By Tim Richards
This article is part of Traveller’s Holiday Guide to train journeys.See all stories.
I like trains. Doesn't everyone like trains? To me, being asked why I like them is like asking if you prefer the sky to be blue or whether you approve of the sun rising in the east. It's an easy question to answer.
This is how I see it: trains, that is long-distance trains, are in the landscape, but not of it. They often travel past amazing scenes but are separate from them, always smoothly passing along to the next set of sights.
Nothing is more delightful than to be aboard a sleeper train and to awake at dawn and gaze upon a radically different vista than the one that left you at dusk the night before.
Then there is ease of travel. In a car, you have autonomy but you're cramped and captive to traffic congestion; in a bus, or coach, it's the same, sans the autonomy. To fly, you have to put up with queuing and security hassles, and now pre and post medical tests, and the majority of us have to sit in sardine-can seats.
By comparison, most trains have decent leg room and provide a smoother ride than road vehicles. They often have cafes or dining cars. Sometimes – blessed times – you can snooze in your own sleeper berth.
And in the bigger picture, trains are far more environmentally friendly than planes or cars, especially when powered by renewable energy; giving us another tool as part of the world's efforts to address climate change.
In my view, any train journey is an adventure in itself – an almost mesmerising passage that never lacks for a view, thanks to those seemingly endless steel rails.
Here's my choice of just two dozen of the world's ultimate train journeys. There are so many from which to choose these days we've divided them into categories to suit every taste and interest.
THE EPIC JOURNEYS
Crossing Australia from west to east, the Indian Pacific (journeybeyondrail.com.au) is arguably the most memorable transcontinental train: for its diversity of landscapes, its rich rail history, and the sheer length of its journey from Perth to Sydney over four days and 4352 kilometres. On each crossing the weather is different, the menu has evolved, and even the scenery subtly changes; though rarely so with the Nullarbor Plain, which never loses its ability to astound with its sheer emptiness.
For an even longer rail trek, catch a train along Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway (eng.rzd.ru). This unforgettable rail journey crosses the world's biggest country, past seemingly endless forests enlivened by lakes and the distinctive architecture of Siberian cities. There's also good humour and camaraderie aboard the train, as you meet locals and other tourists. Part of its appeal is as a workaday conveyance for Russians, often taking them between home, study or work somewhere in the vast region between Moscow and Vladivostok.
Plying the most picturesque route of the US long-distance trains, the Coast Starlight (amtrak.com) heads from Los Angeles to Seattle via Oakland (for San Francisco) and Portland. From LA, the train often travels close to the Pacific Ocean, delivering superb views. Turning inland through Oregon, a backdrop of mountains, forests and beautiful waterways reveals itself. The onboard dining and sleeper accommodation is affordable, creating a long-distance rail trip that's both spectacular and accessible.
THE SCENIC WONDERS
The Reunification Railway (dsvn.vn) immerses the traveller in Vietnam's history and natural beauty. As it trundles southbound from Hanoi to Saigon, trains on this line pass historic cities with grand pagodas and temples, as well as striking scenery including beaches, and peaks covered with tropical vegetation. At each end are major cities which tell the story of Vietnam old and new – from ancient times through the French colonial period and the Vietnam War, to the modern era.
Across the Tasman Sea, the Coastal Pacific (greatjourneysofnz.co.nz) runs down the east coast of New Zealand's South Island and offers views of the Pacific Ocean and spectacular snow-capped mountains. From Picton, the first passes through vineyard country around Blenheim. Then the landscape becomes emptier and starker with rocky beaches alongside the rails before you pass the rugged Seaward Kaikoura Range. The train is perfect for sightseeing with an open-sided observation carriage.
Mexico's only remaining long-distance passenger train, the El Chepe Express (visitcoppercanyon.com), heads from coastal Los Mochis to inland Creel, passing through the Copper Canyon region. The line heads through rugged countryside, via 37 bridges and 86 tunnels, to a height of some 2400 metres, affording great views of mountains and ravines. With the opportunity to stay overnight at key stops, this ride allows access to one of Mexico's most dramatic landscapes – and to its Indigenous people and their culture.
