Back on track: The best new rail routes for 2022

This year sees a bounty of new rail adventures emerge, along with the return of some old favourites. As travel restrictions drop off, it’s time to hit the tracks once more...

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Denver to Moab

(Rocky Mountaineer)

Board the Rocky Mountaineer as it hits the Southwest USA

Since 1990, Rocky Mountaineer trains have wound between the lakes and summits of Alberta and British Columbia. They’ve become a Canadian icon, celebrated for the glass-domed observation cars that seem to beam in visions of another world. In August 2021 the company entered the US for the first time with the launch of its ‘Rockies to the Red Rocks’ route, between Denver and Moab; this year it will run its first full six-month schedule (April-October). It’s a wild two-day ride from the cold slab-granite and snowy tops of the Colorado mountains to the Mars-like landscapes of Utah, which are carved into arches and curves only a Surrealist painter could predict.

Make a stop: Overnight stays at Denver, the mid-way resort town of Glenwood Springs and Salt Lake City (which can be added on) all appeal, but Moab is what truly raises the hairs on our necks, an ideal outdoorsy base from which to explore the buttes, mesas, whitewater and rock art of Canyonlands and Arches national parks. 

Ljubljana to Budapest


Enjoy the slow route through Austria

One of the more intriguing new lines to open in Europe is ÖBB’s service between Slovenian capital Ljubljana and Hungarian capital Budapest. What makes it unusual is that it’s actually longer than lines that already exist (journey time is just less than nine hours). The reason for this – and our delight – is that it takes what is very much the pretty way round, via Graz (Austria), dipping into Styria, a region of thick forests, sparkling pools, green valleys, rocky escarpments and hilltop castles. It’s a magical journey, with views along the Sava River and a route that weaves the foothills of the Southern Limestone Alps and beyond. Sometimes it just pays to take the slow route.

Make a stop: Graz makes a fine halfway stopover. Admire the city’s grand and avant-garde architecture – from the bold and original Kunsthaus museum to the Baroque Eggenberg Palace – and enjoy the views from the fortress-topped Schlossberg.

Adelaide to Brisbane

(Journey Beyond)

Finally ride The Great Southern across Australia

In December 2019, before lockdowns curtailed our plans, we were looking forward to the inaugural run of The Great Southern, Australia’s newest luxury expedition train, set to sit alongside The Ghan and the Indian Pacific in terms of excellent Australian rail adventures. However, less than four months later the country closed its borders. Two years on, Australia is finally open again, though The Great Southern’s short season (December–January) means we’ll have to wait until the end of the year to ride it – but what’s a few more months? Across three days the train connects the country’s east and south coasts, running between laid-back Brisbane, the beaches of Coffs Harbour, the museums and fine-dining of capital Canberra and green Adelaide (recently declared a National Park City), with rugged ranges in between. We reckon it will be worth the wait. 

Make a stop: Nights are spent on board the train, but of all the excursions, the highlight is surely the Grampians National Park, a wilderness of sandstone summits, rich in wildlife and walking trails. Around 200 rock-art sites scatter the park, some dating back 20,000 years. 

Zimbabwe to Angola


Take a safari train across 3,100km of Southern Africa

Rovos Rail – a tour operator with its own train – is unlike any other sleeper experience. Yes, it’s plush, with Edwardian-style dining cars, formal costume de rigueur expected in the evenings and a wine list to savour, but that’s just window dressing. Where it goes is the clincher. Shorter safari routes in South Africa usually take a few days, but it’s the continent-spanning rail adventures that catch the eye, inching through wilderness you just wouldn’t see otherwise. New for 2022 is its Copper Trail journey, which rolls through Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola in July. It takes 15 days, including side trips to an elephant sanctuary in Lusaka, historic copper mines in remote corners of the DRC, the Kafue River (for a boat trip) and thunderous Victoria Falls, as well as sundowners in the dining car each night. It’s truly wild, truly luxe rail.

