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Some rails to ride if you don’t feel like driving, flying, sailing, biking, or hiking.

TRAIN TRAVEL means two things to me:

  • either 1. bumming across Europe on a Eurail, riding third class, sleeping bag rolled out on the floor for the overnights, deciphering those faded yellow schedule charts at each station, 23:48 Ventimiglia -> 06:11 Port Bou.
  •  or 2. “historic” tracks, often narrow gauge, repackaged for a “tourist experience,” like La Trochita — I rode from Esquel to Nahuelpan and back — with wood-burning stove, Mapuche guitarist, and mate.

Both are novel to me, probably because trains just aren’t done in modern America. I might even make a special trip to ride a good one. Below are some that would be in the running.

U.S. trains

BootsnAll threw out 7 Best American Train Trips under $100 last fall. Here’s what they came up with:

Silverton-Durango line / Photo: shellorz

1. Grand Canyon Railway – Runs from Williams, AZ, to a station at the canyon’s South Rim.
2. Alaska Glacier Discovery Train – I’ve never ridden this Anchorage-to-Whittier train, but I have spent time on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Chugach National Forest. Would be cool to see the glaciated landscape through a train window.
3. Great Smoky Mountain Railroad – I’m starting to love the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Might have to check out this train, which leaves from Bryson City, next time I’m town. Bonus that the depot is across the street from the new Nantahala Brewing.
4. Skunk Train – Built to haul downed redwoods, this re-purposed line runs from Fort Bragg on the California coast through Jackson State Forest to Northspur. Could be a nice counterpoint to the Avenue of the Giants.
5. Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited – This one’s more practical than the rest, its route connecting Chicago with NYC and Boston along the shores of the Great Lakes.
6. Silverton-Durango Narrow Gauge – I’ve actually been on this one. Originally a mining train, it now transports tourists and hikers/climbers through the mountains of southwest Colorado.
7. Arkansas & Missouri Railroad – The A&M hauls both passengers and freight, one of the last lines in the U.S. to do so. It runs from Fort Smith, AR, north to Monett, MO.

Trains abroad

The list below of The world’s greatest train trips is courtesy of The Guardian. Compare it to ours from back in 2008: The 10 Most Spectacular Train Journeys in the World.

1. Trans Siberian – A classic that I’m sure most people are familiar with. For more info, check out Carlo’s excellent pieces Why You Should Travel Independently on the Trans Siberian Railway and Trans Siberian Sidetrips: How to Break Your Train Ride.
2. Caledonian Sleeper – This overnighter connects London with Fort William, in the Scottish Highlands.
3. Venice-Simplon Orient Express – This one heads out of London in the opposite direction and keeps on truckin’ till it hits Venice. A one-way ticket will set you back £1,595.
4. Bernina Express – Its complexly engineered path through the Swiss Alps and into Italy makes it “one of the slowest expresses in Europe.” I’m guessing the views make up for it.
5. Nakorn Ping Express – For those headed from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai, this is a cheaper option than the luxury Eastern & Oriental Express. And its windows look out on the same rainforest and mountains.

Cutting edge

Despite all the narrow-gauge throwbacks listed above, technology is moving in the other way too.

Aboard the Maglev / Photo: tallkev

Japan‘s bullet trains are old news. In 2006, I rode the Maglev train that connects Shanghai to its main airport.

Magnetic force keeps it hovering just above the track, and at that time (and probably still) it was the fastest passenger train in the world, hitting 431km/h (268mph) at its upper limit. The 30km journey took a little over 7 minutes.

The latest news in train travel involves talks between the British and Chinese governments over the construction of a high-speed line to link London and Beijing. According to one recent article, the 5,000 miles would be traversed in two days. No, still not as fast as air travel…but we’re getting there.

Community Connection

Before you go, read up on 6 Tips For Pain-Free Train Travel.

About The Author

Hal Amen

Hal Amen is a managing editor at Matador. His personal travel blog is WayWorded.

  • JoAnna

    I took the train from L.A. to New Orleans this year, and while it took two days, we did get to see a lot of the country that other people won’t ever see. Trains go through the gritty, industrial parts of cities in the United States, and it’s eye-opening to see that side of our culture.

    I think one of the best train rides abroad is the one that goes through Norway.

