Six of the world’s best train journeys

From a 51-hour ride to America’s west coast, to a trip taking in Lake Titicaca in Peru, Chris Carter reports on six of the world’s best train journeys.

North America: the California Zephyr 

A trip aboard the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco will tell you a lot about American culture, says Anthony Sattin in Condé Nast Traveller. At 2,438 miles, and taking 51 hours, it’s also one of the longest rides in the US. “Plenty long enough for me.” It leaves at 2pm on the dot (see amtrak.com). “In the evening the Zephyr passes through the Midwest Corn Belt and crosses the Missouri River into Nebraska, and by morning the world has changed again: snow-dusted mountains crowd the horizon.” At Denver, the guard recommends that “folks de-train” to see the station. The most beautiful part of the journey, however, lies between Denver and Salt Lake City. There, the train climbs into the mountains, “twists along rivers, cuts through sheer canyons and roars through the six-mile Moffat Tunnel”. When the lights of San Francisco, and the Pacific beyond it, finally hove into view, a plane cut across the sky, reminding Sattin that he could have flown the distance in a fraction of the time. The train, though, is better.


South America: the Andean Explorer

 

Lake Titicaca in Peru is best reached from the old Inca capital of Cuzco aboard Belmond’s luxury Andean Explorer, says Hugh Thompson in Spear’s. Leaving late in the morning, it climbs to the heights of the La Raya pass (see belmond.com). “It harks back to a distant age of luxury train travel, sipping pisco sours in the open observatory car as we travelled through what is still a very rural part of Peru… alpaca were grazing in the fields and the maize stubble was being burnt after the harvest.”

The next day you arrive at Lake Titicaca – “a spectacular sight” at dawn, when the “quality of light over the vast expanse of high altitude water” and the low clouds passing through the stratosphere make for a wonderful sunrise. “Passengers line the quayside to watch, helped by strong cappuccinos, as the long, lean islands on the lake were silhouetted against the rising sun like emerging black submarines.”


Europe: St Pölten to Mariazell 

The journey from St Pölten to Mariazell in Austria is more than 78km long and lasts two and a half hours, says Wanderlust. This narrow-gauge service is officially split into two sections – valleys and mountains – and crosses one of the wildest regions of the Austrian Alps (see mariazellerbahn.at). The valleys section stretches from St Pölten to Frankenfels, a land of “pretty grazing meadows and gentle pathways (tickets allow you to hop on and off)”, while the mountains section “climbs up through the ruggedly handsome Erlauf gorge and the peaks of Ötscher-Tormäuer Naturpark”. Grab a first-class panorama carriage for widescreen views along the way from May to October. Heritage rail fans will love the 100-year-old Otscherbår train that runs from June to late September.


Africa: the Durban Safari 

The decadent carriages of Rovos Rail take routes across South Africa, many of them weaving through nature reserves, savannah and game reserves, says Lucy Lovell in The Independent. The Durban Safari (see rovos.com) trundles from Pretoria to Durban, on the coast. It passes through the Nambiti Conservancy – set in 20,000 acres of bushveld in Kwazulu Natal. “From the open-air observation platform, eagle-eyed passengers might spot springbok, zebra and giraffes.”


Asia: Vietnam’s Reunification Railway

The Reunification Railway runs from the capital, Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam, to the economic powerhouse of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south, says Peter Ford in the South China Morning Post. It takes 31 hours between the two (see vietnam.travel). Starting at the southern end, the train leaves Ga Saigon, the name a reminder of the country’s French (gare) colonial history, and from the window “Vietnam’s rural beauty is soon visible”.

Conical straw hats bob “on the heads of workers tending rice fields alongside water buffalo and ancestral family shrines”. After Nha Trang, the railway line hugs the coast. “Jagged limestone karsts jut out from the fields, splinters of the mountainous ridge that delineates much of Vietnam’s western border with Cambodia and Laos, and the views of rice fields and villages continue to roll by.” North of Hue, the old imperial capital, trees start to replace palms until the train reaches its northern terminus.


Australia: the Ghan 

 

This month, Great Southern Rail marked the 90th anniversary of the Ghan (journeybeyondrail.com.au), Australia’s famed south-to-north railway line (though the final northern stretch was only completed in 2003), says Michael Kerr in The Daily Telegraph. The four-day journey takes you from Adelaide, through the deserts of the Red Centre and the tropics of the Top End, to Darwin.

The line takes its full name (the Afghan Express) and emblem from the Asian cameleers who opened up the centre and north of the country from the mid-1860s to trade, using their camels to carry materials and equipment. After that, the cameleers became redundant. “So if you’re planning to ride the Ghan in this anniversary year, spare a thought for those who made it.”