too. A week's tour from London to take in Carnival at Nice cost s4.1.6.

By the 1920s travel had become an industry, and in recent years Cook's traditional image has worked against it. Sun and sex have replaced health and culture as tourism's raison d'etre. Tourist and native are almost indistinguishable, as are the seaside high rises of Spain, Turkey, Mexico and Algeria.

Edward Swinglehurst, who was once a Cook's courier, writes a drily humorous and informative account of an extraordinary social phenomenon. The illustrations are many and marvelous, including reproductions of menus, a glossary of cablese, posters and a contract ticket for a family of 11 coming from Liverpool to New York in 1871. Cook's handled immigration, too.

The Blue Train is no more; the remodeled Orient Express a "fallen woman of a train"; everywhere steam is in retreat, to be found only on branch lines behind the Iron Curtain and in remote mountains. But the human scale still has its profound appeal, as the shock of pleasure aroused by Paul Theroux's celebration of railway travel shows. A year or two ago the BBC did a TV documentary, sending seven excellent writers off to odd parts of the world to discover the pleasures of traveling "at a pace and in a manner suited to the human conditions." Great Railway Journeys of the World is the book of the film.

Brian Thompson chose India, where rail travel has been a way of life since the beginning. He went from clamorous Bombay to Cochin across the great hot Deccan plain, where "the sun beats on the thin skin of grass like a stick beating a cowed and mangy dog." It is in such an environment that most of India lives.

Riding through it he is not insulated from it. A reserved compartment doesn't insure solitude, bedding must be ordered in advance, orders for meals telegraphed to the next station. His conversations with passengers and guards are courteous and surreal. At stations that are "a rich and complex anthology of travel," he watches untouchable girls laboring painfully by the rails, ignored like beasts; children washing buffalos, old women breaking stones. He stops at a palatial hotel in Mysore that cobras enter in stormy weather, succumbs to fever in Ootacamond, watches an exquisite dawn at Cochin. India is beautiful, elegant, simple, teasing, and enraging; traveling it by train has made possible "an awakened heart."

Michael Wood, taking Rhodes' route from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, started on South Africa's luxurious Blue Train. Of his society, an Afrikaner passenger confided, "It's like Hamlet--you know how it ends--the bodies pilinggup around him." He transfers to slow steam trains that survive because of abundant oil and cheap labor. The railway is the biggest employer in South Africa, but there are no black drivers. It's 130 degrees outside by day; at night the train "is a long corridor of dimmed light in the vast velvet dark of the bush." he arrives in Zimbabwe on the eve of independence, but Victoria Falls, where the journey ends, is off limits: land mines blow up men and gazelles every day, and all he sees of his destination is a white spume above the trees.

Michael Frayn crosses Australia, Ludovic Kennedy the United States, two elusively impersonal vastnesses, but Miles Kington in the Andes, riding the highest railway in the world, finds the landscapes and people that make rail travel a joy. He sits on a step outside the car in sunshine, wind-whipped, listening to "the mournful hoot flying past in tatters," and feels he's really moving --in zigzags up the mountains. Being 16,000 feet up doesn't bother him, though attendants offer oxygen to the faint. When the train breaks down, passengers find another, "the only truly Inca railway," a lifeline between high villages. "I was deep in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the most marvelous scenery imaginable, among people who were not even talking Spanish." After this, Macchu Pichu was a letdown.

Michael Palin, a one-time juvenile train spotter whose passion was for engines, with their heroic names, sets out from Euston Station for the Isle of Skye. With the quirkier eyes of maturity (he's a Monty Python writer), he observes the satisfaction in the cooperative human effort derived from driving a steam engine full throttle, how the windows of high-speed trains are just too high for a relaxed passenger to see out; how superbly satisfying to human wants and fancies are the old-fashioned railway hotels. Looking for typical Highland scenery, he sees only a small car with a bed on top running alongside and overtaking the train. The heart-lifting age of the Flying Scotsman is done.

Eric Robson's trip from Paris to Budapest turns circuitous in Switzerland, "a giant train set, really, where generations of fathers and sons have added more track and extra trains whenever it's taken their fancy." Changing trains, he samples the last rural steam railway, rides a milk train that has served a mountain community as school bus, ambulance, and hearse since 1872, stopping at every house. The 1-in-5 gradient makes for white knuckles and calls for a drink on arrival. Like India, this is a country where railways and those who work on them still have status. On the fast train east, "a seventy-mile-an-hour hotel," a recorded announcement says Innsbruck for the third time, but actually it's the station at Vienna, with its "little scenes from other people's lives, tears, and long-held embraces"--families that have made it to the West. Even in Hungary, steam is vanishing, the main lines all diesel now, the grand old engines out to pasture.

"Man is in love, and loves what vanishes," wrote Yeats, and these mash notes to the finest form of transport ever devised are funny, sad, and heart-warming.

The author of Luxury Trains, with its 52 pages of appendices obsessively stuffed with data about the legions of deluxe trains that once crisscrossed Europe and America, is an expert and exclamatory enthusiast, with much to be enthusiastic about. He recites the history of the long rivalry between Pullman, whose first sleeper was built in 1859, with its electric lights, central heat, and leaded-glass lavatory windows, and Wagon-Lits, with its conductors who spoke the language of every country the train passed through, its nine-course meals, its beds with ladders that pinched the fingers, and its huge supplementary fares (a valet's on the Orient Express was equal to his annual wages).

On the deluxe trains of Russia one spoke French, dressed for dinner, slept in silk sheets, and got news flashes from >The New York Times. The opulence of special royal trains gratified everyone involved, but a glance at the photographs of Queen Victoria's exuberant private car lined like a nest with tufted blue silk and gleaming bright mahogany, and then at Queen Elizabeth's dismally tasteful saloon in the style of ath high- class motel reminds one of general trends.

The author cheers up as he dwells on the delights of the Blue Train that made the Riviera fashionable, whose bar with Lalique glass decor was more elegant than that of the Paris Ritz. He speaks of the lifesize stone model of a Pullman car in the Cairo museum, of Ataturk's rolling marble bath, of the French president who fell out of his car one night. We read of the luxury trains of Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain fell, where from elegant interiors the traveler could gaze out at a wild, unpeopled landscape, and learn how after Ataturk took over in Turkey, moving the capital, the British ambassador took up residence in his special Wagon-Lits car rather than rough it in Ankara. The Blue Train of South Africa boasts of no color bar, but the fine print specifies only five nonwhite passengers out of 108.

Steam is in retreat, so is style (as the two queens amply demonstrate), formica replacing marquetry. But if train travel isn't what it used to be, it's still worth a journey. At worst, "You will arrive feeling happier than when you started."