FOR THE SPEED FREAKS
Leading the way into the future, Japan's rail engineers have crafted a type of train that seems borrowed from science fiction. From the outside, a shinkansen (japanrailpass.net) train is a long sleek unit with a tapered nose aiding velocity, up to 320 km/h. Inside, it's a calm ride as it zooms past cities, fields and mountains. You haven't fully experienced the Japanese way of life until you've taken a shinkansen train. Before boarding, buy an ekiben (boxed meal) from the station and sit back and prepare for an exquisitely on-time departure.
China has taken to high-velocity railways in an even bigger way than Japan. One of its newest services is the High Speed Train (mtr.com.hk) which connects Hong Kong with Beijing, departing from the shiny new West Kowloon station. The sleek, streamlined train crosses China at speeds of up to 350 km/h per hour, with a journey time of just nine hours along 2500 kilometres of track. It's a zippy daytime journey past urban sprawl, farmland, rivers, low misty hills and scenic valleys.
While Japan remains the poster child for high-speed trains in Asia, France is the superfast train star in Europe. Since the successful launch of its first Train à Grande Vitesse service between Paris and Lyon in 1981, the TGV (sncf.com) network has expanded across France and to nearby countries, including Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. TGV trains normally run up to 320 km/h, though a modified TGV holds the record for the fastest recorded speed on conventional rails, having reached 574.8 km/h in 2007.
SLOWLY DOES IT
There’s nothing quite like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (indianrailways.gov.in), which is also known as “Darjeeling Toy Train”, with its trademark bright blue carriages. Its steam locomotives pull tourist services to India’s highest station at Ghum, 2258 metres above sea level. With the whistle blowing, and the billowing smoke and steam, this narrow-gauge train affords plenty of visual and aural fun. When you add in the beautiful mountain scenery, you have an unforgettable journey about as high from sea level as it gets on rails.
Another slow rail pleasure is the Colombo to Ella train (railway.gov.lk) in Sri Lanka. This nine-hour journey starts from the colonial-era Colombo Fort station, then the train leaves the city to rattle past temples and jungle. Mountains appear, and in due course you’re surrounded by tea plantations on the slopes to each side, possibly obscured by mist. Waterfalls and distant valleys complete the impressive views on the final stretch to Ella.
Across the Pacific, Canada’s lesser-known Jasper to Prince Rupert train (viarail.com) runs from the Rocky Mountains north-west to Prince Rupert on the nation’s western coastline. Though it’s a regular passenger service, the landscapes it traverses are splendid – including spectacular mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers. Scattered between are towns, farms and remote First Nations communities. The two-day trip pauses overnight at an intermediate city, so there’s not a moment of scenic viewing lost to darkness.
The Venice Simplon-Orient Express (belmond.com) is undoubtedly the world’s most famous train, due partly to Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express. Its appeal lies in its restored, nostalgic 1920s carriages evoking the Art Deco era, its old world sophisticated “dress-up for dinner” ambience and the sublime landscapes through which the train passes on its journey from France to Italy.
Further east, the opulent Golden Eagle Danube Express (goldeneagleluxurytrains.com) explores the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe: for example, the Balkans region is the setting for the flagship Castles of Transylvania rail cruise, which runs from Istanbul to Budapest. The train is also a luxurious hotel on wheels with sleeper compartments resembling hotel suites complemented by a bar car (with pianist) and acclaimed fine dining.
Inspired by the Orient Express, the luxurious El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo (renfe.com) travels on a narrow-gauge railway between San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. High-end excursions include such highlights as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the Gaudi-designed villa El Capricho in Comillas. There’s an emphasis on fine food, as passengers dine on regional specialities. The train hauls restored 1923 sleeper carriages, in which each suite has an ensuite bathroom; some also contain a private lounge.
TO DINE FOR
There’s little about the Glacier Express (glacierexpress.ch) that isn’t extraordinary, including its onboard dining. Connecting Switzerland’s resort towns of St Moritz and Zermatt, the Glacier Express heads through the Alps, passing mountains, gorges, rivers, snowfields and villages. To complement the stunning vistas, hot dishes are served at your seat – and those not short of a Swiss franc can indulge in the extra luxury of the train’s “Excellence Class” in which a superb seven-course meal is served.
On the other side of the world, the marvellous Eastern & Oriental Express (belmond.com) progresses from Bangkok down the Malay Peninsula, terminating at Singapore. Operating a three-night rail cruise with off-train excursions, this train is decked out with the finest quality fittings; including a piano in the bar car, and an open-sided observation car. Passengers dress for dinner, with meals a highlight of the journey, drawing on both Asian and European traditions.
