Mark Smith, a former station manager in London, is the founder of the train travel website www.seat61.com (a reference to his favourite seat on the Eurostar). His latest book, The Man in Seat 61 – Worldwide: A Guide to Train Travel Beyond Europe (Bantam Press) is published this week. Here he picks his five favourite rail journeys.
London to Fort William by Caledonian Sleeper
Every night except Saturdays, the Caledonian Sleeper leaves London’s Euston station on a 550-mile overnight trip to the Highlands of Scotland, with two sleeping-cars to Fort William up front. I love the practicality of this train, leaving London after work and arriving in the magical West Highlands next morning, five minutes walk from the foot of Ben Nevis. I love the cosy comfort of a private one- or two-bed sleeper with crisp clean sheets, and relaxing in the lounge car with a decent single malt. I relish the contrast between suburban evening and highland morning, retiring to bed as the train hustles through one of Britain’s busiest main lines to wake next morning to the twists and turns of a Scottish single track. Best of all I love the highland scenery, the horseshoe curve beneath the brooding silhouette of Beinn Odhar, the Siberian bleakness of Rannoch Moor, and the turbulent rapids of Monessie Gorge. “Bargain berth” fares start at £39 with sleeper berth and light breakfast, see www.scotrail.co.uk.
Across the US on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and California Zephyr
“All aboard!” That time-honoured cry, ringing through New York’s Pennsylvania station, heralds the start of an epic 3,397-mile, three-night crossing of the United States. The journey starts with the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, racing north along the scenic Hudson River before turning west overnight through Ohio and Indiana. In the Windy City next morning, you can climb the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower for spectacular views over Chicago before boarding the legendary California Zephyr. Its gleaming double-deck Superliner cars roll through Illinois and across the Mississippi into Iowa, then overnight to Denver. Now for my favourite part of the journey, breakfast in the diner followed by a morning in the Sightseer lounge as the train winds its way into the Rockies, peaking at more than 9,000ft before meandering through spectacular Colorado canyons. After lunch in Utah, the scenery broadens out, a dusty plain bounded by curious rock formations and mesas, followed next day by the arid scrub of the Nevada desert. After Reno, the train climbs once more, this time through the snowy fir forests of California’s Sierra Nevada before descending to the Pacific Ocean. A ticket from New York to San Francisco starts at $193 per person at www.amtrak.com, in a spacious reclining seat. The upgrade to a private sleeper for one or two people costs from $395 per room including meals.
Delhi to Shimla on the Himalayan Queen
When the heat and bustle of India’s capital become too much, head for the hills on the Himalayan Queen. Leaving Delhi’s Sarai Rohilla station at 5.40am, the broad gauge train races across the dusty plain to Kalka, with the air conditioning whirring in its comfortable AC Chair car. At Kalka, the real fun starts as you transfer to the famous, narrow gauge “toy train” for the ascent to Shimla. The little train snakes its way up into the cool air of the Himalayan foothills, in places doubling back on itself, clinging to the wooded hillsides with the agility of a mountain goat. It finally pulls into India’s old summer capital at 5.20pm. Fare in AC Chair car Rs562 (£8), buy tickets at the station or via www.cleartrip.com.
Auckland to Wellington aboard the Overlander
Tourists flock to the South Island’s scenic TranzAlpine train but, for my money, New Zealand’s most interesting, historic and useful train is on the North Island, linking the economic and political capitals. Leaving Auckland at 7.25am, daily in summer (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in winter), the Overlander is an epic 12-hour ride over the historic North Island Main Trunk Railway, including such engineering feats as the Raurimu Spiral and the Makatote Viaduct. It passes almost every type of scenery there is, from volcanoes to river gorges, coastline to rainforest, calling at Tongariro national park on the way. Auckland to Wellington costs NZ$131 (£66), www.tranzscenic.co.nz.
Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway
The Trans-Siberian has two weekly trains linking Moscow with Beijing. From Moscow, train 20 leaves every Friday taking the Trans-Manchurian route to China but the Trans-Mongolian line taken by train four is arguably the more interesting. Leaving Moscow every Tuesday night, for the first few days the train trundles past endless birch trees and Siberian villages with muddy streets and wooden houses, crossing from Europe into Asia at the boundary obelisk, 1,777km east of Moscow. On day five, the train rounds Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. Turning south off the Trans-Siberian towards Mongolia, each carriage is jacked up at the border and its wheels changed from Russian to standard gauge. Calling briefly at the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, it then crosses the Gobi desert. Next day, the train tackles the mountains of northern China before arriving in Beijing that afternoon, six nights and 4,735 miles from Moscow. The train is comfortable though not luxurious, and with so many nationalities on board, a party atmosphere takes hold. You’re unlikely to be bored. Moscow to Beijing costs about £540 with a bed in a four-bed sleeper, booked through www.realrussia.co.uk.