The five best train journeys in the world

Anthony Lambert
A train steams over a bridge in Colorado

Train travel affords a vision of the world that seems so much more interesting than road journeys; somehow you hardly ever see anything interesting from a motorway. As John Betjeman said, “you need never be bored in a train”. Train travel is liberating in the time it affords for oneself – to read, write, think, dream.

John le Carré started writing the Smiley novels on the train between Great Missenden and London. Harry Potter was born on a train to Manchester. Even the idea for her Calcutta charity came to Mother Teresa on a train.

Quite apart from the intrinsic attractions of train travel, part of the explanation for its revival must be disenchantment with the alternatives. Except for those few able to turn left on boarding a plane, air travel, “that agent of superficiality” as Peter Fleming put it, has lost any lustre it may have had, and the significant decline in driving-licence holders among 20- and 30-somethings in countries as affluent as Britain and Switzerland suggests a generation that has fallen out of love with the motor car. This book is for those in harmony with all these sentiments and who choose to take the train whenever feasible.

The Bernina Express

Switzerland to Italy, 4hrs (from Chur)

It’s a rather surreal experience watching the front of the train you are on heading in the opposite direction, as though you are in a toy train in Lilliput. But that is just one of the uncommon features of a journey in the far-from-Lilliputian Bernina Express, which runs from Chur and St Moritz to Tirano in Italy.

Another feature is the chance to ride in open wagons between spring and autumn, which is ideal for photographers, and a noisy thrill, clattering through the mostly unlined rock tunnels. Like the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express relies purely on adhesion rather than a rack mechanism to scale the fearsome gradients – northbound trains have to overcome a vertical height of 1,827 metres (5,994 feet) in just 38 kilometres (23.6 miles) to reach the summit station of Ospizio Bernina, just below the pass, which is the highest rail crossing of the Alps at 2,257 metres (7,405 feet).

It’s just one of the reasons UNESCO made the railway a World Heritage Site. Though most people take the train to enjoy the dramatic changes in the mountain landscapes, there is reason to stop off at almost every station.

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Colorado, 7hrs 30 mins

Colorado was the state for narrow-gauge railroads. Its 3-foot (914 mm) gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was the longest and most important of the United States’ narrow-gauge railroads, but was by no means the only one in the state.

Two spectacular and wonderfully authentic heritage railways capture the essence of those railroads, which always had a frontier, ‘seat of the pants’ atmosphere: the 102 kilometre (63 mile) Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad between Antonito and Chama; and the 72 kilometre (45 mile) Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Both use steam locomotives and some rolling stock that originally operated over the lines, and both preserve the charm of narrow-gauge railroading. Durango station dates from 1882, while the characteristic 15 stall roundhouse for locomotives and a museum was put up in 1989 to replace the original destroyed by fire. The engineer gives two long blasts on the whistle and sets the bell ringing. As steam enters the bulbous cylinders, the ten- coach train eases out of the depot, as Americans call their railway stations.

This is a good moment to enjoy pastries and a beverage from the Caboose Coffee Shop, because the flat exit from Durango alongside Highway 550 isn’t the most exciting prelude to one of the world’s great rail journeys. But things look up from the moment the train stops beside the water tank at Hermosa for the locomotive to slake its thirst and prepare for the climb, which continues almost without respite all the way to Silverton, high in the San Juan Mountains at 2,840 metres (9,318 feet).

There are views over Shalona Lake before Beaver Creek Canyon and some red granite cuttings at Rockwood. Conifers line the opposite slope of the canyon, which narrows and then widens for an unexpected meadow and groves of aspens with their shimmering leaves that change from pale green to yellow to red in autumn.

New Jalpaiguri

Darjeeling, India, 6hrs 15mins

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) has been described as the most famous narrow-gauge railway in the world and has achieved a fame out of all proportion to its size and economic value. Its magnificent location and ‘toy trains’, as they are constantly described, have captured the imagination of people across the world and encouraged them to visit this relatively remote part of India.

Climate is central to Darjeeling’s story. Were it not for the contrast it afforded with the heat of the plains, and Calcutta in particular, it would never have been developed in the way it has. As the provincial governor Sir Olaf Caroe put it: “I don’t think there is anything in life which is such a relief and such a physical delight as going from the heat of the plains in the hot weather up into the mountains, gradually feeling it getting cooler.”

But for today’s visitor, it is the combination of spectacular scenery, venerable steam locomotives and inventive civil engineering that makes the railway so appealing.

Trans-Siberian Express

Moscow to Vladivostok, 11 to 22 days

The idea of the world’s longest train journey captures the imagination like no other: crossing seven time zones and almost a hundred degrees of latitude, seeing for oneself the vastness of the Russian forests and the railway that has played such a powerful role in the country’s history, has attracted generations of travellers. As Eric Newby wrote, all other journeys, even the longer ones in North America, are “peanuts”.

But there is no getting away from the unsurprising fact that hours of birch and conifers pall, that parts of the journey are boring and a good opportunity to read some of those weighty Russian novels. Even one of the supposed highlights, the Ural Mountains, are an anticlimax.

So taking a service train without breaks at cities along the way may appeal to those wanting an ‘authentic’ experience, entailing much fraternisation with fellow passengers, some of whom will view varying degrees of alcohol consumption as the only antidote to the journey’s longueurs.

But most will favour interrupting the journey or taking one of the tourist trains over the route: the Tsars Gold or the more luxurious Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. This 21-car train was launched in April 2007 and provides comfort unknown since Tsarist times, with en-suite power showers, DVD players and individually controlled air conditioning.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog, Wales, 1hr 15 mins

In common with most heritage railways, the Welsh Highland Railway makes a huge contribution to the economic vitality of the region, but coupled with the parent Ffestiniog Railway it also provides a public transport alternative for those content with slow travel – walkers up Snowdon among them.

Besides a certain lack of speed, the railway offers traditional as well as more comfortable modern coaches for those keen to experience early railway travel conditions – the Ffestiniog Railway introduced the world’s first bogie carriages in the 1860s and some have been restored.

Or one can travel in carriage No. 16, which had a compartment specially reserved for David Lloyd George when he was a lawyer in Blaenau Ffestiniog, before becoming Prime Minister in 1916. On special days there is even the chance to be hauled by one of the world’s four oldest narrow-gauge steam locomotives, all on the Ffestiniog.

It is a spectacular start to the 13.5-mile (21.7-kilometre) journey, passengers having the sea on one side and a splendid view inland across the polder towards Snowdonia. After Moelwyn Tunnel, the line descends to Tanygrisiau and fine views looking back over the reservoir before arrival at Blaenau Ffestiniog station. ­­

The 50 Greatest Train Journeys of the World by Anthony Lambert is out today published by Icon Books priced £8.99

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