It's possible to see the best of India on a short-hop rail adventure – take a look at our favourite routes
Mumbai-Neral-Matheran (one day)
The narrow-gauge line that winds from Neral into the Western Ghats – through ‘One Kiss Tunnel’ – to Matheran is delightful. The hill station is car-free and generously laid out, with some fine colonial buildings. To explore thoroughly, stay overnight.
Need to know: Avoid the worst of the monsoon (June-July) when the line may be closed. Immediately after the rains is the best time to enjoy views of the many waterfalls.
Jodhpur-Jaisalmer (six hours)
Jodhpur has one of India’s most spectacular forts and old cities. Explore the alleyways and palaces before taking the train across the desert to Jaisalmer. The line was only built in the 1960s and offers a very different landscape from other Indian train journeys. Sandstone-walled Jaisalmer is another warren of narrow streets, and a good launching point for camel safaris into the Thar Desert.
Need to know: Visit in January and February, when nights are cool and the air clearer.
Delhi-Alwar (two days)
The Fairy Queen, built in Leeds in 1855, is the world’s oldest working steam locomotive. Today it hauls an air-conditioned chair car to the former state capital of Alwar. Guests spend the night in the picturesque city, overlooked by the fort, and visit Sariska Reserve before returning to Delhi.
Need to know: This tourist train runs up to twice monthly from October to March.
Delhi-Agra (one day)
You can reach the Taj Mahal in just three hours from Delhi – but Agra shouldn’t be a day trip: its fort palaces and other tombs are worth several days. Don’t miss the extraordinary abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, just an hour to the west by bus.
Need to know: Visit between November and March for cool, dry weather; arrive early at Fatehpur Sikri to avoid the crowds.
New Delhi-Chennai (35 hours)
This evocatively named overnight train saves time and money while giving you a memorable experience. The broader gauge and solidity of the coaches help to give a good night’s sleep and an introduction to the ‘bed roll’ – like a sleeping bag made of conventional bedding, these are issued free to passengers in AC1 and AC 2-tier sleepers.
Need to know: The GT Express covers 2,186km – one of the longest train routes in India.
Kolkata-New Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling (two days)
The hill station for Kolkata (Calcutta) was developed from the 1830s, but it was only after the opening of the railway in 1881 that many could reach it. The line zigzags its way up into the mountains, the cars sometimes propelled by a venerable steam locomotive. Most spectacular is the spiral at Ghoom (2,258m) where, on a clear day, a breathtaking panorama of the Himalaya comes into view.
Need to know: The line can be closed by landslides; not all trains are steam-hauled.
Kolkata-Puri (nine hours)
An overnight train takes you to the resort of Puri, where the South Eastern Railway Hotel is a delightful 1920s time warp – take tea overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Puri is quiet for most of the year – part of its charm for those wanting to escape India’s hubbub – but explodes into life for the annual Rath Yatra Festival (between late June and mid-July). If you feel restless, head 35km east to Konark and its 13th-century Sun Temple (above), only reclaimed from the sand in 1906.
Need to know: Be careful if swimming – currents off the beach at Puri are treacherous.
Pathankot-Joginder Nagar (11 hours)
You may well be the only Western traveller on this narrow-gauge railway through the Kangra Valley. It runs for 164km, reaches an altitude of over 1,219m and crosses no fewer than 932 bridges.
Need to know: Pathankot is reached by a direct overnight train from Delhi.
Madurai-Bodinayakkanur (one day)
This branch line into the southern foothills of the Western Ghats was built to carry cardamom – the terminus city of Bodinayakkanur in Tamil Nadu is known as ‘the cardamom city of India’, though silk, cotton, mango, pepper, coffee and tea can also be seen from the window. The natural beauty of the area prompted India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to describe it as “southern Kashmir”.
Need to know: This is best planned as a day excursion from Madurai.
Chennai-Coimbatore Junction-Mettupalayam-Ooty (12 hours)
An overnight journey to Coimbatore Junction connects to Mettupalayam, from where the narrow-gauge railway begins. Though it is only 46km to Udhagamandalam (usually called Ooty), it takes five hours to reach the hill station. The railway carves a route through thick eucalyptus forest with Nilgiri langur and bonnet macaques skittering through the trees.
Need to know: Avoid the holiday months of April-June and October.