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Great Railway Journeys of the World

There's something about great railway journeys... the clickety-clack of metal on metal and the gentle swaying that keeps us just this side of sick. The longer the journey the more interesting, as far as I'm concerned.

When I was a university student in Switzerland, I had a 'general pass' - a relatively cheap train travel pass that allowed me to ride all trains (and buses and boats!) in the country for a year.

Great Railway JourneysSwitzerland is the perfect country to visit by train

I'd hop on a train after classes, ride from Geneva to Zurich for a few hours, and ride right back, getting back in time for bed. I studied in the restaurant or bar car, watching the country go by. You couldn't find a better library.

I took my first train journey when I was five weeks old - my mother packed me up and crossed Europe from Paris to Istanbul on the then Orient Express to join my father. I haven't looked back since and not even a train derailment in Thailand or the Death Gorge in Burma dampened my enthusiasm for great train journeys.

Have you ever had a memorable railway journey? Please share it with us!

What's so special about great railway journeys?

  • Trains are fast - in Europe, it's often faster to take a train than to fly: you show up and hop on; no lengthy trips out of town for the airport, no major delays or waits (not usually, that is)
  • You get to see the scenery!
  • In many parts of the world train trips are cheaper than planes
  • It's a wonderful way of sharing local people's lives for a few hours (or days) - it's a rare train trip on which you don't speak to someone after a few hours
  • Get travel tips from your fellow travelers
  • You'll have plenty of time to think, to read, to meditate, to look at people
  • Your liquids don't have to be in tiny bottles
  • Save a night's accommodation costs by taking an overnight ride (and wake up in a new city or country)
  • It's convenient: end up downtown rather than at a faraway airport
  • Taste romance on some of the world's most scenic journeys
  • Some of the world's great buildings are railway stations
Great railway journeysThe amazing stained glass windows of the station in Bilbao, Spain

Preparing for a great train journey

It's easier to pack for the train than the plane. You can carry more, and there are fewer restrictions on how you pack.

Start with my travel packing list and eliminate what you don't need. Just make sure you have enough reading material for your trip!

Here are a few packing tips to make your Great Railway Journey more comfortable:

  • Wear the most comfortable thing you have - stretchy, light, soft... remember you may hardly be moving for several days and might be spending the night in these clothes.
  • Bring a sandwich or finger food. Train food can be expensive, and not every city has vendors chasing every train.
  • Some gum or candy may ease a queasy stomach. In many countries suspension is soft, and trains lurch from side to side.
  • Bring an inflatable pillow - they won't be provided. The pillow can double as padding on hard, wooden third-class seats.
  • And bring a towel, especially if you're spending several days on board.
  • Some comfortable shoes that you can easily slip on and off would also be good.
  • Whatever you bring, make sure you can carry it yourself! Baggage tends to disappear more easily when you let go of it.

Some railway history

The railway really came into its own as a mode of travel around the mid-1800s.

Rail travel allowed women of all classes to mingle with men, since they sat side by side on the train. According to historian Amy Richter's book Home on the Rails, train travel changed the way women related to men who were strangers.

All this new freedom to travel came at a time when most Victorian women stayed home, so this unsupervised contact on trains with the opposite sex was seen as pretty daring, if not downright dangerous.

First Class cars were put at their disposal. Smoking men and 'other classes' had their own cars.

By the late 1800s, it was becoming quite hip for women to travel alone - they were seen as independent and plucky, and mostly they were American.

The Viaduct of Death

The world is full of wonderful and exotic great railway journeys. I've listed a few of them below. But the one railway journey that stands out most in my mind is my trip across the Gokteik Viaduct in Burma, before it was renovated.

At 900 feet (274m) high and 2200 feet (670m) long, the rickety viaduct was more than 100 years old, spanning near-vertical gorges on both sides - not for the faint-hearded.

The train was a dirty and dusty, with betel nut spittle on the floor and cracked windows. It was a "monster of silver geometry... its presence there was bizarre, this manmade thing in so remote a place," said Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar. It crawled so slowly a jogger could have passed it. The video below shows it now... it's received a passable upgrade since I rode it in the late 1980s when it was still a military train.