Back home, The Ghan (journeybeyondrail.com.au) with its unmistakably Australian identity, is nowadays a world class upmarket rail cruise similar to the Indian Pacific, with a fare inclusive of meals, drinks and off-train tours. Between Adelaide and Darwin passengers can enjoy such treats as camel rides, and a cruise through Nitmiluk Gorge. The onboard food is the equal of the scenery, with meals drawing on ingredients from the regions the train traverses; such as grilled kangaroo loin, saltwater barramundi, and crocodile tail fillet.
OFF THE BEATEN TRAIN TRACKS
Linking Alaska and Canada’s Yukon territory, the memorable White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (wpyr.com) follows a walking trail established during the 19th century Klondike gold rush. Its tourist trains take advantage of the difficult terrain that tested its builders, taking in mountains, waterways, rocky slopes and historic settlements as they cross from the US into Canada.
Running from Serbia to Montenegro, the appeal of the lesser-known Belgrade to Bar train srbijavoz.rs lies in its history and the scenery it traverses. A pet project of Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito, the construction of the railway between his capital city and the Adriatic coast required hundreds of tunnels and bridges. As a result, there are wonderful views of mountains and sea along the way. The second train each day is a sleeper, so you can choose to slumber through the darkness and wake to Montenegro’s striking slopes.
Far to the north, the Narvik to Kiruna train (vy.no) runs above the Arctic Circle, along a railway which opened in 1902 to carry iron ore between Swedish mines and Norway’s North Sea port. Though Kiruna is still a mining town, it also hosts various tourist experiences, such as dog-sledding and skiing, and is an excellent place to experience the Midnight Sun and the Aurora Borealis.
AND SO TO SLEEP
This Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot), forges north from London, splitting up to five separate termini scattered across Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen. There’s nothing like rolling up at London’s Euston station in the evening, boarding the train with its shiny new carriages, enjoying Scottish food and whiskey in the dining car, and heading back to your compartment to sleep – before waking up with Scotland’s distinctive landscapes outside the window.
South America’s only luxury sleeper train, the Andean Explorer (belmond.com), travels from Arequipa to Cusco. On the way, this lavishly appointed conveyance takes in urban attractions and scenic beauty, including an excursion to Lake Titicaca. Its dining and bar cars boast fine dining and excellent wines, and there are only 35 sleeper compartments on board. They come in three types, ascending in extravagance and space: the poshest is the Suite Cabin, with a double bed and seating area.
Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa (rovos.com) links Cape Town to Pretoria, via the emptiness of South Africa’s Great Karoo plateau. Its restored carriages include an elegant dining car, two bars and three classes of suite: the entry-level Pullman, the Deluxe, and the Royal. Each is a delightful confection of wood panelling and tasteful carpeting, with plenty of useful storage space and comfortable seating. They all have air-conditioning and an ensuite bathroom. The Royal even has a bath.
This cover story is an edited extract from Ultimate Train Journeys: World by Tim Richards (Hardie Grant Explore, RRP $39.99). It is available from October 27. 2021 in stores nationally. See hardiegrant.com/au
TRAIN YOURSELF: TOP TIPS A PERFECT JOURNEY
For the cheapest fares, book directly with each train’s operators. Alternatively, booking sites such as thetrainline.com save time, as do specialist agencies such as Rail Europe. See raileurope.com/en
First or business-class train travel can be worth the additional expense with seats being wider than standard/second class with more leg room and possibly food and drink included in the fare. For overnight journeys, sleeper trains save on the cost of a hotel room.
If this is the journey of a lifetime then what the hell – pay for first class and all the trimmings. If you only care about the scenery, or getting from A to B, a second class seat may be sufficient and you may meet more “real” people than in the upper classes.
With the exception of Japan’s Shinkansen trains, never assume long-distance trains will arrive on time. Take your cue from the slower pace of train travel and enjoy at least a night in your destination before catching connecting flights.
Aside from luxury trains, never expect onboard catering. Buy some provisions. And heed well my first law of train travel: never drink coffee bought at a railway station (it’s always terrible). Make time to visit a great local cafe and rub shoulders with the locals before heading for your train.
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