In many parts of the world, train travel is a viable alternative to air travel. Western Europe, China and Japan have focused on building high-speed networks that can compete with other modern modes of transport. The U.S. lags woefully behind in the 21st-century rail revolution. However, many travel enthusiasts see trains as not just a way to get from Point A to Point B, but also an opportunity to take in the view along the way. Besides, the act of train travel, high-speed or not, seems more romantic than getting behind the wheel or stuffing yourself into an economy-class plane seat.
Some trains and travel companies take advantage of that sentiment, offering "land cruises" on luxury trains that look like they came from the colonial era. India's Deccan Odyssey, Singapore's Eastern and Oriental Express and trains that follow the route of the famed Orient Express offer a chance to experience classic train travel. Unfortunately, the price tag is steep.
But it is possible to build your own epic rail journey. If you want to experience long-haul train travel without dropping five figures on a ticket, here are some of your best options.
The Trans-Siberian Express is the epitome of long-haul train travel. (Photo: Simon Pielow [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Speaking of epic rail journeys, the Trans-Siberian Express stands alone. The main line of this route covers nearly 6,000 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok. Like many lengthy rail lines in the world today, the Trains-Siberian route is used primarily by freight trains. But passenger trains use the Moscow-Vladivostok tracks every other day and make a Moscow-Beijing run weekly. The entire trip takes seven days. Fares can be surprisingly cheap, especially for those who find discounts or book in the right place. Most passengers are Russian, though a significant number of tourists also ride. This isn't a luxury train, but it is reasonably comfortable, with sleeper compartments available.
What about sightseeing? A lot of tourists take this trip so they can cross it off their "to-do-before-I-die" list. Some travelers find the stark beauty of Russia's countryside attractive, and the flat plains and numerous rivers are photo-worthy. The Moscow-Beijing train (which breaks off the main line at the Siberian town of Chita) passes through the Mongolian Plains and the storied Gobi Desert before reaching China's capital city.
The Indian Pacific during a stop in Cook, South Australia. (Photo: FlyinRoo [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
Australia is home to an impressive rail network that boasts two cross-country lines. The most notable of these is the Indian Pacific, which is named for the two oceans that it connects. The train passes through the fabled Outback as it travels 2,700 miles between Sydney in the east, and Perth in the west. Eastern Australia's Blue Mountains, trademark arid flat lands, grasslands and farmlands are all part of the three-day trip.
Another Down Under epic, the Ghan takes rail riders on a two-day journey between the country's southern and northern coasts: from the southern city of Adelaide to Darwin in the far north. This line passes through the Finders Mountain Range, the stark deserts of central Australia and the tropical lands of the far north. The train is an ideal way to see the sparsely inhabited, unique landscapes of inland Australia. It's cheaper than a sightseeing flight and safer and more comfortable than driving. Unlimited ride and multi-ride passes and discounts make rail travel affordable in Australia.
VIA Rail Canada runs a service that crosses the 2,800 miles between Toronto and Vancouver. Fittingly dubbed The Canadian, this journey takes four nights and three days, passing through the forests of the Great Lakes region, the plains, the Canadian Rockies and British Colombia's Pacific Northwest. Winnipeg, Ottawa and Edmonton are major cities along the route. Special features on this train include dining cars and "sky dome" cars with glass ceilings ideal for sightseeing en route. The Canadian also has special sleep cars. Most of VIA's service focuses on The Corridor, a high-traffic section of tracks from Quebec City, Quebec, to Windsor, Ontario. Sightseers and those who favor trains to cars or planes are the main clientele on Canadian's lengthy rail journey.
India still maintains a legendary rail network. Trains are an important part of the infrastructure, but are also a major aspect of the country's image. The Himsagar Express is the longest of the subcontinent's long-haul rail routes. It runs from the state of Kashmir in northern India all the way to Kanyakumari, a town in Tamil Nadu on the southernmost tip of the country. This three-day journey passes through India's heartland, with a stop in Delhi, a brush with the Bay of Bengal and a pass through the western boomtown of Kochi (Cochin in colonial-era spelling). The line passes through several national parks and a variety of ecosystems. In addition, the journey reveals some of India's diverse cultures. The train has air-conditioned sleeper cabins, though truly budget-conscious travelers can get by with dirt-cheap basic fares — that is if they have endurance and don't mind discomfort.
A view of the Fraser River around Granby Colorado from the California Zephyr as it travels through the area. (Photo: Loco Steve [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The California Zephyr's Chicago-San Francisco Bay Area run is the longest offered by U.S. train company Amtrak. The 2,438-mile-long route, from Chicago's Union Station to the Bay Area suburb of Emeryville, is good for land-cruisers seeking a taste of Midwestern and Western America's diverse scenery. After moving through the heart of Middle America, the Zephyr winds through the Mountain West, stopping in Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno before negotiating the Sierra Nevadas, Sacramento and the Bay Area. The California Zephyr runs daily, with the total journey lasting just over two days.
China is making headlines with its rapidly expanding high-speed rail network. Despite advances made by the country's domestic airlines, train travel is still preferred by most people, especially during Lunar New Year, when stations and trains overflow with people returning to their hometowns to celebrate. Though high-speed service is expanding, most of the trains in the Middle Kingdom are still of the slower-moving variety.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway offers one of the more scenic trips in China, which runs between the Southern boomtown of Guangzhou and the Tibetan city of Lhasa. This 2.5-day journey passes some of China's most scenic landscapes: lush and mountainous areas of Southern and Central China, the stark but picturesque Tibetan plateau, and the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range. Part of the track is more than 16,000 feet above sea level, the highest section of rail in the world.
The Reunification Express runs between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: plusgood [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Asia also has a couple of shorter long-haul rail routes worth mentioning. Vietnam's 1,000-plus-mile North-South Railway provides the track for the Reunification Express, which runs between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Since it travels nearly the entire length of the country, it is ideal for sightseeing.
Singapore to Bangkok, do-it-yourself
Regular passenger trains also travel the same route as the popular (and super-expensive) Eastern and Oriental Express, which runs between Singapore and Bangkok. A do-it-yourself journey along the route requires a couple of stops (in the Thai city of Hat Yai and in Kuala Lumpur) but the coastline, mountains, dense jungles and small villages that you pass along the way make this daylong-plus trip worthy of a ranking amongst the world's most scenic rail journeys.
The new developments in rail travel mean that trains aren't going to disappear anytime soon, but there's magic to be found away from the fast locomotives of the future. Using trains to sightsee can be both romantic and economical. In some cases, like in Australia, Siberia and Malaysia, there's no better way to see the countryside up close.