We towed several sealed cars filled with armed soldiers kept out of sight. Along the viaduct itself, uniformed men with machine guns stood grimly every few meters.

We even had a bit of an incident on board. After all the dire warnings against photography, a Swiss photographer decided to ignore the warnings and put our lives at risk by using a huge telephoto lens outside a window. From a distance a telephoto looks like a weapon and these were uncertain times, with mountains teeming with separatist groups. A strapping Australian jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground, threatening to throw his camera overboard into the gorge if he didn't behave. The Swiss man didn't speak another word the rest of the journey. These days, keeping your camera hidden is less important and soldiers' efforts to stop you only half-hearted.

Great Railway JourneysTraveling in style in the 19th century

Great railway journeys

What makes a great railway journey? What are the greatest railway journeys on earth?

Here is a very partial and subjective list - some I've taken and others I'm still saving up for.

Jungfrau Express
One of the Great Railway Journeys that lies nearly on my doorstep is the Jungfrau Express, which majestically winds its way up the Alps through the Eiger and into the Jungfraujoch region. It isn't cheap and it isn't fast but if the weather is clear - please make sure it is - you will be sitting on top of Europe.

Orient Express
One of the most-written about train journeys has to be the Orient Express, famous through Agatha Christie's novel Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene's Stamboul Train. I can claim to have taken the trip from Paris to Istanbul, although at five weeks old I can't say I remember much.

Some of my own memorable railway journeys

Some of my own journeys may not be famous, but they're certainly memorable.

Pretoria to Maputo in Mozambique
I was the only foreigner on this mostly commercial train bringing goods back from South Africa. I still remember the border guards collecting our passports, jumping into a car and driving off across the border with them! We got them back - but not before going through a few fearful moments.

Mombasa to Nairobi
An overnight train that leaves the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa in the evening. As you wake up, gaze at the giraffes while eating breakfast - a bit like watching the sun rise over a game park and you're in the front-row seat.

Bangkok to Butterworth
The best way to get to one of my favorite places, the island of Penang in Malaysia, on an overnight train.

Thai trains
Trains in Thailand are basically reliable. The train heading north from Bangkok goes either to Chieng Mai (these day's it's almost easier to fly) or to the border with Laos - you feel you're going back a century as you head towards the Laotian border. I derailed on this train once - no one was hurt because the rail car that was mangled was fortunately empty. The twisted metal through the external wall made me realize just how flimsy modern-day construction really is.

There are so many famous trains and I'd love to ride them all...

Great Railway JourneysThe Trans-Siberian... still on my wish list

Trans-Siberian Express
One of the great railway journeys I haven't taken yet but would dearly love to is the Trans-Siberian Express, of which there are several versions, depending on whether you are headed for Siberia itself, Mongolia or China. This is a long one - some 9000 kilometers and upwards of a week if you break the journey along the way, say in Irkutsk. You can also take it the other way - from China or Mongolia eastwards to Moscow.

Blue Train
Among the most famous are the Blue Train, an opulent and expensive journey between Pretoria and Cape Town in South Africa; the Ghan, originally called the Afghan Express, crosses the heart of Australia from Adelaide to Darwin; the Glacier Express, from Zermatt to St. Moritz, crosses nearly 300 bridges and 90 tunnels... and I can vouch for this one!

And so many more...
You could try the Rocky Mountaineer, between Vancouver and Banff in the spectacular Canadian Rockies, or the luxurious Deccan Odyssey from Mumbai to Goa. There's also the Reunification Express, from north to south Vietnam, or the ride up to Machu Picchu...

And now, having done it myself, the train journey from Colombo to Ella in Sri Lanka: it's old, rickety, and absolutely breathtaking!

If you've had a memorable railway journey, please share it with the rest of us by telling us when and where it took place, what struck you most, or what was memorable about it.

What is your greatest railway journey memory?

Have you had a memorable railway journey? A trip across a country or a continent, a particularly dangerous or stunningly beautiful trip, or simply a journey that touched you in some way?

Please share your journey with the rest of us by telling us when and where it took place, what struck you most, or what was memorable about it.

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Still can't get enough of great railway journeys?

Here are a few more railway books...The World Commuter by Christopher Portway and The World's Great Railway Journeys by Tom Savio.

Great railway journeys

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