Dreaming of Travel: The Romance of the Rails

May 27, 2020 Updated: May 29, 2020

These days, the view out the windows of our apartments, and houses, and home offices doesn’t really change—lovely or not, we’re seeing the same things every day.

Staring out those panes, it makes you dream of crossing countries, and continents, all of it—cities and mountains and rivers and coastlines—rolling by, hour by glorious hour, just outside that glass. Long the fastest way to get there, and now the most romantic, rail has been spiriting us to our destinations for ages.

Here are some of the best train journeys in the whole wide world.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad

(Courtesy Tourism Yukon)

Snaking past soaring summits and rumbling over trestles spanning a roaring river, this might be the world’s wildest train ride. Climbing nearly 3,000 feet over a span of 20 miles, this narrow-gauge train links two nations, taking tourists from Alaska’s glacier-laced Inside Passage, at Skagway, deep into Canada’s interior and Whitehorse, capital of the vast Yukon Territory. 

And while visitors now snap photos from the open windows of old-timey passenger coaches (and from a wide-open car, near the rear of the train), this line was built back in 1898 with a different sort of passenger in mind—gold miners. Back then, the Klondike Gold Rush was reaching a fever pitch, attracting as many as 100,000 prospectors, traveling up the coast with visions of wealth, headed for Dawson City.

And while much of the gold is now gone, and the prospectors with it, the memories of this ride will live with riders forever.

The Indian Pacific

(Courtesy Great Southern Rail)

A true cross-continental journey, connecting two oceans, east and west, and all of Australia, the Indian Pacific runs some 2,700 miles, from Perth to Sydney—longer than taking a train from New York to Los Angeles. Only completed in 1970 (by linking together a number of smaller spurs and routes), the line winds through the Blue Mountains and through some of Oz’s most charming towns and exciting cities. 

But the highlight—that image that you will carry with you the rest of our life—is definitely the Nullarbor (literal translation, from Latin, is “no trees”). An Outback desert more than four times the size of Belgium, this endless expanse of red soil, craggy rocks, and cacti stretches in all directions, and the train rumbles through it, not bending at all, not a single turn, for some 250 miles. Enjoy these wilds from the dining car, perhaps while enjoying a filet of kangaroo. 

The Trans-Siberian

trans siberian
(Courtesy Golden Eagle Luxury Trains)

Spanning eight time zones, more than 5,700 miles, and connecting Moscow with the Russian Far East, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest in the world. Built by the last Tsars, this ribbon of steel has connected the capital with Vladivostok since 1916. 

Storied in the minds of adventurers, it is embedded in the history and culture of this vast and varied nation, carrying prisoners to the gulag during Soviet days, and now, transporting ordinary Russians almost across almost inconceivable distances. 

And for tourists, whether holding a regular ticket or traveling on a Golden Eagle Luxury Train, which steams across the country behind a vintage locomotive, it’s a journey filled with wonders, from the rise of the Urals to the depth of Lake Baikal, deepest in the world (holding some 20 percent of all the world’s fresh water), to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, at the end of the line.

Coast Starlight

pacific coast starlight amtrak
(Courtesy of Amtrak)

Tracing the Pacific from Seattle to historic Union Station in Los Angeles, this is the first—and only—train to connect the two cities, and the ultimate West Coast trip. Operated by Amtrak, it’s a scenic route, chugging through the Cascade Range, past Mount Shasta, through big forests and past endless horizons along the ocean, making stops in Portland, San Francisco, and other major places along the way. But, as its name suggests, it’s the stars that are truly special. Curled up in the Sightseer Lounge, the clickity-clack of the track below and nothing but massive windows straight above, the night sky ablaze, the lights of L.A. will feel very far away.    

The Canadian

via rail
(Courtesy of Via Rail)

Chugging west from Toronto, the excitement builds aboard the most famous route for VIA Rail, Canada’s national train service. Making the 2,775-mile journey in four days and four nights, the scenery of this northern nation changes dramatically from morning until evening. You can watch it from the dining car, or a glass-domed lounge, or the comfort of your sleeper cabin, as the train leaves the urban density of Canada’s largest city and heads north through a land dotted with lakes. 

Finally, after passing through the dense forests of Northern Ontario, it all flattens out, the silver cars snaking across the endless Prairies, fertile farmland, and living skies in all directions, before reaching the crescendo—the Rocky Mountains. You’ll wind among the snow-capped peaks, before finally descending to the coast, finishing the long, rewarding trip at the Pacific, in Vancouver.

The Blue Train

blue train
(Courtesy of The Blue Train)

Running just under 1,000 miles (in 31 hours) from the South African capital, Pretoria, this train—whose cars are indeed blue, and have been, since the 1930s—makes the trip to Cape Town, one of the world’s most spectacular cities, in style. 

Once envisioned as a cross-continental railway that would run all the way to Cairo, its current incarnation dates to 1997, when it added the option of riding all the way to see the Big Five on safari in Kruger National Park. No matter where you travel, you’ll be surrounded by gilded, wood-paneled lounges and suites with marble bathrooms and goose-down bedding, and have the services of a butler as well.

The Orient Express

orient express train
The Venice Simplon Orient Express. (Courtesy of Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express)

Even its name conjures exotic images. Created in 1883 and originally linking Paris with Istanbul, the Orient Express is synonymous with white-glove service and elegance and the golden age of travel. And, of course, that famous Agatha Christie novel—which spawned numerous adaptations on screen, most recently a film starring Kenneth Branagh. 

Today, the inheritor of this illustrious line is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which spirits guests to various European destinations aboard an Art Deco 1920s train, and continues the legacy of luxury—all suites include private bathrooms with showers and spacious accommodations, and their three Grand Suites come complete with a personal steward and free-flowing, round-the-clock champagne. 

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.