Best railway journeys in the world

The  West Highland line faces plenty of competition for the mantle of the world’s most beautiful railway. Even just south of the border, there is England’s most scenic line, the Settle-Carlisle Railway through the Yorkshire Dales which was so nearly closed by British Rail in the 1980s but rescued following a fierce local campaign.

In Europe, Switzerland inevitably has the largest number of breathtaking railways, many of which loop around into tunnels so that you find yourself directly above where you had just been a few minutes before. My personal favourite is the trip up on the Rhaetian Railway from Chur to St Moritz which takes you through valleys that are inaccessible by any other means and at times cuts through vast fields of snow overhanging the line.

A contrasting journey is on the narrow gauge line on the eastern side of Sardinia which takes you ever so slowly through rugged bandit country where an occasional goatherd might board the train at a halt where no house in site and ends up by the sea among the red rocks of Arbatax.

I have also travelled on the Darjeeling Himalayan railway on what seems like a toy railway still using steam but the prize for the most spectacular line of them all must however go to the trip up to the trip from Cusco to Aguas Calientes near the stunning Machu Picchu ruins. The route is all at over 10,000 feet through the Andes climbing not with the help of tunnels, but through frightening zig zags with dead ends where the train has to reverse and nothing to stop it going over the precipice other than the driver’s skill with the dodgy brakes.
Christian Wolmar is the author of Fire & Steam, a history of railways in Britain, Atlantic Books, £8 99.

  • Bluecaster

    If one is in Chur it is worth looking at the Chur-Arosa branch. These was converted to 25Kv (I think) a few years ago and they were going to build a tunnel under the town but decided not to when they found out the cost! However the old railcars were low voltage so for the past few years loco-hauled trains have been running through the streets of Chur. The one I was on had half-a-dozen coaches, several freight & cement wagons destined for a worksite up the line. It was actually help up at roadworks by a bloke with a Stop & Go board – the first time this has happened to me on a train!
    Sadly for the enthusiast new railcars are on order so it will become rather less exciting in future.

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