All the railway lines in Scotland are pretty magical really. People talk a lot about the West Highland line, which is wonderful, but actually the hidden gem is from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness. And also the aptly named Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. This is the northernmost railway line in the UK. Both have been pondered for closure at various times, so we mustn’t let them go.
This 13-day rail trip from Europe to Africa is one colossal cultural concoction. Starting in Malaga, Spain, take the Andalucia Express through the spectacular 'El Chorro' gorge, with stops in Cordoba and Alhambra Palace in Granada just for starters. Take a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers, stopping for days in Fez, Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech, each with unique cultural highlights.
Not so famous for its rail journeys, as many of them were let go for motorway madness. However, some are not to be missed. Such as the Belfast to Derry/Londonderry rail journey, especially the last section up along the North Antrim coast, going along dramatic coastlines, past castles and cliffs. And the Dublin to Westport train, which takes you into the heart of the coastal and cultural West.
Indian railways have come on in leaps and bounds, and one of the finest remnants of colonial time, with a still extensive network. The train journey around Kerala and Tamil Nadu is one of our favourites taking in coast, temples, tea plantations and many other cultural delights. All in about 19 days, with nights on houseboats, in coastal luxury hotels, and mountain villages. This really is one of the most spectacular ways to take in southern India.
Many say the best part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world, this is the section that goes from Moscow to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Or vice versa of course. But whichever way you do it, it’s rail-y big. Even this section takes three weeks and is full of startling contrasts - such as Moscow one day, Lake Baikal the next. From the wilds of Terelj National Park to burgeoning Beijing. It’s quite a trip.
Just as the name suggests, the restoration of this magnificent train line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975 was part of the reunification of the Vietnamese people after years of war, which had led to closure of the line. It clings to the country’s long slim coastal landscape, making it the perfect hop on, hop off experience. And one of the best ways to visit this fascinating country and meet its people too.
If you don’t feel up to the four-day hike, this is the luxurious loco way up to Machu Picchu, departing from Cuzco. Rediscovered a century ago, this "Lost City of the Incas" has not lost its ability to astonish, with its panoramic Andean views. Ride the rails through the spectacular Urubamba Valley to the UNESCO site, which you can explore before catching the train back to Cuzco.
The train network is impeccable and way up there with Switzerland in terms of speed and efficiency. Most tourists travel by train, from the famous Shinkansen bullet trains going between, say, Tokyo and Kyoto, to the sleeper trains into the mountains in Sapporo. Best value is to buy a rail pass in advance of your travels. Tour operators will organise this for you.
Online train booking systems were sent to try us. They are getting better, and some are clearer than others, but often you lose the will to live before you can say Gare du Nord. In addition, you often can’t book more than three months in advance. Use an expert tour operator – they are train gods, not geeks.
The world’s southernmost train, in Patagonia, steams its way from the “End of the World” station into Tierra del Fuego National Park, but stops a long way short of the park’s main attractions. You’ll need a car, therefore, to get to the station from Ushuaia, and into the park at the other end, making the 40-minute journey seem rather overpriced and gimmicky – especially as the park entrance fee is not included
The flying culture still dominates tourism in most countries, with train travelers often treated like second class citizens of the world. Which is why using a tour operator to coordinate your rail vacation is still the best option. They know all the answers and solutions that the national transport and tourism agencies should know, but don’t. Because train lovers know that connectivity is the new cool.
In general, it is always good to stock up on snacks before you board a train. There are exceptions, of course, but food and trains do not usually a happy marriage make. Bring dried noodles or powdered soups on the Trans-Mongolian Express as there is always a samovar of hot water. And stock up on fruit on Japanese train journeys, because it rarely appears on the menu anywhere else.