From cheap chugs and remote hill stations to mini palaces on rails, these are the lesser-known rides you need to hop aboard...
Route: Picton to Christchurch
Duration: 5.5 hours
Taking the ferry from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South) is a wise move: it’s one of the world’s best ferry rides, ending in the idyllic wooded cove of Picton Harbour. Even better, it connects with a superbly scenic train ride. A few minutes after disembarking, you can be on the train to Christchurch, ready to enjoy the scenery from an open observation car.
The diesel Coastal Pacific grinds up a long incline through hilly sheep country to Dashwood Pass and rolling hills of vines stretching to the ocean. Passing lagoons of pink salt pans created from what was Lake Grassmere, the train rejoins the coast and runs alongside the dunes to Kaikoura. Many break the journey here for a boat trip to see dolphins, seals and sperm whales feeding off nutrients funnelled by an underwater canyon.
South of Kaikoura, the train enjoys another long stretch of sea views before turning inland, passing through farming country dissected by long lines of poplars, planted to shelter crops from the wind. Seaside suburbs escort the train to Christchurch.
Route: Bangalore to Bangalore
Duration: 8 days
The luxury hotel-train concept is ideally suited to India, which has more examples than any other country. Probably the least well known is the Golden Chariot, which makes an eight-day circuit of the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka on two different itineraries: Pride of South and Southern Splendour. The only problem with such trains (apart from their cost) is that they insulate you from the ‘real’ India, but then that’s exactly what most of their clientele want.
This ribbon of fuchsia-coloured carriages is all about pampering and cocooning its passengers from the ‘grit’ of India. The en suite cabins would swallow five compartments on the Orient Express, and the dining and lounge cars are sumptuously decorated.
Among the off-train excursions by road coach are visits to game reserves, Jain and Hindu temples, the French settlement of Pondicherry, palaces, a cruise on a traditional houseboat, and the abandoned city of Hampi, which is home to the Stone Chariot after which the train is named.
Route: Neral to Matheran
Duration: 2 hours
The hill station created for Mumbai is largely overshadowed by the better-known retreats of Shimla, Darjeeling and Udagamandalam (Ooty), each with their own much-loved railways. But the narrow-gauge line that heads into the Western Ghats from the junction at Neral is delightful.
The train travels at such a slow speed that many can’t resist jumping off to show they can run just as fast. The sole short tunnel en route is called ‘One Kiss Tunnel’ – there’s just time for a quick peck as you pass through.
Just 21km long and built to 610mm gauge, the railway opened in 1907 and was exceptional in being financed by Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy – one of the most remarkable ‘rags to riches’ prodigies of the Raj – he rose from being a street vendor to employing over 15,000 people.
It climbs almost continuously, providing ever more impressive views over the plains whose heat the railway was built to escape. Situated at 803m, Matheran is car-free and generously laid out with some fine colonial buildings, parks and a racecourse.
Route: Lima Desamparados to Huancayo
Duration: 12 hours
It takes determination to complete this journey because the Tren de Sierra makes it difficult with its infrequent, inconvenient and under-promoted train service. But what a railway it is! Until the Chinese built a line to Lhasa, it was the world’s highest passenger railway, reaching a zenith of 4,783m inside the tunnel at Galera.
Attendants provide oxygen for those overcome by the altitude – or perhaps the dizzying drops that fall sheer away from the track, which is incised into the monumental rock faces of the Andes. Building the railway was a heroic feat, requiring 69 tunnels, 58 bridges and six switchbacks where the train zig-zags back and forth.
It was the silver mines of Cerro de Pasco that provided the impetus for what many must have seen as a near-impossible construction. The 170km line took 57 years to complete and, since 1908, passengers have been awestruck by the scale and raw beauty of the mountains, at least once the urban sprawl of Lima is left behind.
Route: Fukuoka to Fukuoka
Duration: Two or four days
Japan’s first luxury sleeper train was introduced in 2013, and no expense has been spared. Its seven cars exude expert craftsmanship, with lashings of walnut, rosewood and maple, and etched glass doors. Designed for slow travel, it is the antithesis of the country’s bullet trains. Each car is individually designed, and the whole train has only 12 en suite rooms and two deluxe suites.
The train explores the south-westerly island of Kyushu, threading its way through paddy fields and volcanic hills forested with cypress and bamboo and getting as acquainted with the sea as a train safely can. The longer 1,200km tour entails a night in a luxury ryokan (traditional inn), composed of wooden cottages with natural hot springs linked by cobbled paths.
For those mystified by the intricacies of Japanese cuisine, interpreters are also on hand to guide passengers through the succession of dishes presented on leaves and bamboo serving plates.
