10 Great Railway Journeys of the World
The Trans-Siberian Railway (Russia, Mongolia, China)
Yes, the Trans-Siberian is the most stereotypical choice we could have made. But there’s a reason why it’s become such a cliché. The Trans-Siberian is the second-longest railway journey in the world, stretching over an incredible 6,152 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. It takes six nights to complete. It runs three, wildly different, routes. And it passes through some of the wildest, bleakest, most-beautiful landscapes known to man.
The main attraction here is the vast Russian steppe; a world of howling wind and ice that unfurls beneath frozen blue skies. Out here the air is so sharp you could cut yourself on it, the view unbroken by human habitation. It’s the great void at the heart of the Eurasian landmass, and watching the sun slowly sink beneath its distant horizons is one of the great sights of the world.
Although the classic route ends in Vladivostok, most westerners choose to take the shorter path to Beijing. Choosing this route not only opens up to you the great Gobi Desert and the vast wilderness of Mongolia, it also takes you past the Great Wall of China. Cliché or not, the Trans-Siberian remains one of the great railway journeys of the world.
Qinghai-Lhasa Railway (China, Tibet)
Through the heart of the beautiful desolation along the China-Tibet border runs a single sliver of silver. The tracks of the Qinghai-Lhasa Railway appear from above like an artery filled with mercury, bringing life to this primal region, one faint pulse at a time. One of the highest railway lines in the entire world, it is also – potentially – one of the deadliest. Thanks to the sheer elevation, each passenger must carry an oxygen tank and a health card saying they understand the risks.
However, actual deaths are extremely rare. Like eating Japanese blowfish sushi, the danger merely adds an extra thrill to what is already an astonishing experience.
For lovers of jagged, sublime scenery, the Qinghai-Lhasa is a great railway journey unlike any other. Over the course of 1,215 miles, great mountains rise and fall, azure blue lakes unroll beside the window, and a profound silence descends over everything, only broken by the subdued clattering of the train itself.
Fianarantsoa–Côte Est Railway (Madagascar)
Also known as the the Manakara Express, everything about the Fianarantsoa–Côte Est (FCE) signals adventure. A 1930s colonial-era train that winds a breathtaking route down from the mountains to Manakara on the coast, it passes through wilderness so pristine it can feel like you’ve been transported into a pre-human past. However, this line isn’t for the faint of heart. For those brave enough to venture into its crowded carriages, an adventure awaits.
The 162 km track stops at nearly 20 villages, and getting to your destination can take anywhere between seven and 16 hours. At each station, gangs of children will tempt fate by darting between the wheels as the train slows, while more and more passengers cram into second and third class. For some this is exhausting. For others, invigorating. What can’t be denied is the beauty of the scenery. This is Madagascar at its most-untouched. Out here, you can easily convince yourself that you’re truly in the wild.
Another interesting point is that the Fianarantsoa–Côte Est is still mainly used by locals. If you wish to get a flavour of authentic Madagascar, this great railway journey is the one for you.
Mount Washington Cog Railway (USA)
Compared to the epic railways we’ve explored so far, the Cog at Mount Washington, NH is tiny, running a mere three miles. However, such a statistic masks the most-impressive part of this epic journey. Rising nearly 4,000 ft, the tiny train clings to the side of the great mountain, winding ever-higher into the grey New Hampshire skies. First opened in 1869, it is one of the oldest tourist lines still operating anywhere in the world.
The journey up the narrow gauge track takes a little over an hour and can still be taken via steam train (though book ahead, as most departures are in the new diesel cars). On the way, passengers pass through views that have to be seen to be believed. On a clear day, the continent spreads out around you seemingly forever, with Quebec and the Atlantic Ocean shimmering in the distance. Great ravines open up, the Earth drops away, and suddenly you find yourself on top of the world.
The Orange Express (Mallorca, Spain)
The technical name for this railway into the interior of the Spanish island of Mallorca is the Ferrocarril de Sólle, but we prefer the much-more romantic Orange Express. First built in 1911, the railway got its name thanks to the sheer number of lemon and orange groves it clatters through on its short journey. With a narrow track width of only one yard, and carriages still painted and fitted using traditional methods, the Orange Express is like boarding a train into the distant past.
The views are spectacular. Mallorca’s interior unfolds around you, hot, sun-drenched and – paradoxically – wonderfully, green. At the very edges of the tracks, oranges hang from trees, ripe and ready for the picking. Storied stone viaducts crisscross the edges of low mountains. Meanwhile the train clanks on, as sleepy as a somnambulist making his way imperceptibly through the contours of a dream world. It may not be the epic route of the Trans-Siberian, but this great railway journey remains one of our favourites.