Make a stop: The stand-out is the three-day stopover in South Luangwa National Park, where game drives will likely reveal a profusion of life, from elephant herds and lolloping giraffes to stalking leopards and crashes of hippos basking in the Luangwa River.

Auckland to Wellington & Picton to Christchurch


See old New Zealand routes in new ways

There’s nothing new about New Zealand’s Northern Explorer (Auckland–Wellington) and Coastal Pacific (Picton–Christchurch) trains. They have long plied the rails of the North and South Islands respectively. Or at least they did until recently – the economic impact of COVID-19 has seen their operator withdraw both these services. But the good news for travellers is that tentative plans have been announced to revive them in 2022 as new multi-day adventures. Slowly trundling the wine country, mountains and whale-rich coast of the South Island or threading the length of the North past moody volcanic peaks and historic viaducts offers a Cliff’s Notes take on the country that few other experiences rival. Let’s hope they start again soon. 

Make a stop: There are so many places to choose from on both routes. But perhaps top pick is Kaikoura (South Island), a pit-stop on the old Coastal Pacific, where you have the chance to swim alongside wild fur seals and spy dolphins and sperm, blue and humpback whales playing in the waters offshore.

Paris to Milan


Find Renaissance art and mighty mountains on this France-Italy route

Launched at the end of 2021, the Trenitalia alternative to the old French SNCF route, which also connects Paris and Milan, is now in service. Use it in conjunction with the LondonParis Eurostar and you can journey from the English capital to Milan in a day (albeit not on one ticket). But far better to take your time. The route fords dizzying mountain country, with some enticing cultural stops en route. For instance, disembark at Lyon, capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where you can see the Roman amphitheatre and Renaissance-era mansions scattering the Old Town. Or jump off at the Savoie commune of Modane, on the edge of Vanoise National Park. On the Italian side, make a pit-stop in Turin for art-nouveau cafes and mouthwatering markets, before arriving amid the galleries, shopping plazas and palazzos of Milan. 

Make a stop: Also launched recently is the Italo high-speed Genoa–Naples service, which runs the length of the country, via Milan. Genoa isn’t especially well connected by rail, so take the chance to stop here and enjoy the port city’s frescoed cathedral and strong food heritage.

Kunming to Vientiane


See China and Laos on one giant train journey

China has expanded its high-speed rail network at a lightning pace. Some 40,000km of high-speed track has materialised since 2008, half of it built in the past five years. It was only a matter of time before its ambition started connecting it with neighbours. Laos is first: a new 1,035km route linking Kunming, in China’s Yunnan Province, with Vientiane, the capital of Laos, opened to freight last December; when COVID-19 curbs end, the first passengers will be able to board. This will make it easy to flit between the hills, karst formations, rice terraces and rainforests of south-western China and the elegant colonial streets of Vientiane via some of South-East Asia’s lushest, most captivating countryside.

Make a stop: The southernmost reaches of Yunnan are often missed by travellers, who typically head north to pretty Lijiang and backpacker favourite Dali. But Xishuangbanna, home to the Dai minority, makes for a lush escape; here you can take guided treks across rainforest wilder that anything else you’ll see in China, swim under the crashing waters of Mandian falls and visit remote traditional villages.

Brussels to Prague


Do Northern Europe in your sleep

Coming soon is the European Sleeper’s Brussels–Prague overnight train. It’s a real old-school Grand Tour, skipping between an array of handsome, historic cities. Obviously, as this is a night train, you’ll miss most of them. But should you choose to stretch the journey out over a few days, potential stops include classy Antwerp and canal-riddled Amsterdam, the half-timbered houses and elegant palace gardens of Hanover in Lower Saxony, the museums and nightlife of Berlin and the spa town of Bad Schandau. Waking up among the historic streets of Prague is the perfect finale, with the chance to stroll Charles Bridge beneath the stately Gothic spires of Prague Castle as the morning mists clear.

