Top Eleven Train Rides

Given the chance, and the time, I usually prefer trains to planes – simply because I like the experience of seeing a country from a human level, and because you get more chance to interact with the locals.  Following are eleven great train rides (because I got carried away and there are in no particular order).  Some are ridiculously expensive, whilst others are more affordable.  The one thing they all have on common is that each train, or journey, is very special.

The Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul (just once a year).  It leaves Gare de l’Est and crosses the Thracian plain into Istanbul five days later, via Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Extravagantly elegant this is an icon of passenger rail.

The Trans-Siberian Express – The Russian train shunts along the 6,152 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok.  It takes seven days, seven time zones, an inescapable vodka hangover and somewhat lousy food. Most tourists branch south at Ulan Ude, via Ulan Bator, on Trans-Mongolian Train Four, sweeping across the Mongolian steppe, crossing the Great Wall on day six to reach Beijing.

The Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff (or vice versa). The Rocky Mountaineer plies three routes into the heart of the Rockies, but fif you want to see the 1,000ft canyon walls, glacier-fed lakes, towering Rockies peaks and ancient cedar forests, then Kicking Horse route is the one to take. You’ll stay one night in Kamloops, and travel always during daylight hours. The route is closed for winter

The Glacier Express, Switzerland. Proudly marketed as the world’s slowest train, the express takes eight hours to cover the 180 miles from Zermatt to St Moritz. The train rises and plummets nearly 5,000ft, crosses 291 bridges, burrows through 91 tunnels (including the longest narrow-gauge tunnel in the world), crosses the Rhone and Rhine, and traverses the 6,700ft Oberalp Pass. It runs on narrow-gauge track, switches to rack and pinion and, when the going gets really tough, gains extra height with an intricate series of tunnel-and-pass loops.

The Royal Scotsman – This is perhaps the most expensive train journey on the planet (although it is on par with South Africa’s Blue train). The Royal Scotsman is also possibly the most exclusive, with just 36 passengers in private mahogany Edwardian state cabins. The observation car accommodates all 36 passengers in comfortable armchairs and sofas, and the two dining-cars have the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. When you’re ready for sleep, the train pulls over for the night. The four-night classic tour of the Highlands and Lowlands follows little-used lines past lochs, glens, waterfalls, mountain peaks and vast forests. Visits en route include a castle, a smokehouse, a distillery and a trip to Skye.     

The Blue Train may eclipse all other great railways when it comes to indulgence. The train carries just 84 passengers, mollycoddled by 27 staff. Each compartment has its own en-suite bathroom, telephone, television and individually controlled air-conditioning, and professionally trained butlers are on call 24 hours a day. You could be seduced into thinking you’re not moving at all if it weren’t for the gentle rocking and the mouth-watering scenery speeding past your window (there’s even a special observation deck at the rear of the train with wraparound windows for a better view). The classic route is Pretoria-Cape Town – watch the moon rise over the Karoo and wake up in the winelands before pulling in to Cape Town beneath the drama of Table Mountain.

The Flam Railway – Remember the awesome Norwegian Fjords? Well, here is a train ride through the world’s longest fjord Sognefjord, where on a 20 kilometre trip you’ll get to see an amazing descent from an altitude of almost 3,000 feet into the fjords of Flam. The ride is both enthralling and hair-raising with its narrow passage way and the unforgettable sights.

The Palace on Wheels in India. Handsomely dressed attendants graciously serve a succession of memorable curries and continental dishes, as you’re transported at a dignified pace across the deserts of Rajasthan. Other elements contributing to the Raj lifestyle include an elephant welcome in Jaipur, lunch at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, a camel safari near Jaisalmer and an afternoon at the Taj Mahal.

The Hiram Bingham Express which runs on the Incan Line from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, near Machu Picchu. Riding high into the Andes, with views of towering snow capped peaks, the 3½-hour ride zigzags steeply out of Cuzco, descends into the lush Sacred Valley and cuts through a steep gorge carved out by the Urubamba River all the way to Aguas Calientes — just an hour’s walk or 20-minute bus ride from Machu Picchu.

The Tangula Express running from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet. A three day journey where part of it the Qinghai-Tibet line is the highest in the world, crossing the Tangula pass (16,640ft), linking the 700-odd largely permafrosted miles from Golmud to Lhasa that were previously possible only via a gruelling 48-hour bus journey. And there is extra oxygen on board for those who may be suffering from altitude sickness.

The Ghan – from Adelaide to Darwin in Australia.  Named after the Afghan cameleers who helped to build the line, the Ghan travels 1,851 miles north to Darwin. Crossing the Red Centre, the Ghan takes in saltpans, opal mines and the world’s largest sheep stations, limping across Arnhem Land into Darwin almost 48 hours after leaving home.

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