In January 2013 the London Underground celebrated its 150th anniversary. A torrent of history can be found in these tunnels; from the relentless innovation of Victorian designers who first built it in 1863, the life-saving role it played during the Blitz, right up to the present day when over a billion passengers pass through its gates every year.
The tube is central to how we experience London, and this special anniversary got us musing over our favourite train journeys around the world. After all, you don’t have to be standing at one end of Platform 3 at Crewe Station armed with a notebook, flask, camera (optional) and sporting an anorak to appreciate the many merits of train travel.
For many, rail journeys have an emotional pull with romance, history and nostalgia all playing key parts in making this mode of travel so appealing, with environmental concerns another.
So why not let the train take the strain on your next adventure?
TOY TRAIN – INDIA
For the real spotter, the Kalka to Shimla Toy Train is a narrow gauge railway for over 90km and undoubtedly one of India’s most memorable rail trips. Starting off in Kalka the train meanders across the plains before starting its slow ascent through the foothills of the Himalaya to Shimla, a former summer holiday hang out for the British Raj.
En route to the charming and cool (as in temperature) town of Shimla the train passes through around 100 tunnels and across an incredible 800 odd bridges resembling Roman aqueducts mostly made of stone. Troupes of mischievous monkeys prance around the edge of the tracks and at speeds averaging around 12mph there is ample time to take in some magnificent views of the surrounding hills and villages.
Whilst the Shimla Toy Train is undoubtedly one for the tourist such is the sheer scale of Indian railways network it is easy to immerse yourself into the vast swathe of humanity that uses the train on a daily basis.
A journey on board one of their ‘express’ services is a heady cocktail of incessant chat, endless supplies of sweet chai and the opportunity to appreciate this vast, densely populated magical country. There is no better way to meet locals of all ages and backgrounds.
BULLET TRAIN – JAPAN
If you’re keen for some super-slick, space-age speed look no further than Japan’s ultra-modern Shinkansen, or bullet train. These elegant and efficient streaks of white will transport you at speeds of up to 300kmph, looking so sleek and almost futuristic in the process that you’ll be the height of cool.
These hassle free trains transport from A to B faster than any internal flight, without a whisper of waiting rooms, passport checks or mention of fluids under 100ml. Take a high-speed hit passing from Tokyo to Kyoto, and be awe-struck by the sight of Mount Fuji through the window, the highest peak in Japan at an impressive 3776m.
The quintessential rail journey of the world – it would be nigh-on criminal not to include the Trans-Siberian Express in this list. From Russia with love, venture forth to Mongolia and China in this train traverse of some of the most rural and breath-taking scenery ever to be blessed with railway tracks. Swap the regal canals of St Petersburg for the rugged wilderness of Lake Baikal in just a few days, where the vast expanse of emptiness is all-consuming and awe-inspiring in equal measure.
Pass some of the most surreal landscapes on the globe, from the seemingly never-ending flatness of the taiga to the stark beauty of the Mongolian grassland, cross over five times zones and 100 degrees of longitude. The sheer ambition of undertaking an engineering feat on this scale, or a journey of this length, is half the appeal. A momentous, life changing event culminating with a day spent on the Great Wall of China – all in all, it’s fair to say you’re never going to get anything like this on any National Rail service in the UK!
Related trips: Trans-Mongolian Express
REUNIFICATION EXPRESS – VIETNAM
Just like the Indian Railways, taking the Reunification Express through the heart of Vietnam is quite an adventure. The North–South Railway (commonly referred to as the Reunification Express) is an overnight train that is normally packed with humans, livestock and fresh farm produce. The ageing trains rattle like a can of nuts and bolts, but they are certainly the best way to travel across Vietnam. If you are lucky enough to get a pre-booked sleeping birth, be prepared to fight for your bed for the night with some local occupying it. (Having a tour guide with you really helps here!) A single journey from Hanoi to Saigon can take up to two days but it is certainly time well spent as you soak up Vietnamese life. This train journey offers great opportunities for people watching as while you roll past the lush paddy fields and sleepy villages stretching from Hanoi all the way to Saigon.
Most of the journey is through the night so you cannot see much but as soon as dawn breaks the scenery all along the way is simply stunning. Don’t forget to try out local delicacies on board; the likes of tarantulas, marinated fried crickets, fresh durian fruit that smells like rotting flesh and of course Vietnamese coffee, served with condensed milk and spoons full of sugar.
HIRAM BINGHAM TRAIN – PERU
No four day trek required to make it to Machu Picchu; taking the train from Poroy, 10 miles west of Cuzco, brings you face to face with this mysterious and captivating Inca ruin without any need for walking poles.
After snaking its way through the Inca heartland of the Sacred Valley, the royal blue train steams alongside the Urabamba River where white water rafters negotiate surging rapids and alpacas graze in their riverside pastures. This old train has character; there is no denying it – the Hiram Bingham train, named after the discoverer of this ancient Inca Fortress, takes its precious human cargo through the phenomenal Andes accompanied by the comforting clickety-clack of the tracks beneath you. This is a million worlds away from your dull, morning commute to work.
You may not be arriving as the Incas would have, but nonetheless you’ll be getting there in style.
FLØIBANEN FUNICULAR – NORWAY
No day out in the beautiful merchant port of Bergen is complete without a trip on the funicular railway. The ‘Gateway to the Fjords’ was built on trade, and the UNESCO protected Bryggen Wharf was financed by riches inherited from heavy taxes upon the vessels that docked here. Easily the best view of the city is from the top of the Fløibanen, or funicular railway, 150 metres from the historic site. Panoramic views stretch out across the harbour below and out over the sea, where outlying islands that make up Norway’s shattered coastline punctuate the skies.
But the funicular is interesting in its own right. One of the steepest railways in the world, this short journey (less than ten minutes) steadily summits Mount Floyen at a hair-raising angle – so much so that stair-like platforms have been built inside the carriages to prevent falling over. The all-glass panels make for easy gawping at the lush green mountains and sea views as you ascend, as long as you have a head for heights. Not to mention that the journey begins inside a cavernous hole carved into the rock of the mountain itself – almost as though emerging from an ancient mine shaft. Even when the train comes to a halt, it remains at the 45 degree angle, and travellers must exit direct onto a flight of steps. Quite the industrial accomplishment!
Related trip: Walking The Fjords