Make a stop: This train, provisionally set to depart Brussels at around 7.30pm, links up neatly with the London–Brussels Eurostar. But don’t dash off – the Belgian capital is one of Europe’s more underrated cities. Allow time to wander around its gilded Grand-Place, the narrow streets of Lower Town, the art nouveau triumphs of architect Victor Horta and the magnificent Neoclassical Parc du Cinquantenaire.


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Montreux to Interlaken


Hop aboard Switzerland’s “impossible” train

The idea of linking Lake Geneva, Gstaad and the lakes of Thun and Brienz in a single train journey has been a dream since 1873. The only thing standing in the way was that it was impossible. The railway connecting Montreux and Interlaken comprises two different gauge sizes, so no one locomotive has been able to make the trip; instead, three different operators run what is known as the GoldenPass line, with passengers having to change at Interlaken and Zweisimmen. However, December 2022 sees the launch of the GoldenPass Express, a new service able to run on both standard and narrow-gauge track. For the first time you’ll be able ride this scenic route in one seamless trip.

Make a stop: It defeats the purpose to get off en route, so make the most of what lies at either end. Elegant Montreux, tucked between the Alps and Lake Geneva, bursts with literary and musical heritage and fine wine. Interlaken, in the Bernese Oberland, facing the Jungfrau, provides access to some of the country’s best hiking trails.

Stockholm to Hamburg


Link art, culture and water in Sweden and Germany

The launch of a Stockholm–Hamburg night train by Swedish rail network SJ this August promises much. Details were still hazy at the time of writing, but reports claim that it will run via Copenhagen, using the part-tunnel, part-bridge Øresund Line to cross the strait separating Malmo (Sweden) and the Danish capital. It’s one of the great rail crossings and a majestic sight to wake up to or, indeed, bid goodnight. Certainly, there’s plenty to explore at either end of this new route. Sweden’s capital, spread across a magical archipelago, offers outdoor activities as well as churches and palaces by the score, such as the UNESCO-listed Drottningholm. Hamburg, meanwhile, is not only laced with canals and the tendrils of the River Elbe but is filled with music and art venues. Together, they make for a cultured pairing and an intriguing new route.

Make a stop: From Stockholm it’s easy to extend your rail adventure. Hop on a northbound night service from the capital to Kiruna to pick up the Arctic Circle Train; this service from Kiruna to the Norwegian coastal town of Narvik offers a chance to witness the midnight sun or the aurora from your seat, depending on the season.

Nagasaki to Takeo-Onsen/Fukuoka


Discover the south of Japan at speed

Japan’s first shinkansen (bullet train) was launched back in 1964, but the country is still being linked up at high speed to this day. The latest route – the Nishi Kyushu line – is being built deep in the west of Kyushu Island and is due to open this autumn, connecting the coastal city of Nagasaki to Takeo-Onsen, a steamy town whose thermal waters have drawn visitors for 1,300 years. You could combine it with a trip on Kyushu’s newest sightseeing train, 36+3, which ran its first full season (January–August) last year. Designed by the same team behind the Kyushu Seven Stars, the island’s uber-luxurious and extremely popular sleeper, the 36+3 offers five island-wide itineraries, including a route linking Nagasaki and Fukuoka (Hakata), via the Ariake Sea coast. Together, they’re the perfect combination of fast and slow.

Make a stop: From Hakata you can take the 36+3 down to Kagoshima-Chuo, stopping in at Kumamoto. The city is known for its reconstructed hilltop castle and makes a cultured jumping-off point for discovering the volcanic hills around Aso-Kuju National Park.

