|Photo by Freeimages.com/Rajesh panchal|
by Michael Williams, The Daily Telegraph, April 29, 2016
'I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” said the travel writer Paul Theroux famously, and it seems that more of us than ever concur with him. Trains are the most agreeable, comfortable and relaxing of any form of long distance travel. Whether you are seeking spectacular scenery, luxurious carriages, heritage steam trains or epic long-distance journeys, perhaps aboard a sleeper, there is no better perspective on the world than from a railway carriage.
New high-speed lines continue to open across the world – almost always preferable to air travel for a comparable journey. Even Japan’s original bullet train network is still being extended – last month (March) a new line opened linking Tokyo and the island of Hokkaido. And who would not choose the civilised gateway of London’s St Pancras over the hell that is often Heathrow to travel into Europe. But it is the slow trains that are at the heart of the most delightful rail travel. Travel on such trains is about deceleration rather than speed. The journey becomes a time to relax rather than a stressful interlude between home and destination.
Think of a first-class seat in the observation car on a Swiss train as it rolls gently through fairytale Alpine scenery. Or viewing the vastness of the Australian desert from your berth on The Ghan, one of the world’s great long-distance sleepers. Or a sumptuous silver-service meal aboard South Africa’s Blue Train. Or even a public service on a scenic country railway, perhaps in the West Highlands of Scotland, where stopping at tiny wayside stations is part of the charm. As the essayist A. P. Herbert once said: “Slow travel by train is almost the only restful experience left to us.”
Make your own choice, but here is my personal selection of the 25 greatest train journeys in the world.
Scenic splendour 1. Bernina Express
Mile for mile, the most scenic journey in the world, running from Chur and St Moritz in eastern Switzerland across the border to Tirano in northern Italy. The four-hour, 90-mile journey through 55 tunnels and 196 bridges traverses a sensational alpine landscape, past lofty waterfalls, glaciers and crossing dramatic ravines. Every carriage on the narrow gauge train has vista windows so nobody gets a crick in the neck. The climb over the Bernina pass at 7,000ft is often in a raging snowstorm, while you can bask at a café table on arrival in warm Italian sunshine.
"Mile for mile, the most scenic journey in the world"Credit: AP/FOTOLIA
- From £45; seven-night escorted group tour from £1,245; greatrail.com
- Read more: How best to travel by train in Switzerland
2. The Train to the Clouds
A must for altitude-seekers, the Tren a las Nubes along part of the old line from Salta in Argentina to the Chilean border, climbs to 13,800ft during its seven-hour journey through dramatic Andean scenery – the highest train journey in the world not using a rack and pinion system. The backdrop of multicoloured rock formations interspersed with giant cactus fields extends as far as the eye can see as the powerful diesel on the front weaves ever upwards. (Don’t worry, there is oxygen on board.)
- Return trip costs around £120; trenalasnubes.com.ar
- Read more: Michelle Jana Chan rides the Train to the Clouds
3. Fort William to Mallaig
Lucky this “Road to the Isles” service was saved from Dr Beeching’s axe in the Sixties and has lived on to become one of Britain’s best-loved scenic railways. The 42-mile journey, through mountain and glen, takes in an impressive panorama from Britain’s highest mountain to Europe’s deepest seawater loch. But many come to gawp at the pioneering 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, more famous these days as a location for the Harry Potter films. Arrive by steam aboard the daily Jacobite train – the only steam timetabled service on the national network.
Harry Potter fans might recognise this stretch of the railway
4. Oslo to Bergen
For that “top of the world” feeling there is no main line to beat the 310-mile Oslo to Bergen railway. It is the highest major rail route in northern Europe as well as the most spectacular, passing through desolate mountain terrain at 4,000ft, and running for nearly 60 miles above the tree line. Even in summer there is snow, but don’t let this deter you from stopping off at Myrdal to change onto the Flam Railway, Europe’s steepest line on conventional tracks, dropping 2,831 feet down to the fjord below.
