Five unforgettable rail journeys
The pioneering one: California Zephyr, USA
There was a time, less than two centuries ago, when the only trains heading west from Chicago were composed of wagons carrying groups of traders, prospectors and missionaries seeking their fortunes or their freedom in frontier outposts. The terrain they faced was formidable: canyons frothing with white water, vast, scrub-dotted deserts and the steep, snow-streaked ranges of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada.
Then, on 10 May 1869, came the opening of the first transcontinental railroad across the US, which finally helped to forge fast routes through to the west, drawing settlers and, later on, sightseers. The California Zephyr was launched in 1949 to lure the latter, taking them on a 2,500-mile journey between the Windy City and the Californian coast in three days. The landscapes that the train crosses along the way remain as dramatic as they always were, ensuring that the longest rail journey in the US is perhaps also its most beautiful.
The Zephyr passes through seven states and some of America’s most famous scenery on its historic route, departing daily in both directions. Travelling westbound, the first eye-widening moments come over what must be one of the most scenic breakfasts in existence, as the train moves from wide-open plains and into the Rockies. The train’s Sightseer Lounge has near-panoramic windows and revolving seats from which to watch as the train ascends, rising over Denver past mountain lakes, pine forest and slopes mottled with snow. The impressive views continue as it speeds alongside the cliffs and canyons of the upper Colorado River, before descending into the deserts of Utah and Nevada. The mountain passes of the vertiginous Sierra Nevada are one final highlight before San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean – a worthy end for cross-country adventurers.
The new one: Tren Crucero, Ecuador
The Ecuadorian Andes are a fiendish proposition for any transport planner: a three-mile high spine of mountains that runs down the centre of the country, unfolding into high plateaus, fissuring into canyons and sheltering mist-shrouded old towns. When a railway was built here a century ago, it was hailed as a technological wonder. One of the world’s steepest, it snaked past snow-capped peaks and inched down precipitous slopes on its way to the Pacific coast – until it fell out of use in the late 20th century. Following a massive restoration project, as of this summer the Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) will ply the route.
It’s a fitting name – pulled for much of the journey by the original steam engines, the train proceeds at a leisurely pace on its four-day, 280-mile journey from the mountain capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil. Elegantly decorated carriages are lined with armchairs, and the last has panoramic windows and an open-air terrace for unmediated views. From the gold and green grasslands of Cotopaxi National Park to the desolate, glacier-capped Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest peak, there are plenty of dramatic moments. But the undoubted highlight, vertigo notwithstanding, is the Devil’s Nose, a half-mile descent of zigzags down a rocky slope, bridging the uplands and the coast.
The journey also incorporates time off the train to encounter the cultures, food and people of Ecuador a little closer at hand. In the uplands, there’s a trip to the colourful Thursday market at Guamote, a maze of brightly painted adobe houses, while the cloud forest near Guayaquil hosts a meeting with a community of Amazonian Shuar people. As evening descends, passengers disembark the train for traditional haciendas and a local dinner before heading to bed.