Top 5 unmissable journeys by rail

There are few more memorable ways to travel than by train. Here are Lonely Planet Traveller magazine’s top five ways to get on board.

1. The Ghan, Australia: the luxury rail ride

 The Ghan crosses the high bridge over the Katherine River in Australia’s Northern Territory. Image by Paul White/ ImageBrief.The Ghan crosses the high bridge over the Katherine River in Australia’s Northern Territory. Image by Paul White/ ImageBrief.

The Australian outback is a place that’s hard to grasp: a vast, ill-defined area mapped by Aboriginal people not on paper but in song. It was a mystery to European settlers until they started crossing it on camel, and its loose demarcations – the red centre, the never never, the top end – still sound mysterious and remote. That it’s now crossable by train is something of a marvel; that the train navigates this extreme, otherworldly land in a degree of luxury is the icing on the cake.

The train is the Ghan, a long-established service that runs up (and down) the centre of Australia from one coast to another on a three-day trip of almost 2000 miles. Though named after 19th-century outback camel drivers who hailed from Afghanistan, it’s a far cry from their tough desert treks. Dinners in the smart on-board restaurant have an unmistakably outback flavour, with kangaroo fillet on the menu, while platinum service passengers can order 24-hour room service and breakfast in bed.

On the northbound route from Adelaide, plains and russet mountains cede to the arid red centre, the outback’s heartland of cobalt skies, rust-red earth and haphazard fistfuls of scrub. For its first 75 years, the Ghan ended in the desert city of Alice Springs. It now continues on to Darwin on the north coast.

The journey’s periodic stops are a chance to get off the train and into these landscapes, from guided walks to helicopter rides. There’s even the chance to go right back to basics on the original Afghan Express (as the Ghan was once called) – a camel trek through the desert.

Learn more on greatsouthernrail.com.au.

2. The Orient Express: evoking a bygone era

The Northern Belle is one of the two train services that form the UK arm of the revived Orient-Express. The Northern Belle is one of the two train services that form the UK arm of the revived Orient-Express.

‘Railway termini... are our gates to the glorious and the unknown,’ wrote novelist E M Forster in 1910. Once upon a time train travel was a luxurious prospect that came with a frisson of glamour and adventure. It’s this golden age of rail travel that the Orient-Express company seeks to evoke on its train services, most famously in its namesake Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) service that runs from Paris to Venice, and once a year as far as the traditional terminus of Istanbul.

The same group also runs day trips in the UK on the sister trains of the VSOE – the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, which recreate the same Agatha Christie-era atmosphere without the expense. Within art-deco interiors kitted out in wood panelling, mirrors and mosaics, guests are served a five-course dinner with wine and champagne; beyond the window, the rolling downs of the Surrey countryside speed past.

Plan a journey on orient-express.com.

3. California Zephyr, USA:  the pioneering journey

The northern part of Nevada is one of the emptiest stretches that the California Zephyr passes through. Image by Amtrak Photo.The northern part of Nevada is one of the emptiest stretches that the California Zephyr passes through. Image by Amtrak Photo.

There was a time, less than two centuries ago, when the only trains heading west from Chicago were composed of wagons carrying groups of traders, prospectors and missionaries seeking their fortunes or their freedom in frontier outposts. Then, on 10 May 1869, came the opening of the first transcontinental railroad across the USA, which finally helped to forge fast routes through to the west, drawing settlers and, later on, sightseers. The California Zephyr was launched in 1949 to lure the latter, taking them on a 2500-mile journey between the Windy City and the Californian coast in three days. The landscapes that the train crosses along the way remain as dramatic as they always were, ensuring that the longest rail journey in the USA is perhaps also its most beautiful.

The Zephyr passes through seven states and some of America’s most famous scenery on its historic route, departing daily in both directions. The train’s sightseer lounge has near-panoramic windows and revolving seats from which to watch as the train ascends, rising over Denver past mountain lakes, pine forest and slopes mottled with snow. The impressive views continue as it speeds alongside the cliffs and canyons of the upper Colorado River, before descending into the deserts of Utah and Nevada. The mountain passes of the vertiginous Sierra Nevada are one final highlight before San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean – a worthy end for cross-country adventurers.

Explore amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train for more details.

4. Tren Crucero, Ecuador: the vertiginous new train route

After years of neglect Ecuador’s rail network is now being revived, with the added bonus of a new train route, drawn in part by steam engines. Image by Tren Ecuador.Ecuador’s rail network is being revived, with the bonus of a new train route, drawn in part by steam engines. Image by Tren Ecuador.

The Ecuadorian Andes are a fiendish proposition for any transport planner: a three-mile high spine of mountains that runs down the centre of the country, unfolding into high plateaus, fissuring into canyons and sheltering mist-shrouded old towns. When a railway was built here a century ago, it was hailed as a technological wonder. One of the world’s steepest, it snaked past snow-capped peaks and inched down precipitous slopes on its way to the Pacific coast – until it fell out of use in the late 20th century. Following a massive restoration project, as of this summer the Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) will ply the route. It’s a fitting name – pulled for much of the journey by the original steam engines, the train proceeds at a leisurely pace on its four-day, 280-mile journey from the mountain capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil.

From the gold and green grasslands of Cotopaxi National Park to the desolate, glacier-capped Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest peak, there are plenty of dramatic moments. But the undoubted highlight, vertigo notwithstanding, is the Devil’s Nose, a half-mile descent of zigzags down a rocky slope, bridging the uplands and the coast. The journey also incorporates time off the train to encounter the cultures, food and people of Ecuador a little closer at hand.

Plan your Ecuadorean adventure on trenecuador.com/crucero.

5. The Trans-Siberian Railway: the continent-crossing journey

The Golden Eagle takes the Trans-Siberian route past Lake Baikal, which holds nearly a fifth of Earth’s unfrozen fresh water. Image by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains LTD.The Golden Eagle takes the Trans-Siberian route past Lake Baikal, which holds nearly a fifth of Earth’s unfrozen fresh water. Image by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains LTD.

Few would dispute that the Trans-Siberian is the supreme king of all things straddling two rails – a leviathan of a railway journey, traversing distances big enough to bring on a headache just thinking about them. By the time passengers step off at the last stop, chances are that their train will have clanked and jolted its way round a fifth of the circumference of planet Earth. It’s less well known that there’s not just one Trans-Siberian route, but rather a number of sub-species.

The original Trans-Siberian route takes passengers from Moscow to the seaport of Vladivostok, but one of the most colourful alternatives is the Trans-Mongolian route – a trip connecting three capital cities and a world of changing landscapes. Beginning in the Russian capital, trains trundle their way through birch forests across the Ural Mountains to the town of Yekaterinburg. Within a few days, services swing round the brilliant blue waters of Lake Baikal, before plunging southward into the gently sloping grasslands of the Mongolian steppe, dotted with yurts and grazing horses. The last leg from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar to Beijing is a fitting finale, quickly skipping between the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert, industrial sprawl and green mountains – squint and you may even glimpse the Great Wall itself.

Try realrussia.co.uk for Trans-Mongolian trips.

This article was first published in May 2013 and was updated in June 2013.