- From £80; nsb.no or book from UK via ffestiniogtravel.com
- Read more: Jolyon Attwooll rides to Oslo to Bergen
5. Koblenz to Mainz – the Rhine Valley
Europe’s prettiest main line hugs the bank of the River Rhine for some 60 miles as it wends along the valley to Mainz, with its half-timbered houses, steep, vineyard-covered hills and fairy-tale castles. This is the ultimate scenic railway, with few tunnels and nothing but a road between the train and the river. Get a seat on the left side on the slowest stopper and sit back and enjoy.
The Rhine Valley is the star attraction for those aboard the Koblenz-MainzCredit: AP/FOTOLIA
Luxury journeys6. Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Grande dame of luxury trains, simply the most glamorous, luxurious and thrilling service on the planet. Other superlatives abound. Here in magnificent Twenties art-deco carriages is world-class service, the finest haute cuisine freshly cooked on board, gorgeous alpine scenery, and, for the romantically-inclined, a piano bar for the evenings. You will find no Wi-Fi, showers or private bathrooms on board. But who cares when you are travelling on the original – and best.
7. The Rocky Mountaineer
A thrilling two-day journey by private train over four different routes through the Rockies, over the old Canadian Pacific line to Vancouver, which created the modern nation of Canada in 1885. Here are glacier-fed lakes, carpets of green forest, rushing rivers and an abundance of wildlife. Fans of old North American trains can book a “Gold Leaf” ticket to ride and dine in traditional-style Dome Cars. If you are lucky, the driver will slow down and stop when he spots some bears by the lineside.
Eagle-eyed passengers may spot bears from the Rocky MountaineerCredit: ALAMY
- From £888; rockymountaineer.com
- Read more: Laurence Marks is mesmerised on the Rocky Mountaineer
8. Eastern & Oriental Express
There’s always a thrill of expectation in the air at Bangkok’ s Hua Lamphong station as this grand 19-coach sleeping car express – all polished brass and green and cream paintwork – prepares to depart south through Malaysia to Singapore as it has done for the past two decades. Take your pith helmet and enjoy fantasies about old colonial peninsula days, while enjoying spacious and modern coaches, with full en suite facilities. Ultimate delight is the veranda of the carriage at the rear. Get yourself a Singapore Sling and enjoy the sensuous warmth of the oriental night.
9. The Danube Express
A chance to get intimate with the old-fashioned charms of Mittel Europa, aboard this luxurious private hotel train with its comfortable coaches, private suites and fine dining, hosting just 65 passengers. The list of destinations in the three itineraries is a Baedeker in itself, redolent of European history – including Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Trieste – and the tour of Dracula’s castle is a must. Some of the carriages are a revamp of the official train of Hungary’s last communist president, so you know they must be good. An unusual alternative to the Orient Express – and better value, too.
"A chance to get intimate with the old-fashioned charms of Mittel Europa"
- Balkan Explorer 12-night tour from £6,595; goldeneagleluxurytrains.com
- Read more: a journey aboard the Danube Express
10. Palace on Wheels
Not the only luxury train in the subcontinent but for many the most famous, the Palace on Wheels is the most relaxing way to see the sights or Rajasthan while avoiding the heat and crowds of tourist India. Though advertised as “in the style of the Maharajahs”, the 14 carriages are, fortunately, modern with private showers. There is a nod to the past is that each has its own “khidmatagar” – or personal steward. The seven-night journey out of Delhi is possibly the nicest way of lapping up India’s top heritage sites, including the Taj Mahal, without getting your sandals dusty.
- From £2,350 (approx), including travel from UK; planetrail.co.uk
- Read more: 5 magical Indian train journeys
The Epics11. The Trans-Siberian
The ultimate for lovers of epic train journeys, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a 5.753-mile steel artery across Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, crossing eight time zones as it weaves through the country’s vast and little-visited interior. The Trans-Siberian is actually a number of services, ranging from slow local stoppers to grand international trains running the main route, as well as two separate routes to Beijing in China. The public train, Rossiya No 2, takes six days and is definitely a great way to meet the locals. Those preferring to go Tsar-style can take the Golden Eagle luxury train, which is complete with sumptuous suites, fine dining and even an on-board doctor.
