Hand the porter your luggage, climb aboard and relive the golden days of railroading on these spectacular journeys.
Copper Canyon Railway, Mexico
The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (Copper Canyon Railway) features 36 bridges and 87 tunnels along its 655km length. Connecting the mountainous arid interior of northern Mexico with the Pacific coast, the railway line passes through landscapes that include sheer canyon walls, waterfalls and high desert plains. Two trains operate on this route between Los Mochis and Chihuahua: the primera express (first class) has a restaurant, bar and reclining seats and makes fewer stops than the clase economica (economy class). Canyon Travel operates a private rail car with an open deck area ‘to absorb the canyon’s outdoor atmosphere’. Get inspired atwww.canyontravel.com.
The saga that is the Ghan started in 1877 when the original railway line from Adelaide to Alice Springs was laid. This initial century-old stretch of line ran straight through a flood plain, resulting in frequent outback strandings after rain. In 1980 a new service on a different line made the run – replacing the old Ghan, which made its last journey in ’82. The great Ghan cuts through Australia’s remote Red Centre, its tropical north and gentle south. It now runs twice weekly from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin; the trip takes two nights in either direction. To book visit www.gsr.com.au
Rocky Mountaineer, Canada
This two-day tour through the magnificent Canadian Rockies is done in daylight, so you can see every dazzling canyon, each inspiring river, and all its verdant valleys and glittering glacial lakes. As you depart from coastal Vancouver, press your face up to the glass to view the spectacular mountains of British Columbia. Then the essence of the Rockies takes shape out the window as you roll through Alberta, enjoying the natural beauty of Jasper or Banff and the big city splendour of Calgary. Get the train departure schedule and more at www.rockymountaineer.com.
El Nariz del Diablo, Ecuador
Heading south from Riobamba, the death-defying section of track known as El Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) runs from Alausí to Sibambe. Construction began in 1908; at Sibambe a series of switchbacks were carved into the steep Andean rock to allow the train to ascend nearly 1000m to Alausí, which sits at 2607m. Locals recommend buying tickets the night before to avoid long queues during the day; the ride lasts four to five hours; dress in layers as the weather is unpredictable.
Venice Simplon-Orient Express, Italy
Glamour pusses, this train trip is guaranteed to keep you purring all the way from Venice through to London. Luxury abounds, from the sumptuously fitted dining car (with French silverware, linen-dressed tables and crystal glassware) to the piano-bar car – you’ll need to pack your gowns and tuxedos. Ladies, Manolo Blahnik heels are perfect for teetering around Europe’s most romantic cities: Vienna, Paris, Prague and Istanbul – all of which the Orient graces with its presence. Your fare includes table d’hôte meals; divine morsels from the à la carte menu and 24-hour compartment service are extra; salivate at www.orient-express.com.
This 10-hour ride travels between the capital Cuzco and Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca. The high altitude around Lake Titicaca makes for exceptionally clear air, and the luminescent quality of the sunlight suffuses the highland Altiplano and sparkles on the deep waters of the lake. At the other end of the journey, Cuzco is a unique combination of colonial and religious splendour built on the hefty stone foundations of the Incas. Your train ticket includes lunch and afternoon tea. For information visit www.perurail.com.
The classic Trans-Siberian service runs from Moscow’s Yaroslavl Station across a third of the globe to the crumbling charm of Vladivostock. It memorably skirts Lake Baikal, which appears seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the Siberian taiga. Veering off the main line, the Trans-Mongolian continues past Russian gingerbread houses and stands of forest before giving way to the endless steppe and sky of Mongolia. The train trundles ever onward to Beijing, passing the spectacular Great Wall. Whether you take one week or 10, this is an epic trip. The Trans-Mongolian departs Moscow every Tuesday.
Just recently starting operation, this white-and-blue, sleek-nosed train will take you from Beijing to Shanghai at 300 kilometres per hour (186mph) in 4 hours 48 minutes. Built to improve the transportation system in China, for visitors the train becomes a convenient way to travel between the country's two main cities, as well as fabulous means to see the countryside. When making a booking, you will notice that you can take either a D type or G type train to experience the CRH high-speed train service. The G train has an average speed of 300km/hr while the D train has an average speed of 250km per hour. To schedule a ride on this modern train, head to www.12306.cn (website in Chinese only).
To travel maharaja-style, try the RTDC Palace on Wheels operates weekly tours of Rajasthan, departing from Delhi every Wednesday (September to April). The itinerary covers Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambhore National Park, Chittorgarh (Chittor), Udaipur, Keoladeo Ghana National Park and Agra. It's a mammoth stretch in seven days, but most of the travelling is done at night. This train once used the maharajas' original carriages, but these became so ancient that new carriages were refurbished to look like the originals. The train has two dining cars and a bar, and each coach, containing four doubles with private bathroom, is attended by a splendidly costumed captain and attendant.
Coast Starlight, USA
Traversing America’s west coast, the Starlight pulls in to some of the States’ great cities: Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles. The trip takes a mere 35 hours to negotiate three states: Washington, Oregon and California. Modern conveniences make the hours pass even more quickly, including various comfort levels of accommodation, a dining car and lounge with on-board entertainment. But the window will likely provide the most exhilarating entertainment – the train passes humbling mountains and vast oceanscapes. The trip lasts around 35 hours; various accommodation options are available. Check www.amtrak.com for details.
Article updated in response to suggestions and rail closures: July 2011
Get inspired by Flightless: Incredible Journeys Without Leaving the Ground