Route: Pontresina to Scuol-Tarasp
Duration: 80 minutes
Overshadowed by the well-known Glacier and Bernina expresses, this enchanting line between Pontresina, near St Moritz, and the spa town of Scuol-Tarasp, near the Austrian border, is a jewel. For much of the way it twists and turns at high altitude, and panoramic views to the south overlook a succession of seemingly endless mountains as they stretch across Switzerland’s only national park towards the Italian frontier.
The railway parallels the Inn River as it courses along the idyllic lower Engadine Valley, passing densely clustered villages of white-walled chalets and thin-towered churches that have won architectural prizes for their conservation. Houses are decorated with elegant sgraffito (scratched plasterwork) decoration, characteristic of the Engadine.
Emerging from the final tunnel, there is also a coup de théâtre: a picture-postcard view of arguably Switzerland’s most romantically sited castle, the 11th-century Tarasp, which is built on a hill but dwarfed by the surrounding mountains.
Route: Winnipeg to Churchill
Duration: 2 days
Gazing out on freight cars that have toppled off the track isn’t the most reassuring of sights to see as you trundle by, but it helps to explain why the progress of this remarkable sleeping-car train is so stately.
Linking the provincial capital of Manitoba with Canada’s only Arctic seaport, Churchill (on Hudson Bay), the train is forced to gently tiptoe across the muskeg (bog) on which the tracks are perched. The derailed wagons remain where they fell because the track can’t support the work of a crane.
The landscapes are mesmerising in their variety and wild, intimidating loneliness. Wheat fields morph into deciduous and then boreal forests before the trees thin, diminish in size and finally disappear. The telephone line beside the track has to be carried on tripods across the taiga, so ferocious are the winds that can howl across the Barren Lands. It’s a train that attracts travellers, and swapping stories tends to fill the evening hours after dark.
Route: Shrewsbury to Swansea
Duration: 4 hours
The line between Shrewsbury and Swansea wends through some of the most unspoilt scenery in the Welsh Marches, the countryside of AE Housman and Mary Webb. It links small Welsh towns that once hosted thriving spas, such as Llangammarch Wells where former German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and his family once visited in 1912, travelling incognito. There are spectacular views for most of the way, over landscapes with few buildings.
Diesel trains serve 32 intermediate stations, many profoundly remote and some bright with flowerbeds and hanging baskets looked after by local volunteers. Nearly all stops offer great walks; for instance, Knighton is on the attractive Offa’s Dyke Path, while half a dozen nature reserves can be reached from other stations.
For example, it’s a short walk from Llangunllo to the vast upland common of Beacon Hill, while a footpath from Builth Road takes you to the National Nature Reserve of Cors y Llyn. Just before Swansea, the train skirts the sandy expanses of the Loughor Estuary where you might glimpse a cockle fisherman.
Route: Chama to Antonito
Duration: 6.75 hours (return)
Of the various heritage survivors from the days of US narrow-gauge railways, this is the longest and highest. The 103km route crosses the Cumbres Pass, the highest rail pass in the United States at 3,053m, linking New Mexico and Colorado.
Weaving through the grassland of the southern Rocky Mountains via numerous loops, trestles and tunnels, it is one of the most physically unaltered railways, and its authenticity has secured it roles in films such as The Missouri Breaks and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is still operated by the Denver & Rio Grande Western steam locomotives that worked the railway before its preservation, and its carriages could grace any Western.
Trains operate from both ends and meet roughly halfway at the remote station of Osier. Here, passengers detrain to have lunch before returning to their start-point or continuing to the end of the line and returning by road coach. The railway operates between May and October; in autumn, the colours of the aspens are stunning.
Route: Nîmes to Clermont-Ferrand
Duration: 6.5 hours
Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of the Auvergne, is the destination of this leisurely journey through the Cévennes, the remote, wild country explored by Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine in 1878. Though ‘only’ 303km long, the line burrows through 106 tunnels and crosses almost 1,300 bridges, including some of France’s most impressive viaducts, such as the 41-arch near-semicircle of Chamborigaud Viaduct.
The first part of the journey, in Languedoc- Roussillon, has a strong Mediterranean feel; a plain of cypress, Lombardy poplars and Aleppo pines is followed by vineyards as far as the eye can see. After a short brush with the remains of mining around Alès, the train climbs into hills steep enough to be terraced for agriculture.
North of Langogne is the line’s pièce de résistance as the train runs along a masonry ledge above the River Allier with glorious views that stretch out far across the gorge. Volcanic plugs dot the landscape on the approach to Clermont-Ferrand, preparing you for its imposing cathedral, built out of distinctive black lava stone.
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