8 outrageous train rides

Eric Reed
The Shanghai Maglev routinely operates at 268 mph. (Photo: Tom Page / Flickr)

Have you heard about the Hyperloop?

If not, allow me to get you up to speed. The Hyperloop borrows ideas from a 1920s mailroom for transportation. The system, proposed by inventor Elon Musk of Tesla fame, would use an enormous pneumatic tube to rocket cabins on frictionless cushions of air at speeds of up to 800 miles per hour. Musk predicts that a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles could take about 30 minutes. It's like the old intra-office mail, except for instead of small brass tunnels shuttling memos through the building, it uses giant above-ground tubes carrying aluminum cabins.


In short, it's about the most futuristic way of getting from point A to point B we're likely to see until they finally get that teleportation thing right.

Still, Musk's proposal for the Hyperloop put us in mind of another, older form of transportation that also runs on pre-built lines: trains. They've been around for a very long time, but not all rail journeys are created equal. So, in honor of this writer's hopes of one day making it from Chicago to New York City in under an hour, here are the eight best train rides in the world.

1. The Shanghai Maglev – China

There's no messing around with the Shanghai express. This train makes the list because it skipped the frills and the frippery and went straight for what commuters care about: speed. Once topping out at a blazing 311 miles per hour during a speed test, this is one of the fastest trains in the world, connecting riders with the Shanghai International Airport and the city's metro system in less than ten minutes.

It also gets points for style. As a maglev, this train runs its entire route suspended on a bed of air slightly above the tracks. No contact between wheels and rails means that the entire system is frictionless, allowing the train to become one of the fastest things moving across the surface of the Earth (sorry, cheetahs). Although the top operating speed is "only" 268 mph, that's still considerably faster than China’s runner up, China Railways' CRH380A, topping out at 236 mph day-to-day.

Riding this train is an extraordinary experience, but it may not stay on top of the pile for long. Hyperloop aside, Japan is testing a new generation of L0 maglev trains set to actually operate at 310 miles per hour. Shanghai has some breathing room, though; although it's been successfully tested, the L0 isn't set to come online until 2027.

The Indian Pacific crosses southern Australia's mountains and deserts. (Photo: Peter Shanks / Flickr)

2. The Indian Pacific – Australia

The Indian Pacific railway is pretty much exactly what you'd expect when Australia decides to build itself a train: extreme. This route crosses the entire south of the country, running from Sydney to Perth and back on a weekly basis. That's not because the Great Southern Rail company is lazy; it's because a single trip takes four days and covers 2,704 miles.

That's a lot of drop bears.

It's also an extraordinary journey. More than 90 percent of Australia's population is clustered around the coasts, meaning any trip of more than 100 miles happens more or less in the world's largest nature preserve. From the Indian Pacific you can see the entire southern outback roll by the windows — an opportunity to see the country by land in the only way, I can assure my readers, that they would ever want to risk.

As the reigning king of travel writers, Bill Bryson, wrote in his book “In a Sunburned Country”: "To Australians anything vaguely rural is 'the bush.' At some indeterminate point 'the bush' becomes 'the Outback.' Push on for another two thousand miles or so and eventually you come to bush again, and then a city, and then the sea. And that's Australia." That's about right.

Click below for gallery: amazing underwater adventures

The Hiram Bingham route includes locally flavored entertainment. (Photo: Zack Sheppard / Flickr)

3. The Hiram Bingham Rail – Peru

If you're anything like me, you spend at least a third of your day sitting in front of a computer. Not that I'm complaining: I have one of the greatest jobs on the planet, but it does come with a certain elasticity around the waist. While I'm walking down to Mail Boxes Etc. it's not such a problem. If I want to climb, say, to the ancient mountain fortress of Machu Picchu, that's another thing.

That's where the Hiram Bingham train comes in. Named after the modern discoverer of the site, the Hiram Bingham rail takes you from nearby Poroy up parts of the Inca Trail and to the cliff-top fortress itself. This isn't the only train to make this service — Machu Picchu is an extremely popular site, and a climb to the top is somewhat punishing — but it is the most luxurious. The Hiram Bingham offers dining cars, a bar, an open air observation deck and free tour guides when you arrive at your destination.

As an added bonus, with a 9 a.m. departure, this train lets you sleep in longer than any other headed to the top.

4. The Bamboo Train (aka the Norry) – Cambodia

This is the shortest line on this list but also, arguably, the most distinctive.

The bamboo train departs from the northwestern city of Battambang and travels at about 30 miles per hour. Despite its name, the train runs on metal rails; the bamboo comes from the cart on top of them — little more than a narrow, open flatbed built out of bamboo and held together with an iron frame.

