We realise some people don’t just travel for a holiday, but for a more specific purpose. Here are some of the best railroad journeys in the whole world for true train enthusiasts
It seems that every new mode of transport goes through a period that I’m cliche-bound to call romantic. Think of the 1920s and cars, the 1950s and aeroplanes and you get the idea. Trains have also had their time in the sun, but in my head, it was always about where you were going rather than the mode of transport itself.
Railways represented freedom for the common person almost immediately without the unreachable prices that characterised the early days of motoring and air travel. They were also an essential tool in the industrialisation of the modern world, providing a relatively cheap way of taking products vast distances quickly.
Today, how you view rail travel will probably depend on where you live; some countries view a decent, affordable, well-run rail infrastructure to be essential. I’m from Britain. We very much don’t.
So today, let us glory in the wilderness-exploring, folk-music-inspiring, hobo-transporting delights of the train.
Japanese cat train
And we begin with something that is the ultimate in cutesy, millennial clickbait. Ladies and gentlemen… it’s cats on a train. Japan’s rail network is famously fastidious, and is also one of the most technologically advanced in the world, so what happens when you need to slow the pace down and relax a bit?
Well, you put a cat cafe on a train of course. It’s a two and a half-hour ride between the towns of Ogaki and Ikeno, and as this video suggests, passengers spend the entire time surrounded by gambolling kittens while drinking tea and eating biscuits. It’s actually a collaboration between a cafe named Sanctuary – who also specialise in rescuing stray cats – and the Yoro rail company, to help raise awareness of the plight of homeless animals and to find new homes for some of the kittens.
In other Japan / train / cat news, a cat called Tama was promoted to the rank of station master at Kishi station in the town of Kinokawa. Because why not?
Fort William to Mallaig, Scotland
For those of you who wonder daily where your Hogwarts acceptance letter is (and I know you do), fear not.
I always thought the fact that students in Harry Potter travelled by train was a nice touch (the idea of sitting in a snug railway carriage for hours while the landscape gets ever more wild outside appeals to my sense of romance), and once you’ve braved the hordes queueing to have their photo taken at Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, why not head up to Scotland and experience a bit of the journey for yourself?
The Jacobite is the name of the steam locomotive that will take you on a stunningly pretty route through the western Highlands, alongside lochs, past charming villages and across the fabulous 21-arch span of the Glenfinnan viaduct, one of the iconic images from the Harry Potter films. It’s either that or get practising on your Ford Anglia enchanting skills.
Children’s Railway, Budapest
You’ll just have to trust that these aren’t the type of kids who enjoyed crashing their model trains. After all, they’ve been put in charge of a real, actual-size one. In the hills to the north-west of Budapest, a seven-mile stretch of track is operated by kids aged 10-16 (apart from the driver of the locomotive, who is, thankfully, a fully-qualified adult).
The line was opened in 1948 for the Pioneers – the Communist version of the Scouts – to teach its members about discipline, camaraderie and the importance of working together.
Learning about how to operate the network or the inner workings of a train was seen as good training for a future career on the railways, or in engineering in general… As well as the added bonus that any leadership skills or initiative would be spotted at an early age by adults in the party, and that child could be earmarked as a possible party section leader for the future.
Today, it’s one of the very few children’s railways remaining, and if you’re in Budapest, it’s worth going for the journey (which is lovely in itself) and also to see the evident pride that the kids take in keeping this piece of history running smoothly.
The Ghan and the Indian Pacific, Australia
Adelaide to Darwin, or Sydney to Perth. Either east to west or south to north, Australia provides two of the greatest railway journeys on the planet. Neither are cheap – the lowest ticket price on the Ghan is around 830 Australian dollars – but both will give you a journey you’ll never forget.
The Ghan takes you through the heart of the continent, with opportunities to get off for activities such as camel trekking, while spending the rest of the journey either relaxing in your cabin watching the changing scenery, or in the dining car eating five-star meals and drinking excellent Aussie wine. If opulence is your thing, this might just be for you.
The Indian Pacific offers a similar experience, but also gives you the (admittedly rather specific) thrill of travelling along the world’s longest piece of perfectly straight track – almost three hundred miles of it in fact – across the Nullarbor Plain, an arid, treeless expanse of virtual nothingness before life returns to the baking plate of the earth approaching the east coast and Perth.
A fine way to arrive smack in the centre of a number of Europe’s great cities (London, Paris, Brussels) and an equally good exercise in comparing the wonder of France’s high-speed rail network with southern England’s frankly Victorian system.