"The ultimate for lovers of epic train journeys"Credit: Fotolia/AP
- Moscow to Vladivostok aboard public train costs from around £500 ( railbookers.com ); tour prices from UK by luxury Golden Eagle train from £9,895 ( goldeneagleluxurytrains.com )
- Read more: the greatest train journey in the world
12. Southern Africa with Jeremy Paxman
One of the most unusual and spectacular rail tours on sale at the moment is an exclusive Telegraph Tour for readers. The luxurious Rovos Rail service will be operating a one-off route from Victoria Falls – where you will meet the broadcaster and writer Jeremy Paxman – through the Drakensberg Escarpment then into South Africa to Pretoria. This nine-day journey will take in Southern Africa’s most stirring landscapes with unparalleled insight into the region’s history – all in the refined luxury of a Rovos Rail train. Run by Cazenove & Loyd.
13. The Ghan
One of the greatest train marathons of the world, extending 1,851 miles across Australia from the sweltering tropics of Darwin through the blistering red desert of Alice Springs to Adelaide on the Southern Ocean. There’s no train window view like this anywhere else, as this megalith, up to 26 coaches long, rolls through an endless unfolding of red and umber. Look out for camels as well as kangaroos – descendants of the animals of the Afghan drovers who built the line in 1929.
Camel and kangaroo sightings come as standard aboard the Ghan
14. California Zephyr
Heading west from Chicago’s magnificent Union station this two-night, 2,438-mile odyssey to San Francisco can be reckoned as the last great train journey in the US. Originating in 1949, the California Zephyr Superliner offers a spectacular panorama of America’s heartland through the flatlands of Nebraska, then Denver and the canyons of the Colorado river, the Utah desert and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. It was famously said that when you step off this train you have seen more of America than most Americans.
15. Golden Eagle, Moscow to Tehran
The thawing of relations between the West and Iran has opened the door for this new service between two of the world’s most inscrutable capitals. Taking 18 days, this sumptuous private train passes through Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and Iran stopping off to visit ancient sites and cities with a glimpse into a world rarely encountered by western travellers. This must be one of the few luxury trains where champagne is banned on part of the journey.
- From £13,995, including travel from the UK; goldeneagleluxurytrains.com
Heritage highlights16. Cathedrals Express
The steam-hauled Cathedrals Express has spent 17 years dashing around many of England’s cities and cathedrals – Canterbury, York, Salisbury, Chester, Winchester and many other journeys through the British countryside. Its hallmark is using the preserved giants of British steam on the main line. This year it is has been deploying the Flying Scotsman, the world’s most famous steam locomotive, on a four-day canter down the East Coast Main line and along the newly reopened Borders Railway. For those who fail to get a seat (currently waiting list only), there’s a plan to repeat it in 2017.
- Average basic price of a steam day out, around £120; steamdreams.co.uk
- Read more: how to see, ride and celebrate the Flying Scotsman
17. Black Sea Express
What more could a gricer want than to travel aboard a royal train behind the largest loco of its kind in the world, along picturesque forgotten lines, up steep mountain gradients, with staged special run-pasts for photographers? But the Thirties carriages of Tsar Boris III and locomotive No 46.03, the last remaining 12-coupled engine, are not the only delights to stoke the fires of steam enthusiasts on this 11-day journey through scenic Bulgaria, there’s also a chance to dip toes in the warm waters of the Black Sea.
- From £2,350, including travel from the UK; railwaytouring.net
- Read more: simple luxuries in the hills of Bulgaria
18. Welsh Highland Railway
The greatest, many say, of the “Great Little Trains of Wales” this 25 mile, 1ft 11½in line through the beautiful Snowdonia National Park is Britain’s longest narrow gauge line. Built for slate traffic and closed in 1937, the line has risen from the dead as hundreds of volunteers have toiled to rebuild the tracks, snaking through a varied countryside of rivers, forests, almost Swiss-style gradients. Not just for the muddy boots brigade, enjoy “Club Class” style with freshly cooked food in one of the dinky Pullman cars.