The system came together as a local solution to a larger problem. Due to years of war and instability, Cambodia's train system was an incoherent mess. What trains managed to run did so irregularly and frequently broke down, leaving locals with few options to move bulk goods around. So they started to build their own, powered by small gasoline motors pulled from the country's omnipresent motorbikes.

Once ubiquitous, the norries have by now largely been replaced by trucks, planes and even a few ordinary trains. However you can still catch one making the run from Battambang to nearby villages for $5 per person. Although it operates largely on tourist dollars these days, locals still use it to transport rice, schoolchildren and the occasional small livestock into the city. It's the last piece of a (thankfully) bygone era and well worth a trip.

5. The Orient-Express – Europe

Paris, Venice, Rome, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Istanbul: the timetable of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express reads like a wish list of the world's most glamorous cities. This train first came into service at the end of the 19 century and has ever since become synonymous with whirlwind and exotic travel. Agatha Christie's decision to stage her most famous murder on board did nothing to dull that reputation.

Although the Orient-Express runs trains all around the world these days, it's the Paris-to-Istanbul line that started it all. Winding its way down through France and across the Alps, the train hooks at Venice to travel through Eastern Europe and on down to the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire. The catch? This line only runs about once per year. Although Orient-Express company runs its Paris to Venice line regularly, it only connects that through to Istanbul in September as an annual tribute to the glory days.

The Orient-Express has connected Europe for more than 100 years. It has fired the imagination with spies and adventurers, explorers and femme fatales. It crosses some of the most beautiful landscapes and cities the world has to offer. For the sheer thrill of adventure, you simply cannot beat climbing through a mountain range at midnight. Pack a good book and give it a try.

The Zephyr (sometimes literally) cuts through Western mountain ranges. (Photo: Loco Steve / Flickr)

6. The California Zephyr – United States

It turns out someone does pay attention to us out here in Chicago after all.

The California Zephyr is a cross-country train running a 2,500-mile route from San Francisco to the Windy City. Operated by Amtrak, this train crosses the great plains of the Midwest as well as both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas. It's an extraordinary chance to see the United States as it was meant to be seen: by crossing it.

Started in 1949, the line was created as a sightseeing destination, and its route is planned for just that. A sightseer's lounge is built with wide, picture windows to capture the landscape, which includes not only the western mountains and Moffet Tunnel under the Continental Divide, but also the canyons of Colorado and the deserts of Utah and Nevada.

Trust me when I say that traveling through a desert is considerably more fun when you have a fully stocked bar nearby. As an added bonus, the dedicated sightseer can also book passage on Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, running from Chicago to New York City. Coast to coast in a single trip.

7. The Trans-Siberian Railroad – Russia

Otherwise known as the Golden Eagle, the Trans-Siberian Express is the longest entry on this list. Covering 6,000 miles of track and eight time zones, this train crosses approximately one quarter of the planet in a two-week journey.
And what a journey.

Ultimately, this line links up Moscow with the eastern port city of Vladivostok, covering the entire Siberian tundra in the process. It's important to note that the Golden Eagle isn't the only trans-Siberian railway in operation. Several others run on the same line, and many make the journey considerably faster. (Fair warning: none is cheap, but what other service in the world offers a chance to see the frozen Siberian tundra and haunting Ural mountains in a single trip?) Some even offer trips to Beijing or Mongolia, although for the purists out there, Vladivostok is the "true" destination of this historic line.

The difference with the Golden Eagle service is simply comfort. Priced well outside of this writer's budget at over $15,000 per person, this train is dripping with comforts such as a champagne reception, full butler service and even heated seats.

8. The Bernina Express – Switzerland and Italy

I'll let the train speak for itself, on behalf of the Rhaetian Railway's website:

"Life doesn't always run in a straight line. It would be boring if it did. Welcome to the Bernina Express, an Alpine switchback ride, taking you from a land of towering glaciers to one of swaying palms."

Please allow me to assure you this is not just marketing. The Bernina Express cuts south through central Switzerland, starting at the city of Chur (or Coire) and ending in Tirano, Italy. The result is an extraordinary ride through glacial Swiss mountains, cutting across massive canyons and past immense waterfalls and diving through tunnels in order to cross a country that most certainly was not designed for anyone to move in a straight line.

This train covers some of the steepest stretches of track in the world and definitely caught this writer drawing comparisons to a vaguely controlled roller coaster ride. Occasionally it hits hairpin turns so intense that from the back of the train, you get the remarkable experience of seeing the front coming around straight back at you. It is an incredible trip, and the landscapes of Switzerland are unparalleled anywhere else on Earth. Short of setting aside the next few months to cover the mountains on foot, this is the best way to see them.