Kalka-Shimla Hill Railway (India)
To call the Kalka-Shimla Hill line one of the Holy Grails of train travel would be to undersell Christianity’s greatest missing relic. Winding up from the floor of the plains to the breezy summer capital of the British Raj, the railway takes in vertiginous cliffs, mountain forests, rolling meadows and (in winter) snowcapped peaks. It all culminates in the glorious hill station of Shimla; perhaps one of the prettiest colonial towns in the entire subcontinent.
Built in 1898, the 2 ft 6 in narrow gauge track was a heroic feat of engineering. Endless tunnels and bridges were laid along landscape that was indifferent to man at best, and actively hostile at worst. Collapses, falling rocks and landslides conspired to defeat the engineers, and even today often shut the line for days at a time. Yet the Kalka-Shimla line is nothing if not resilient. Thanks to the tender love and care showered on it over the past century, it remains in spectacular condition today. In 2008, this great railway journey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site; a testament to its enduring appeal.
Desert Express (Namibia)
For 220 long miles, the tracks of the Desert Express wind their way through Namibia, from Windhoek to dusty, colonial Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. Great dunes rise and fall outside the window. Burning scrubland stretches out as far as the eye can see. Desolate buildings turn to dust amid the intense heat and light. For the lone traveler, looking out their carriage window as the sun sinks down, it can feel like drifting off into the end of the world.
Although most who experience the Desert Express do so in the unparalleled opulence of the luxury train, there is a budget version available. Locals catch the overnight Starline train along the same route – a mere handful of passenger cars rudely shackled to a freight train. On a clear night, this version can be just as spectacular. Moonlight glints off mountains of sand. Strange shadows loop and coil out in the endless night; creatures from a forgotten fairy tale. However you choose to see it, the Desert Express route is one great railway journey you will never forget.
Devil’s Nose (Ecuador)
In mid-2013, rail enthusiasts got some of the best news they could have hoped for. Following a multi-million dollar renovation, Ecuador was reopening its historic Quito-Guayaquil line for the first time in two decades. Built in the late 19th century, the line once snaked its way down from the bustling capital through mountains, forest, and swampland, taking in some of the greatest scenery in Ecuador.
But for us, there’s one specific reason why you should choose the Quito-Guayaquil line above any other in Latin America. It’s home to the death-defying Devil’s Nose (see top).
Nariz del Diablo was possibly the most difficult railway to build in the world. A series of switchbacks cut into the sheer edges of Condor Mountain, it was a formidable engineering challenge. The results are jaw-dropping. Sat on the outward side of the carriage, it can feel like there is nothing between you and the great, yawning void. This is train travel at its most pulse-pounding and dramatic. Combined with a detour on the line through the spectacular Volcano Valley, and you have possibly the most adrenaline-fueled railway journey in the world.
The Golden Eagle (Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran)
At 9 am on the first morning, you step into a luxury sleeper car at Moscow’s grand terminus. Eighteen days later, you stumble out again, bleary eyed, into the burning sun of the Iranian capital Tehran. In between, you’ve crossed the endless grey expanse of the Kara Kum Desert, seen the hallucinatory ancient sites of Samarkand slip past your window, and wound through the great mountains of Central Asia. Welcome to the Golden Eagle (Silk Road line), the newly-emerging route that may soon be recognized as one of the greatest railway journeys in the world.
At time of writing, the Golden Eagle is strictly a luxury experience (cheapest tickets are over £6,500 each). You may be able to navigate the borders between Russia, Central Asia, and Iran independently, but not without extreme levels of hassle. Which is a shame, as grand vistas such as this should be available to everyone. For those that can afford it, though, the route is a call back to an earlier age of train travel; when opulence went hand-in-hand with adventure, and the word ‘railway’ was shorthand for ‘romance’.
Derry/Londonderry to Coleraine (Northern Ireland)
Finally, our list culminates in a train that virtually anybody can take. An inexpensive line regularly used by local commuters, the Derry to Coleraine journey in Northern Ireland may not be everybody’s idea of luxury. What it undeniably is, though, is beautiful.
Snaking sinuously around the rocky edges of Northern Ireland’s coastline, the train’s brief, 45 minute journey takes you through some spectacular scenery. Passengers are treated to the sight of the great, winding River Foyle as it meanders its way across the Ulster countryside. To the endless sandy expanse of Benone Strand, lashed and bashed by the rough waves sweeping in from the Irish Sea. Up ahead the grand Mussenden Temple (above) rises up before vanishing as the train enters a never ending tunnel. When it finally emerges, the scenery seems only sweeter for your time in darkness.