Amsterdam to Zürich


Wake up among the Swiss Alps

The rise of new sleeper train services – so long an endangered species – has been gathering apace in Europe in recent years, as travellers look for more carbon-friendly ways to explore. Last May, ÖBB launched a Nightjet train from Amsterdam (Netherlands) to Vienna (Austria); in December its latest Amsterdam–Zürich service began, ready for 2022. The newer route follows the countryside curves of the old Rhine Valley line, so as you blearily pull up the blinds in the morning, you should catch a glimpse of the sweeping hills and gorges of the Upper Middle Rhine – still one of Germany’s most wonderful natural sights. Once you’ve arrived in Zürich, the options are many and dramatic; for instance, hop on a train to Lucerne to explore the lake and connect to some of Europe’s most coveted mountain-rail adventures. 

Make a stop: The Amsterdam connection is a real boon for UK travellers. Easy access via the Eurostar lets you arrive early, store your luggage at Central Station and explore the canals, museums, gabled townhouses and cycleways of the Dutch capital before returning in the evening. It’s the perfect break within a break.    

Tashkent to Khiva


Make full use Uzbekistan’s high-speed links

The extension of the Tashkent–Samarkand high-speed line to Khiva was completed in 2018. The following year, Uzbekistan introduced visa-free travel for UK visitors. But we barely had a chance to take advantage of either before COVID-19 restrictions took hold. Now, a decade after the first daily bullet-train services first began here, and with news of another major high-speed rail connection being mooted (Tashkent–Turkmenistan), 2022 seems like the year to finally see Uzbekistan by rail. In just two hours travellers can flit from the modern capital to the more architecturally toothsome Samarkand, where the elegant Registan Square and the blue tilework of the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis await. Beyond lie Bukhara, Urgench and, the icing on the cake, the ancient city of Khiva, once a long road trip and now just a few hours away by rail. How times have changed.  

Make a stop: The Silk Road city of Bukhara might be small but it’s well worth an overnight stop. Explore the old fortress of the emir, admire the exquisitely carved Kalon Minaret, then haggle your heart out in the old trading halls where Bukhara-style silk carpets are hard-won. 

Madrid to Santiago de Compostela


Day-trip to the pilgrim city from the Spanish capital

For a region synonymous with slow travel – thanks to 1,000 years of pilgrims following the Way of St James – the arrival of a new high-speed rail link between Galicia and Madrid seems almost wrong. The 500km-odd journey from the capital to Spain’s quiet, lush north-west corner used to take seven hours by train; now it’s less than half that. The route is quite a mood change, as inner-city Madrid gives way to pine-forested mountain valleys scored with rivers before a fine finish in Santiago de Compostela. Here, narrow, atmospheric streets wrap a central cathedral whose Romanesque origins have been supplemented over the years with Gothic and Baroque flourishes. It remains one of the grandest sights in Spain as well as an important pilgrim spot. It might even inspire you to explore some sections of the Way of St James.

Make a stop: Get off at Ourense, a pretty town on the banks of the Minho River with a historic centre and thermal springs. It’s also a jumping-off point for the Ribeira Sacra, a Biosphere Reserve dotted with medieval monasteries, vineyards and views over the 500m-deep Sil Canyon.  

Baku to Gabala


See Azerbaijan open up to high-speed travel 

As Azerbaijan wrestles with modernising its ancient railways – first laid by the Russian Empire in 1878 – new routes are opening up some of the country’s hardest-to-reach spots. Last year saw the arrival of a new Laki-Gabala connection, which became the final link in a three-hour route from capital Baku to Gabala, a city nestled snugly at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It has become particularly popular with skiers in recent years, but there are plenty of hiking opportunities in summer. Nearby, you’ll discover the ruins of Old Gabala, the former capital of Caucasian Albania, a state that covered most of this region for more than a millennia. Also go there to visit traditional Udi villages, take a dip in thermal springs and go boating on the crystal-clear waters of Nohur Lake, which lies peacefully amid a serene backdrop of crumpled green hills.

Make a stop: From Gabala it’s a 90-minute drive to Sheki, one of Azerbaijan’s most far-flung wonders. This UNESCO-listed city was once a vibrant Silk Road hub, and the legacy of those days is writ large in streets filled with the remains of exquisite palaces and caravanserai.    

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