  • jslipski

    Missed the Jacobite Steam Train in Scotland. Harry Potter’s own Hogwarts express and the gorgeous arched bridge.

  • Nancy

    The Trans-Siberian is still high up on my bucket list. I had no idea about the Great Smoky Mountains Railway and I’m from NC. Sweet!

  • Spencer Spellman

    The Great Smokey ride was AWESOME. I did a half day ride and wound around the mountains along the Nantahala River and stopped at the Nantahala Gorge for lunch. Make sure you get the first class car though, so you get snacks and drinks

  • Traveler

    The Trans-Siberian is absolutely the best train ride. So many wonders of the nature, picturesque villages and towns and wonderful panoramic views can’t be seen anywhere else.

    • Carol Music

      My only addition would not be about the RR, since I’ve never traveled abroad, but that a music group has taken that name “Trans-Siberian Orchestra” and they are awesome. I’m envious of all of you who have been blessed to travel on trains anywhere! My choice, if I was given one who have to be the Scotland trip. I have enough Scottish ancestry that it is what I love the most and identify with – give me a beautiful Scottish plaid design and a good bagpiper anytime!

  • Scott

    The Coast Starlight – Seattle to San Diego – has always been a favorite of mine. Leaves Portland mid-afternoon, into the mountains of Oregon at dusk/nightfall, then into the Bay area at sunrise. Takes you into places along the central California coast that can’t be seen unless you’re on the train. Saw whales breeching just offshore near the town of surf. Rolls into Santa Barbara in time for a margarita at the beach.

    In ’85 I took a train in China from Suzhou to Urumqi. Four nights along the Silk Road. Through the Turpan Depression. Plenty of places to get off and take a look around.

  • Matt Scott

    Great piece, when it comes to trains it often is more about the journey than the destination. The Trans Sib is one of my favourite journeys of all time.

  • eakeith

    Great to see an article about North American train travel. Coming from the Canadian prairies, it seems like passenger trains are almost a non-existent concept on this continent. Glad to hear there are some very exciting options for cross-country travel!

  • Global Postmark

    Two beautiful scenic railways:

    Flåmsbana railway in Norway – part of the Norway in a Nutshell Tour.
    Kuranda Scenic Railway – near Cairns in Queensland, Australia.

    Both are tourist trains, but they are short journeys with beautiful scenery, as opposed to cross-country treks.

    Unless you have unlimited time, I really can’t recommend Amtrak, due to the extensive delays. I don’t have enough patience for long-distance train travel.

  • Carol Music

    The only RR trip I would add it the one Alaskan one from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It is lovelier and longer that the one from Anchorage to Whittier. And Whittier has little to see, so most people take the train, walk around a bit and then take it back to Anchorage. When we lived there in the 80′s it was just a train track. Now they have also made it a highway, so tourists or locals have a choice of how to travel to Whittier. I once took the adults with developmental disabilities from Anchorage to Whittier, where we caught the ferry to Valdez and then ‘road-tripped’ back to Anchorage! All the vehicles were loaded onto flatcars – butt to face so to speak. We were in a large 9 passenger van and were placed just behind a tourist bus. This trip takes you through 2-4 tunnels (can’t remember the exact amount). The bus driver left the engine running the entire trip, which nearly asphyxiated

    all of us and we were at the mercy of the Gods so to speak! We did survived but arrived with nausea and headaches, where the clear air of the ocean at Whittier quickly brought about our recovery. I spoke to the bus driver and his ‘excuse’ was that he wanted to keep the AC going on the trip! I also spoke to someone from the train and told him what had happened and that the RR would have had a helluva law suit on their hands IF anyone had suffered permanent injury. Thank God no one did! I like to think someone was more thoughtful about where they placed vehicles after that though!

  • Kevin Cartwright

    I would also like to mention the Ch-P (El Chepe) section of FerroMex, also known as the Copper Canyon Railway in the U.S. and Canada, or the Chihuahua-Pacifico (Chepe) in México.  I recently travelled this entire line with a group of mileage-logging railfans, and not only was it my opinion that this was one of the most incredible single-day train trips I have ever taken from the standpoint of scenery, railroad engineering, and general comfort, but the veteran railfans who have ridden every operating tourist railroad in North, Central, and South America also concurred!

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