19. Harz Railway
Could any railway on the planet come closer to steam paradise? Extending 86 miles and serving 48 stations through the fairy-tale towns and villages of Germany’s Harz mountains, this is Europe’s longest railway network with daily steam operation, and has the largest fleet of passenger steam locomotives, with 25 engines. Nowhere in the world is there anything like it. And it’s not just for tourists – shoppers and commuters rely on its year-round timetabled service, too.
The Harz Railways has the largest fleet of passenger steam locomotives
- Seven-night escorted group tour from £795; raildiscoveries.com
- Read more: fairytale highs in the Harz Mountains
20. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
With its head in the Himalayan clouds, this is not merely a railway but a World Heritage Site, with wheezing British-built steam locomotives from the Victorian era. The line climbs 6,500ft from India’s sweltering plains near Kolkata to the fresh air of the Raj hill station at Darjeeling. Not for nothing, is it known as the “Toy Train” – although it’s anything but a toy – performing a vital social function for the local villages on its 50-mile journey. Near the top, the train doubles back on itself through four zigzag loops to allow passengers to acclimatise. Breathtaking.
Sublime sleepers21. Night train from Lisbon
“The great trains are going out all over Europe,” wrote Ian Fleming in From Russia with Love – even truer today in an age when utilitarian high speed trains are displacing more romantic sleepers. Close your eyes and relive a less-hurried age of rail travel, snuggled in a private Gran Clase sleeper aboard the Lusitania Trainhotel (though there are cheaper options, too) for this 11-hour journey to Madrid starting from Lisbon’s charming Santa Apolonia station. Bring a copy of the cult novel Night Train to Lisbon for berthside reading.
- From £85; renfe.com
22. The train to the Arctic Circle
Brrrr… wrap up well since we’re off to the Arctic Circle on Europe’s most northerly journey – from Stockholm to the port of Narvik in northern Norway. No luxury “hotel on wheels”, this service operated by Swedish National Railways, will find trappers and tourists mingling in the restaurant car to eat reindeer stew and mash – which gets cosier as the weather outside gets colder in a bleak landscape of rock and trees, punctuated by the occasional elk. Ironic for a sleeper that, in summer, it never quite gets dark.
23. The Blue Train
Orient Express aside, here is the world’s best known luxury service, gliding opulently since 1923 between Pretoria and Cape Town on its 994-mile, 27-hour journey showing off South Africa’s stunning scenery. Being rocked to sleep in the style of kings and presidents the wood-panelled berths is serene indeed, but a cheaper option is the comfortable public train, the Shosholoza Meyl, which follows the same route but from Jo’burg. Fine wines and cigars are not included in the price as with the Blue Train, but it is a safe journey at a fraction of the cost.
"Orient Express aside, here is the world's best-known luxury service"
- Blue Train tickets from £895; bluetrain.co.za ; public train: £33
- Read more: the affordable alternative to the Blue Train
24. Caledonian Sleeper
Even though the carriages are rather dowdy, with no private facilities, the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands – also known as the Deerstalker Express – is a romantic train like no other. Climb aboard amid the ugliness of London’s Euston station and wake upon in the ethereal world of the Highlands, where the stags are so close to the window you can almost feel their breath – a mood helped by a malt or two in the lounge car before retiring.
25. Reunification Express
No better way to get to the heart of Vietnam than travelling with the locals on the Reunification Express – a two-day journey from Hanoi to Saigon. The French colonialists may have built the line but its spirit derives from the reunification of the two nations severed by the Vietnam War. Trains include modern air-conditioned sleeping cars, with comfortable, if slightly tatty berths. Peek out at the panorama of Viet life – best bit, though, could be sharing your berth with a Vietnamese family, who will quickly become best friends.
- From £54, bookable from UK via ffestiniogtravel.com
- Read more: Monisha Rajesh rides the Reunification Express
This article was written by Michael Williams from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.