Growing up outside New York City, taking the train to Boston or Washington D.C. was just a part of normal life. I remember how liberating it was not having to worry about traffic along the way.
Well, the same is true for global travel. There are regions around the world with great options to get where you’re going by rail. The challenge is they all do it in their own unique way. Fortunately, there are great tools to navigate nearly every region in the world.
We’ve found trains to be a fantastic option for short to medium-distance travel in place of flying.
Seeing the countryside along the way is such a treat compared to simply flying over it. You go city center to city center with no airport taxes, no baggage fees, and you can enjoy your favorite bottle of wine while watching the scenery pass by. We also enjoy meeting other travelers and hearing their stories.
The absolute best source for rail info is The Man in Seat Sixty-One. He is passionate about the virtues of traveling by train whenever possible (almost to a fault).
He has compiled guidance for every rail system in the world and gets regular updates from his readers.
Europe rails rule
Europe is renowned for its rail service across the entire continent. This remains true with the possible exception of long-distance trains that compete with the proliferation of low-cost airlines in the EU. Booking tickets is easy as the major rail lines offer excellent smartphone applications.
DB Bahn (Germany), SNCF (France), and National Rail (UK) are great examples of how easy it is to book seats. One of the best ticketing agencies is Loco2 which can book itineraries across multiple countries. We love how Europe has integrated large train stations in every major airport making it easy to travel to the city center.
Rome2rio is an attempt to sort through the multiple choices of traveling from city to city. It ambitiously works to integrate every possible travel option whether it be air, train, bus, taxi, or car rental. The task is daunting and fortunately, their search results have improved enormously over time.
Latin America tourist trains
Many Central and South American cities have excellent metro rail systems. Unfortunately, the region abandoned most of the long-distance rail lines a while ago.
What is left is a mix of mostly tourist trains with some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Inca Rail in Peru provides service to Aguas Calientes, the town next to Machu Picchu. Copper Canyon in Mexico has the long-distance Ferromex line that remains one of the most popular train excursions.
Ecuador has reopened the railway from Quito to Guayaquil after landslides closed it in the 1990’s. The route through the Andes transits some amazing terrain of which Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) is the most popular.
As fast as a speeding bullet
Flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is easy but we chose to take the day train which offered wonderful views along the way. We had an amazing day In Vietnam taking the train from Da Nang to Hue. It has some of the most amazing views of the coast where mountains plunge to the sea.
China has the most extensive high-speed rail system in the world. The CRH (China Rail High-speed) now covers most of the country with more than 22,000 kilometers of track providing service to over 1.5 billion people a year.
We were teaching at a university near Zhengzhou and decided somewhat last minute to visit Beijing for a weekend getaway. I thought that would be difficult since it’s 800 km away.
It was only a three-hour train ride at a very affordable cost. Service operates similar to an airline with a very efficient boarding process at each stop. We had an amazing weekend including a not-to-be-forgotten visit to the Great Wall.
Whatever way you choose to use the rails you’re sure to enjoy the ease of travel. Once you’re in a city there’s an entirely different challenge figuring out the complex subway and bus systems. Watch for that in a future column.
Let us know your stories of riding the rails. It’s a great way to see more of the world.