Guide to train travel and travel by rail, including train trip holiday advice, iconic rail journeys like the Trans-Siberian Express, the Orient Express and more
Of course, some trains are more interesting to spot than others. South America has some great ones: the Devil’s Nose is Ecuador’s most hair-raising, a series of perilously steep switchbacks through the mountains, while Peru has a ride that goes even higher – the Lima to Huancayo ride boasts a station in excess of 4,780m, and oxygen is piped into the carriages. You can even explore the Amazon by rail: hop on Brazil’s Madeira to Mamore line.
In North America most locals prefer cars and planes, which leaves the terrific trains free for travellers. Clear-domed viewing carriages open up views of New Mexican desert, Californian coast and Louisiana bayou, with rail passes making these a great-value ride.
In Europe the train is king – while old-school Orient Express glamour will cost a small fortune, you can still make the iconic trip across the continent to Istanbul on regular services (with stop-offs in Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade) for much less. And countries such as Switzerland are so set up for train travel – including mountain funiculars and scenic rail masterpieces – you wouldn’t explore any other way.
Leaving Europe by train can be done on the epic Trans-Siberian Railway, on which it’s a six-day trundle to Beijing, China – another country where the railways are the prime way to get around (if you can decipher the signs). There are some classic train trips to take in the rest of Asia too: don’t miss India’s immense rail network, or the slick services from Bangkok to Singapore.
Australian train trips are all about scale – with the longest stretch of straight track in the world (a section of the epic Perth to Sydney journey), this is the place to be blown away by the wonder of nothing. Just bring a good book, a bottle of Aussie red and watch the world chug by.
Top 10 train trips
- Make the massive journey from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Yes, a plane would be far faster – the Trans-Siberian Railway, ridden non-stop, takes around six days – but nothing else will give you such an intimate exposure to these unique landscapes, and the people that live in them.
- Ride the highest railway in the world, across the Tibetan Plateau, from China to Lhasa. The line from Golmud to Tibetan capital Lhasa crosses some epic emptiness and tops out at a whopping 5,072m. Some detractors view it as a way to more easily populate the region with Han Chinese, but it's certainly an awe-inspiring (if literally breathtaking) ride.
- Cross Australia from north to south – Darwin to Adelaide – on the legendary Ghan. This far-rambling railway is 2,979km long; it takes two days to ride in full, though stopping off midway at Alice Springs will allow you to stretch your legs and take in the red-rock marvel of Uluru.
- Recreate belle epoque glamour by taking the train from London to Istanbul – the Orient Express on the cheap! It's easy to string together regular local services to join the two cities – perhaps routing via Paris, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. You might not get wood panels and waiter service, but you will get great views, interesting company and a chance to sample travel as it used to be.
- Take the train to Africa: link London to Tangier and beyond. It's simple and sensational to reach another continent by rail – just jump on a sleeper train to Madrid, Spain, then on to Algeciras – where Morocco, and the whole of Africa, is just a short ferry ride away.
- Explore India by rail – the best way to get round the subcontinent. It's a vast, complex, ingenious network – there are over 63,000km of tracks transporting millions of people. Board a commuter train into Mumbai for full-on train madness, or pootle up to a hill station on a narrow-gauge line to get away from it all.
- Ride the rails from Bangkok to the south of Thailand for Asia without the tourists. Sharing carriages (and snacks) with locals, discovering ancient historic towns that no-one else seems to know about, trekking into little-visited national parks in search of Asian elephants... this is the real, backpacker-free Thailand.
- InterRail around Europe – the classic way to see the continent. A range of railpasses enables you to plan your own, economical train odyssey for days, weeks, even months. Combine Europe's great cities (Paris, Rome, Prague...) with smaller local services to get deeper into a variety of countryside.
- Take deep breaths on the lofty train ride from Lima into the Andes, Peru. This high-altitude line offers magnificent mountain scenery and supplementary oxygen, to help you cope with the 4,000m-plus heights.
- Make tracks into Mexico’s Copper Canyon, one of the world’s most amazing rail rides. The line teeters over bridges with plunging gorge views before delivering you to the quirky communities at the canyon bottom – a great place to get off for adventure activities and cultural insight.