Five unforgettable rail journeys

From a luxury odyssey through the Australian outback to traversing the peaks of the Ecuadorian Andes, here are some of the best ways to get on board.

There are few more memorable ways to travel than by train. From rail odysseys through the outback to day trips in Britain, here are five ways to get on board.

The luxury one: The Ghan, Australia
The Australian outback is a place that’s hard to grasp: a vast, ill-defined area mapped by Aboriginal people not on paper but in song. It was a mystery to European settlers until they started crossing it on camel, and its loose demarcations – the Red Centre, the Never Never, the Top End – still sound mysterious and remote. That it’s now crossable by train is something of a marvel; that the train navigates this extreme, other-worldly land in a degree of luxury is the icing on the cake.

The train is the Ghan, a long-established service that runs up (and down) the centre of Australia from one coast to another on a three-day trip of almost 2,000 miles. Though named after 19th-century outback camel drivers who hailed from Afghanistan, it’s a far cry from their tough desert treks. Dinners in the smart onboard restaurant have an unmistakably outback flavour, with kangaroo fillet on the menu, while Platinum Service passengers can order 24-hour room service and breakfast in bed. They could, in theory, never leave their cabins, which are decked out with en suites and oversized windows framing the passing landscapes.

The scenery is worthy of large windows indeed. On the northbound route from Adelaide, plains and russet mountains cede to the arid Red Centre, the outback’s heartland of cobalt skies, rust-red earth and haphazard fistfuls of scrub. For its first 75 years, the Ghan ended in the desert city of Alice Springs. It now continues on to Darwin on the north coast. The journey’s periodic stops are a chance to get off the train and into these landscapes, from guided walks to helicopter rides. There’s even the chance to go right back to basics on the original Afghan Express (as the Ghan was once called) – a camel trek through the desert.

The traditional one: The Orient-Express, Europe
‘Railway termini... are our gates to the glorious and the unknown,’ wrote novelist E M Forster in 1910, capturing a sense of the romance of train travel that the average peak-time commuter may struggle to relate to. But once upon a time train travel was a luxurious prospect that came with a frisson of glamour and adventure, not to mention fine dining, grand surroundings and impeccable service.

It’s this Golden Age of rail travel that the Orient-Express company seeks to evoke on its train services, most famously in its namesake Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) service that runs from Paris to Venice, and once a year as far as the traditional terminus of Istanbul. The same group also runs day trips in the UK on the sister trains of the VSOE – the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, which recreate the same Agatha Christie-era atmosphere without the need for a pair of £2,000 tickets.

Some of the Pullman’s ’20s carriages were used by the royal family, including the present Queen in the 1950s, and its steam-hauled signature journey is suitably stately. Within Art Deco interiors kitted out in wood panelling, mirrors and mosaics, guests are served a five-course dinner with wine and champagne; beyond the window, the rolling downs of the Surrey countryside speed past. On the steamless alternative, the train winds instead through the countryside of Kent to Whitstable and the sea before returning home.

The 1930s-style Northern Belle, which tours the north on a varying schedule of routes, offers a similar experience, with the addition of strolling musicians who serenade passengers as they dine. As well as food-based signature journeys, both trains run day trips to specific destinations, from a visit to Loch Lomond to a day exploring Bath. And there’s one trip that goes even further in conjuring the spirit of the Orient-Express – a murder mystery lunch on the British Pullman.

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.

The trans-continental one: Trans-Siberian Railway, Siberia
Some railways win fame puttering their way through cutesy landscapes. Others earn affection merrily chuffing up and down snowy peaks. But few would dispute that the Trans-Siberian is the supreme king of all things straddling two rails – a leviathan of a railway journey, traversing distances big enough to bring on a headache just thinking about them. By the time passengers step off at the last stop, chances are that their train will have clanked and jolted its way round a fifth of the circumference of planet Earth.

It’s less well known that there’s not just one Trans-Siberian route, but rather a number of sub-species. The original Trans-Siberian route takes passengers from Moscow to the seaport of Vladivostok, but one of the most colourful alternatives is the Trans-Mongolian route – a trip connecting three capital cities and a world of changing landscapes. Beginning in the Russian capital, trains trundle their way through birch forests across the Ural Mountains to the town of Yekaterinburg. Within a few days, services swing round the brilliant blue waters of Lake Baikal, before plunging southward into the gently sloping grasslands of the Mongolian steppe, dotted with yurts and grazing horses. The last leg from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar to Beijing is a fitting finale, quickly skipping between the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert, industrial sprawl and green mountains – squint and you may even glimpse the Great Wall itself.

For much of the journey however, the appeal lies inside the carriage rather than outside the window. Expect to idle away days making new friends in the dining car and staging bitterly fought card games in your cabin – experiences all swept along on a tide of freely flowing vodka.

The article 'Five unforgettable rail journeys' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.