Of course this top ten will be and remain highly subjective but it will also contain some “inevitable” contenders in the ranking of the most iconic railroads on the planet. Pack your bags, ladies and gentlemen, dress comfy but classy, turn off your screens (cellphones, tablets etc.) as what you are about to see on these tracks counts among the most incredible sceneries Earth has to offer. Get on board!
10. Tren Crucero, Ecuador: Quito – Guayaquil
You will feel like a Spanish adventurer roaming thru the new world, as these incredible tracks will take you along the “Avenue of Volcanos”, reaching almost 3,000m of altitude in less than 60km. Stay put, order a cold aguardiente to not feeling dizzy as the scenery of the immense Andes mountains to the Pacific coast will unfold under your feet.
9. La Ligne de Tende, France/Italy: Coni – Ventimiglia
Like Hannibal who crossed the Alps with his army sitting on elephants backs, will you be brave enough to follow the scenic railroad that crosses the mountains of the Mediterranean Riviera? We would expect you to be, as the challenge is not quite what the African general went thru in his antique travel. You’ll most likely enjoy a gorgeous succession of troglodyte mountain villages and elegant bridges stepping over clear streams, while being proposed a bowl of olives and a local pastis.
8. The Banat Wonder, Romania: Timișoara – Băile Herculane
Set in one of the most amazing Eastern European region, which changed nationality several times during the 20th century due to wars and borders frequently redefined, this railroad will lead you to a hidden treasure discovered in the dawn of times and enjoyed by the Romans as a “luxury/leisure” center back in their days. First Austrian, then Ottoman, then Austrian again, then Austro-Hungarian and then finally Romanian, the mysterious valley of Băile Herculane has been enjoyed for its natural hot springs by the whole Western Europe gotha for decades.
7. The Ghan, Australia: Darwin – Adelaide
Almost 3,000km long of pure Australian outback beauty! Since before the 1930’s, Australians and travellers from all over the world have enjoyed to cross the red continent, north to south and the other way around, at the sound of a relaxing live piano, preserved from the scorching heat and the desert dust while never losing sight of it: the magic of train travels! The transcontinental trip of “The Ghan” still takes today its passengers thru the most scenic and typical Australian sceneries.
6. California Zephyr, USA: Chicago, IL – Emeryville, CA
America in all its greatness and disproportion! 4,000km of all possible sceneries, from the midwest plains to the central high mountains, the high plateaux and the torn up landscapes, the desert valleys and finally the welcoming, empowering Pacific bay that leads the world towards the source of an ever more distant horizon and full of promises. The “California Zephyr” is one of these true pieces of “Americana”, part of the world culture that resonates within everyone.
5. Trans-Siberian, Russian Federation: Moscow – Vladivostok
Another land of disproportion and unmeasurable horizons! This time with a staggering railroad length of more than 9,000km that runs thru the heart of Russia all the way to the far East and the entry into the Pacific. Brace yourselves, courageous wanderers willing to follow Dostoyevsky on his way to the House of the Dead, merry travellers hearing Gogol’s chuckles as they follow the path of his Dead Souls, as the legendary Trans-Siberian railroad today will need 6 days and 4 hours to go from Moscow to Vladivostok!
4. Qingzang Railway, China/Tibet: Xining – Lhasa
This hardly believable railroad will hold 2 records in the first sentence of its dedicated paragraph: it is the “youngest” railroad of this Top 10, or most recent, and it is also the highest in the world, with a peak reached at 5,072m – and with almost 1,000km constantly above 4,000m of elevation. Although its scenery is truly mind-blowing, although this “train of records” seems so appealing and attractive to train enthusiasts and travellers, it must be said that, due to the extreme high altitude of the track, each wagon is under the supervision of its own medical doctor, and an oxygen supply kit is provided to every single passenger, for obvious reasons. Traveler, you’ve been warned: only consider if a professional validates your physical condition before!
3. Cape to Cairo, at least 11 countries: Cape Town, South Africa – Cairo, Egypt
Legendary, to say the very least. This one railroad carries in its path, following its trail of smoke, scents of vanilla, tobacco, coffee, leather, rare woods… It is humid, it is hot, it is also dangerous and hypnotic, fascinating, scary… and it also doesn’t really exist! Never completed due to many wars, civil wars, regime changes, because it was supposed to run thru so many countries that time swallowed, transformed, reshaped or reinvented, the Cape to Cairo is still one of the world’s most iconic railroads for real reasons. Parts of the track exist and have been in constant use since the late 19th century; the journey will take you thru the oldest cities and civilizations of the planet, such as Dar es Salaam, Aswan and Alexandria; the railroad represents human ambition and the alternative to glory that is failure in the sense of a fantastic project, motivated by many nations and representing countless interests, that is, as of today, unfinished…
2. The “RB 68”, Germany: Munich – Füssen (near Neuschwanstein)
How would you enjoy traveling thru a postcard? In a landscape so scenic, so majestic that everybody, somehow, knows it and can identify to it, can somewhat feel closely related to it. The Neuschwanstein castle is mostly responsible for the magic of the “RB 68”. Commissioned by King Ludwig II to be offered to Richard Wagner as a creative retreat, its silhouette has inspired the Walt Disney company logo for a century. This rather short (90km) railroad will take you from Munich to Füssen in roughly 2h, in one of the most iconic scenery of the old continent, filled with a strong identity and culture that ranges from Adalbert Stifter, Richard Strauss, Stefan Zweig, to BMW, Mercedes and the glorious soccer club of the Bayern München. Do not miss this one-in-a-lifetime railroad experience.
1.The Orient Express, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey: Paris – Istambul
Forever unbeatable, thanks to the list of nations that it crosses, thanks to Agatha Christie, to the magic of the old world where trains were given birth, to the legendary capitals that it connects, and to the luxurious image it conveys, infinitely. Not only is the Orient Express the most iconic railroad of all, but it is also the one that we secretly think of when we think of train travel, the one we instantly link to the Mitteleuropa when we see a map of the old world. And secretly thinking of it is indeed the right approach here: at 15,000€ a round trip ticket, it sure lives up to its name and will unfortunately prevent a lot of us to enjoy some of his legend and glorious past… Nevertheless, this railroad is for ever the epitome of the old world’s railroads.