5 of the most memorable steam train journeys around the world

 

The great puffs of steam, the deep chug of the engine and the screech of the whistle as your train pulls out of the station. The romance of a steam train journey never fades, and it’s the same wherever you go.

Here we’ve put together some of the most memorable steam train journeys you can embark on around the world. Get into the spirit of 19th century Wild West America aboard a train used during Colorado’s gold mining boom. Pretend you’re on your way to Hogwarts as you wind through the Scottish Highlands. Or join in the Japaneses nostalgia for the bullet trains early ancestors.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, USA

Winding through the rocky canyons Colorado is famed for, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad follows the path of the free-flowing Animas River between the old mining towns of Durango and Silverton. The 73 km (45.4 mile) railroad was constructed between 1881 and 1882, primarily to transport silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains. Its been in continuous operation ever since.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Today, the vintage steam train that still chugs along the line has swapped precious stones for inquisitive passengers who want to experience the landscape as people would have at the turn of the 20th century.

The train crosses the river five times as it meanders through pine-covered valleys and skims the edge of craggy cliffs inaccessible to motor vehicles. From your carriage, you’ll see green farmland, former mining camps, old stagecoach roads and snow-covered peaks rising over 4,200 m (14,000 ft). Look out for glimpses of elk, deer, moose and bighorn sheep grazing at the side of the tracks.

Open-air viewing gondolas are available if you’d like to breathe in fresh mountain air. Alternatively, sit in one of the two Historical Narration cars. Here you can listen to on-board narrators dressed in period costume as they tell you more about the history of the railroad and what life was like here during the mining boom.

The journey takes three-and-a-half hours each way. You can stay in the National Historic District of Silverton for either two hours or just half an hour, admiring its Victorian-era architecture and exploring its Mining Heritage Center.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, India

With some of the most innovative train engineering of the 20th century, India’s railways climb steep ravines, cross vast plains and traverse forested valleys. While most steam trains have been replaced with modern models, a few well-oiled engines are still trawling the tracks. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway runs from Mettupalayam, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to the colonial hill station Ooty.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The line runs 46 km (28.5 miles) across 250 bridges, around 108 curves and through 16 tunnels. Often moving at walking pace, it never reaches more than 45 km/h (27 mph). A taxi or bus might be much quicker it takes around five hours to complete the route but this quintessential Indian experience allows you to join many locals who still prefer to take the train.

Initially, the blue and cream carriages are pulled from Mettupalayam by a diesel train, meandering through tea plantations and terraced farmland. On reaching Coonoor station, about halfway along the route, a steam locomotive takes over. As the wind catches the billowing smoke, the train tackles the steepest part of the route up through eucalyptus groves and shola forests. Monkeys scamper off the tracks as the train approaches.

As the train reaches Ooty (youll see Udhagamandalam on the station sign, the towns little-used full name) theres mayhem on the platform as vendors rush forward to offer packets of roasted nuts and fresh samosas. Its worth spending a night in the town to explore the Raj-era bungalows, 19th-century British governmental buildings and the lemon-yellow Saint Stephens Church.

The Royal Livingstone Express, Victoria Falls, Zambia

This traditional 1920s steam train departs from the town of Livingstone, close to Victoria Falls, two evenings a week (due to increase to three evenings by the end of this year). Tastefully restored to its former glory, it runs along a section of the incomplete Cape to Cairo railway begun by British colonialist Cecil Rhodes during the 19th century.

The Royal Livingstone Express

On board, leather seats and polished wood take you back to a bygone era. During the four-and-a-half-hour experience, you can relax in the lounge car or enjoy a drink from the observation cars well-stocked bar. This car also has an open-sided veranda where you can take in views of the falls and surrounding countryside.

The journey takes you through the Victoria Falls World Heritage Site and is timed just right for you to enjoy a sunset vista from Victoria Falls Bridge. Also commissioned by Rhodes in 1905, the bridge acts as a border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The train pauses here for around half an hour, giving you time to disembark and take photographs. If visiting during the falls peak flow (January to July) you can watch the roaring wall of water and rising mist as its tinged burnt-orange and gold in the changing light.

After continuing on to nearby Palm Grove Siding, the ring of a dinner bell signals the beginning of your five-course meal, freshly prepared by the on-board chefs. Expect anything from braised game shoulder and vanilla panna cotta to mushroom risotto followed by a zesty lemon tart.

A similar experience is available twice a week from the Zimbabwe side of the falls aboard the Bushtracks Express. Departing from Victoria Falls station, it takes you to the bridge via Victoria Falls Game Park.

SL Hitoyoshi, Japan

Some of the most futuristic trains in the world zoom through Japan’s cities and countryside, but the Japanese still have a nostalgic affection for steam trains. In 2009 the SL Hitoyoshi began running between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi on Japans south island of Kyushu. Its been lovingly restored inside with rosewood flooring and plump leather seats, as well as a polished and freshly gilded exterior.

SL Hitoyoshi

The train begins in Kumamoto, stopping at a number of stations along the way. Youre free to get off at each station: a bell calls you back when its time to depart. Shiroishi Station is worth exploring, with a 108-year-old wooden platform and waiting room. While the first part of the journey follows much of Yatsushiro Bay, the second part heads inland following the Kuma River through the cedar forest-covered mountains.

On board, there’s a glass-windowed observation car at the end of the train, as well as a dining car selling SL Hitoyoshi-branded drink and snacks. One car has a display of train memorabilia as well as mini railway engineer uniforms for children to try on.

Once the train arrives in Hitoyoshi, you can watch the locomotive turn round for the return journey on a huge steel turntable. The train only runs on select days throughout the year so pre-booking is essential.

Jacobite Steam Train, Highlands, Scotland

There’s a certain fantastical thrill in climbing onto the Jacobite Steam Train. The big black engine rumbles loudly and white steam pours out in huge hot clouds, making it easy to imagine that you’re not taking a journey through the Highlands, but instead boarding the Hogwarts Express.

Jacobite Steam Train

The trip doesn’t begin at Platform 9 however, but at Fort William, the largest town in the Highlands. The train chugs slowly between steep-sided mountains and past sweeping glens. Moving at a leisurely pace, you have plenty of time to take photographs and appreciate the rugged beauty of the countryside.

The two-hour ride passes by Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight locks on the Caledonian Canal, as well as the Glenfinnan Monument, a memorial to the clansmen who fought in the Jacobite uprising of 1745. But the highlight of the trip for most people is cruising over the arresting 14-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, which gained renown thanks to its role in the Harry Potter movies.

After Glenfinnan Station, the trip continues through a stark landscape. From your seat, you have views over the sea to distant islands with evocative names like Rum and Muck. The final stop is Mallaig, a fishing town where you can board a ferry to the Isle of Skye.

Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel.

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