There are more than 700,000 miles of railways in the world. One way or another, I’ve covered quite a few of those while researching a series of train books that have taken me to North Korea, Peru, China, the US, India, Australia, Europe and the UK.
My latest book, Slow Trains To Venice, about a journey from London to Venice via 13 countries, rattled along 4,000 miles of tracks.
One of the joys of train travel is the ability to see corners of the globe those who soar above will never do. You get a better picture of a country: tiny villages, remote forests, mountains, coasts, cityscapes, glens, lakelands, plains, deserts and seas.
You also meet more people – sitting next to you, in the buffet or sharing your sleeper carriage. I’ve encountered everyone from the Dalai Lama’s doctor (on my Delhi-Kalka train in India) to Slovenian poets, Chinese entrepreneurs, Iranian policemen, aid workers in Sri Lanka and backpacker dropouts aplenty.
The British love of trains goes way back – to when George Stephenson’s Rocket travelled at the heady speed of 35 miles per hour between Liverpool and Manchester on September 15, 1830. Some at the time believed such hectic rushing about could cause damage to passengers’ eyes taking in so much scenery so quickly.
We’re a little more accustomed to rolling along now. But what are the world’s very best rides? Here’s my pick.
The Great American Railroad
Amtrak runs a series of great rides across the US including the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago – departing from Penn Station and running for some distance along the mighty River Hudson
Amtrak runs a series of great rides across the US, although most people do not associate America with trains as there are so many planes and highways.
Yet railroads – as they are called over there – were key to America’s nationhood, linking sea to sea and symbolically conquering the West.
Where the first transcontinental line was completed at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, is now a tourist attraction.
There are so many brilliant rides: Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago (departing from Penn Station and running for some distance along the mighty River Hudson); Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder across the wilds of the northern plains; and the California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco, taking two nights and three days and crossing the Rockies, to name just a few.
Cutting Australia in two
Australia’s Ghan covers 1,851 miles from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin in the far north, via Alice Springs – where most passengers disembark to see Uluru
Journeys on The Ghan cut Australia in two, covering 1,851 miles from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin in the far north, via Alice Springs – where most passengers disembark to see Uluru.
To go the entire distance across the hot red desert of Australia takes 54 hours with a four-hour stop-off at Alice Springs. The Ghan has as many as 38 stainless-steel carriages and looks a bit like a long shiny snake.
The name comes from a shortening of the former title, the Afghan Express, said to have been adopted as many Afghan camel herders once lived in the interior. Expect fine dining, jolly bars and views of the occasional kangaroo.
Golden Triangle of India
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India. More than 1.3 million people are employed by Indian Railways, which transports 20 million passengers daily
Trains are a very big deal in India. More than 1.3 million people are employed by Indian Railways, which transports 20 million passengers daily. There are 68,000 miles of lines (more than twice the circumference of the globe), 14,500 daily services and more than 7,000 stations.
Some of the rides are breathtaking, including journeys around the ‘Golden Triangle’ from Delhi to Agra (for the Taj Mahal), Ranthambore and Jaipur.
My favourite is the ‘Toy Train’ to the former British colonial hill station of Shimla, winding upwards on a narrow-gauge track from 2,000ft to 6,780ft through 107 tunnels. Another good one is the narrow-gauge ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, with spectacular scenery.
The rail journey between Banff in Alberta and Vancouver in British Columbia is one of the greatest, passing through the epic Rocky Mountains
The journey between Banff in Alberta and Vancouver in British Columbia is one of the greatest, passing through the Rocky Mountains with snowy peaks above and many a river and lake.
You travel through some of the most remote territory along the line that linked the east and west in 1885.
The journey takes two days with an overnight stop in Kamloops. Along the way you cross the Continental Divide and pass the spot where the final spike was struck in 1885 – at Craigellachie.
This is a luxurious train with chefs trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and carriages with glass skylights so you can see the mountains.
To Russia, with love
The Trans-Siberian Railway allows passengers to travel to the other side of the planet. They can start in Moscow and journey to Beijing
Travel to the other side of the planet on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Start in Moscow and go on to Vladivostok in the far east of Russia or via Mongolia to China, or to China across its border with Russia, finishing in Beijing.
The distance from Moscow to Vladivostok is 5,772 miles, while the journey to Beijing – avoiding Mongolia – is 6,319 miles. Take a break in Kazan, Irkutsk or Ulan Ude.
The joy of the Trans-Siberian comes from its sense of escapism through vast forests and little towns with wooden houses painted Siberian pale blue. The buffet carriage tends to be sociable and sometimes raucous when vodka is involved.
Glacier Express, Switzerland
The Glacier Express is a legendary service between Zermatt and St Moritz. It takes eight hours and covers alpine scenery
This legendary service between Zermatt and St Moritz takes eight hours and covers alpine scenery, with stops at Andermatt and Chur.
It is not a fast train; the average speed is 24 miles per hour and the term ‘express’ is used because the train does not call at every station.
It runs on narrow-gauge tracks, covering 181 miles and travelling through 91 tunnels and across 291 bridges. There’s a buffet carriage but it is also possible to order a complete meal ahead of your journey and have it delivered to your seat, where it is served on porcelain plates with a tablecloth.