Michael Williams

Epic, scenic, heritage – the Top 25 railway journeys in the world


May 5, 2016 Daily Telegraph

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“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 to 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.

FIVE OF THE BEST SCENIC JOURNEYS

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 7,000 feet in often in a raging snowstorm, while you can bask at a café table on arrival in warm Italian sunshine. (Prices from £45; seven night escorted group tour from UK £1,245 www.greatrail.com)

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 13,800 feet 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 multi-coloured rock formations interpersed 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.) Price for return trip around £120 www.trenalasnubes.com)

Fort William to Mallaig

Lucky this “Road to the Isles” service was saved from Dr Beeching’s axe in the 1960s 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. (Jacobite price from £34 return www.westcoastrailways.co.uk)

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 (Prices from £80, www.nsb.no or book from UK via www.ffestiniogtravel.com)

 

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 fairytale 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. (Prices from £16 www.thetrainline-europe.com)

 

FIVE OF THE WORLD’S BEST LUXURY TRAINS

 

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 1920s art-deco carriages is world class service, the finest haute cuisine freshly cooked on board, gorgeous alpine scenery, a piano bar for the evenings where the most romantic things can happen. You will find no wi-fi, showers or private bathrooms on board . But who cares when you are travelling on the original – and best. (Prices from £2,210 www.belmond.com)

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 rare bears by the lineside. (Prices from £888 www.rockymountaineer.com)

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 hat and enjoy fantasies about old colonial penisula days, while enjoying spacious and modern coaches, with full ensuite facilities. Ultimate delight is the verandah of the carriage at the rear. Get yourself a Singapore Sling and enjoy the sensuous warmth of the oriental night. (Prices from £1,775 www.belmond.com)

The Grand Hibernian

Thought that Irish railways were a backwater? You’ll change your mind this August with the launch of this new uber-luxury train – little cousin of the Orient Express. Up to 40 guests will enjoy all the usual OE indulgences – elegant private cabins, fine dining and bewitching scenery. But this one is unusual in that it is fitted out in contemporary rather than nostalgic style. Top of its varied itineraries is the Grand Tour of Ireland which traverses almost all points of the Emerald Isle so long as there are rails that run nearby, including a chance to place a smacker on the Blarney Stone (Prices from £3,160 www.belmond.com)

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. (Sample price, including travel from UK, from £2,350 www.planetrail.co.uk)

FIVE OF THE WORLD’S MOST EPIC TRAIN JOURNEYS

The Trans-Siberian

The ultimate one for the bucket list, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a 5.753-mile steel artery across Russia from Moscow with 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 a great way to meet the locals Those preferring to go Tsar-style can take the Golden Eagle luxury train, complete with sumptuous suites, fine dining and even an on-board doctor. (Tour prices from UK from £9,895 goldeneagleluxurytrains.com)

 

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. (Prices from £1,027 www.greatsouthernrail.com.au)

 

The Pride of Africa

Animal spotting on a rail safari across southern Africa in vintage coaches, sometimes hauled by a steam loco, this train bills itself as “the most luxurious in the world”. The fleet of wood panelled cream and green carriages carries just 72 passengers in luxury suites on journeys through the spectacular scenery of the Cape but also into deepest Africa including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. Intrepid explorers will want to book for the 15-day trip all the way from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, staying aboard the train in the opulent Royal Suite which features a full-size Victorian bath. Naturally game is a speciality on the dining car menu. (Prices from £2,350 including travel from UK www.planetrail.co.uk)

The Californian 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 remaining in the US. Originating in 1949, the California Zephyr Superliner offers a spectacular panorama of America’s heartland through the flatlands of Nebraska, through Denver and the canyons of the Colorado river, the Utah desert and the snowcapped Sierra Nevada. It was famously said that when you step off this train you have seen more of America than most Americans. (Berth prices from around £650 www.amtrak.com)

The Golden Eagle, Moscow to Tehran

The thawing of relations between the west and Tehran 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. (Prices, including travel from UK, £13,995 goldeneagleluxurytrains.com)

FIVE OF THE WORLD’S BEST HERITAGE TRAIN JOURNEYS

The 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, www.steamdreams.co.uk )

 

 

The 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 1930s 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 (Prices, including travel from UK, from £2,350 www.railwaytouring.net)

 

Welsh Highland Railway

 

The greatest, many say, of the ‘Great Little Trains of Wales’ this 25 mile, Ift 11 ½in 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. (Fares £25.50 www.festrail.co.uk)

 

 

Harz Railway

 

Could any railway on the planet come closer to steam paradise? Extending 140 kilometres and serving 48 stations through the fairytale 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 its not just for tourists – shoppers and commuters rely on its year-round timetabled service, too. (Seven night escorted group tour from £795 www.raildiscoveries.com)

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 6,500 feet from India’s sweltering plains near Calcutta 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. (Sixteen day escorted group tour from London, £3,495 www.greatrail.com)

FIVE OF THE WORLDS’ BEST SLEEPER TRAIN JOURNEYS

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 nosh on 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 moose. Ironic for a sleeper that, in summer, it never quite gets dark. (Prices from £45 www.sj.se, or book via www.loco2.com from UK)

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 re-live 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 eleven-hour journey from Lisbon’s charming Santa Apolonia station with a copy of the cult novel Night Train to Lisbon for berthside reading. (Price from £85, www.renfe.com)

The ‘Deerstalker Express’

Even though the carriages are rather dowdy, with no private facilities, the overnight ‘Caledonian Sleeper’ from London to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands is a romantic train like no other. Climb aboard amid the ugliness of London’s Euston station and wake up 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. (Prices from £85 www.sleeper.scot)

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. (Prices: Blue Train from £895 www.bluetrain.co.za; public train: £33)

Last of the boat trains

One of the last of a dying breed of boat trains , the overnight sleeper direct from Rome to Syracuse in Sicily crosses the straits of Messina without passengers even having to poke their head out from under the covers of a cosy sleeping berth. The train is shunted into the ferry’s hold for the 30-minute journey. You can choose to have a nighttime saunter on the deck or be lulled to sleep by the waves. Once we could cross the English Channel like this, so enjoy it while it lasts. (Prices from £74, www.trenitalia.com , or book from UK via www.loco2.com

 

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 and name derive 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 unending panorama of Viet life – best bit, though, could be sharing your berth with a Vietnamese family, who will quickly become best friends. (Prices from £54, or book from UK via ffestiniogtravel.com)

 

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May 5, 2016 Daily Telegraph

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