Utilising the engineering marvel of the Channel Tunnel, Eurostar can whisk you from London to Paris in a little over two hours, and has also provided a lifeline for one of my all-time favourite buildings, the baronial majesty of St. Pancras station.
With its glorious single-span arched engine shed, now a shimmering wing of glass and sky-blue paint, it is one of England’s finest examples of Victorian engineering. It’s just a shame that the rest of the system hasn’t moved on.
Gisborne Airport Train, New Zealand / TJ Tatran Čierny Balog, Slovakia
Two trains-in-unexpected-places for the price of one here. How I spoil you. We travel first to New Zealand and one of the most worrying sights for a pilot to see as he begins his descent: a steam train crossing his path.
The town of Gisborne, on the east coast of the North Island, has a regional airport which is crossed by a railway line. And if you think that this might just be a bit of a gimmick, it very much isn’t. The line has services using it every day, and the airport has 60 domestic routes flying out of it, so it’s a delicate balancing act keeping everything running safely and smoothly.
Less of an organisational challenge, but equally startling (especially if you were only expecting the referee’s whistle) is Čierny Balog in central Slovakia, whose football ground has a railway line running between one of the stands and the pitch. Sometimes, during games, trains are seen slowly puffing and wheezing their way past puffing and wheezing full-backs.
Georgetown Loop Railroad, Colorado
In the 19th-century silver mining region of Colorado, this railway is straight out of every western you’ve ever seen. Finished in 1884, this route between Georgetown and Silver Plume in the Rocky Mountains was considered one of the engineering marvels of the age, and it’s easy to see why.
Despite the fact that the towns are only two miles apart, the line runs for four and a half miles, almost as if the engineers who built it were doing things for fun. In a way, they were. It contains unnecessary loops, corkscrew ascents, four bridges (the crowning glory of which is a terrifying-looking 30-metre high trestle, exactly the same width as the train is long) and is now a popular tourist attraction.
It’s part of a larger conservation area in which you can visit the old silver mines for a tour, go cycling or hiking, or try panning for gold.
The Landwasser Viaduct, Switzerland
Crikey. Don’t look down. 65 metres above the Landwasser river in Switzerland, this single-track viaduct traces an elegant curve between the two sheer cliffs on either side. The Albula railway, of which it is a part, deals with every challenge Swiss topography can throw at it, with viaducts, bridges and tunnels all along its spectacular length.
The rail company has grabbed the opportunity to maximise the tourist appeal of the route, investing in what they call Panorama cars, carriages which are almost entirely glass, affording passengers an uninterrupted view of their surroundings.
And breathtaking those surroundings are. Along its 38-mile length, the trains cross 55 bridges and go through 39 tunnels, some of which are spiral in shape to help them climb nearly a mile vertically.
The California Zephyr
Like the Australian odyssey mentioned earlier, this really is a great railway journey across a mighty continent. Starting at Chicago’s Union Station, you spear across the endless cornfields of Iowa, cross the Mississippi and head into Nebraska. Crossing Nebraska overnight and heading into Colorado, you arrive in Denver the following morning.
The train then climbs into the Rockies and follows the Colorado River, before being spat out into Utah. After crossing the Wasatch Mountains, you head towards Salt Lake City. Skirting the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake and crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats you cross into Nevada, head through the Forty Mile Desert and on to Reno.
Finally, you enter California, cresting the Sierra Nevada and descending to the California Central Valley, eventually terminating at Emeryville, from where you can easily head into San Francisco. In 51 hours, covering nearly two-and-a-half thousand miles, you’ll have seen more of America than you’d ever thought possible.
Hamburg model railway museum, Germany
Let’s finish with this little marvel, shall we? Although, having said that, I think “little” is possibly the wrong adjective to describe Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland (Miniature Wonderland if my German hasn’t escaped me) for, although it claims to be miniature, it is actually the largest model railway in the world. It takes 150 staff to control the trains with technology that looks like it comes from the most high-tech control tower of a major airport.
Trains are monitored and closely controlled, lights dim and brighten again, and throughout its many sections (based on Hamburg itself, but also more far-flung locations such as Italy, the Austrian Alps and even the USA) 1,300 trains and 100,000 other vehicles go about their scaled-down lives.
The models take up around 1,500 square metres of space, and the attention to detail is utterly glorious. There’s further expansion planned, with a replica of Monaco (complete with Formula One race) in the pipeline, as well as sections looking at Africa and Australia. Simply wonderful.