Which country is best seen by rail?

Aeroplanes are faster and cars are more convenient, but in many parts of the world trains still reach unexpected and beautiful places that would be inaccessible any other way.

Once the only way to easily cross long distances, today train travel has been mostly replaced by the speed of aeroplanes and the convenience of cars. Yet in some parts of the world, riding the rails still brings travellers to unexpected and beautiful places that would be inaccessible any other way.

To uncover some of the destinations that are best seen by train, we turned to members of the question-and-answer site Quora.com. From Asia to Africa, they identified five countries where the train journey is as incredible as the final destination, whether for the stunning surrounds, the well-run routes or the luxury of the train carriages.

With the largest rail network in the world, India came up over and over again as a country that is a must-see by train. “I can guarantee that you will see some of the world's best scenery… from the misty/rainy western ghats, to the deserts of Rajasthan, to the snowy mountain caps of the Himalayas in the north/east,” said Swaroop Rao, who has travelled through most of India by rail.

Travellers Addy Son and Rakesh Chella recommended India for the sheer luxury and ornate amenities onboard trains such as the Golden Chariot, which offers eight-day journeys through southern India; the Palace on Wheels, which runs seven-day trips from Delhi to the Taj Mahal; and the Maharaja Express, which has three eight-day itineraries and two four-day itineraries across the country.  

While most Quora members agreed that Indian trains could vary in reliability and cleanliness, Ruchit Shah promised that the experience would be “chaotically wonderful”.     

The island nation had Quora contributors singing its praises for having the world’s most reliable train system. “The Shinkansen [bullet train] is very fast, clean and efficient, and the trains in Japan are on time, unlike trains in Europe,” wrote Esme Kos. She recommended travellers buy a Japan Rail Pass to receive one to two weeks of unlimited travel on both the bullet and regular trains.

Brian Scates agreed, having recently travelled the country without using a car, but reminded travellers that the Shinkansen, which are very tourist-friendly with English-speaking staff, only run between major cities. “Once in those cities, it gets far more complicated,” he cautioned. “You will want an internet-connected mobile device with Google Maps to get around, or your trip will be very stressful!”

Switzerland came in close behind Japan for the timeliness and convenience of its trains, but received high praise for its unbeatable Alpine scenery. “Almost all train rides are extremely scenic, especially those in the Valais and the Berner Oberland, the Pilatus railway [with the world’s steepest cog railway], and any of the trains of the Rhaetische Bahn [train line] in the province of Graubünden,” said Dheera Venkatraman. “Take random trains to the most remote parts of the map and deliberately go to towns you have never heard mention of; you won't regret it.”

Josh Sprague agreed, saying he could not imagine a route in Switzerland that was not scenic, but he prefers the “the pace of the tiny train lines” in eastern Switzerland, far from the big cities. James Taylor recommended Switzerland’s Glacier Express, running from Zermatt to St Moritz, for its Alpine scenery all the way to 6,704ft-high Oberalp Pass.  

South Africa
With its mountain vistas and sprawling wine country, South Africa was a favourite destination for its train-side scenery. Diane Womersley recommended the Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria to experience both the luxury of the train, with its marble tiles and gold trimmings, and the scenery of the Cape (a camera on the front of the train broadcasts the view upfront to guests’ rooms).  

But Margie Jordan said she prefers Rovos Rail for the same route. “The rooms are much larger than the Blue Train,” Jordan said. “Large enough to accommodate a king-size bed, additional seating and a bathroom. Your room doesn't have to be converted each night. It just takes you back to the romance of rail travel with nightly gourmet meals that you dress up for.”

United States
For serene ocean views, nothing beat the US Pacific Coast. Stephanie Vardavas gave her vote to the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner between Los Angeles and San Diego, which runs along the Pacific Ocean. “The views are stunning, and the tiny train stations you encounter along the way are lovely little examples of the Spanish Mission style of architecture,” she said.

For a longer journey, Eric Schoep recommended Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle for its “gorgeous views of coastlines, mountains, forests, lakes and rivers”, and linked his pictures to prove it.