We track down the best rail trips on the planet

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Railway in desert of South Australia

Let the train take the strain and travel in style across the globe

The next train will stop at the UK, South Africa, India, Russia, China and Thailand. We hope you enjoy your journey...

1. UK: Glasgow to Mallaig on the West Highland Line

The West HIghland line cuts through ferns and purple heather with mountain views in the backgroundWith apologies to the Settle & Carlisle Line’s Dalesman route through the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines, I’ve plumped for Glasgow to Mallaig as Britain’s most scenic line because, as the train winds its way past Dumbarton Castle, then on past Loch Lomond, Rannoch Moor, Loch Treig and Monessie Gorge, the contrast of soaring peaks and gorges, with majestic lochs and bleakly beautiful bogs, is spectacular. Fans of Harry Potter will immediately recognise the scenery as the train clacks past Loch Eil, over the Caledonian Canal and onto the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Journey time 5 hours 30 mins

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2. India: Madgaon (Goa) to Mumbai on the Mandovi Express

Madgoan station - one end of India's Mandovi Express route It would be easy to opt for something grand like the Maharaja’s Express for my India choice, but to really enjoy the majesty of the Indian rail system and find a more authentic experience, it has to be one of the numerous passenger trains. Monisha Rajesh’s blog 80trains.com and book Around India in 80 Trains details the best of these with insight and humour, making the selection of any one trip very difficult. I’ve opted for this one because I’ve done it and totally loved it, from its service, comfort and food to its magical route through, as Monisha puts it, 'mountains, 92 tunnels, 2000 bridges, sunlit paddy fields lined with coconut and mango trees and small villages bursting with wild flowers'.

Journey time 12 hours

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3. Russia/China: Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Express

Passengers sit on a bench in the heavy snow, as the Trans-Siberia Express pulls into a stationThe 4735-mile route of the Trans-Siberian Express is surely the quintessential rail experience. As you leave the sophistication of western Russia and its Golden Ring cities to pass through the Altai region of Siberia, around Lake Baikal in Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert and into rural China, you might make a friend for life, learn to love Mongolian beer in the restaurant cars, grow to hate the endless miles of Siberia’s birch trees…but what you won’t do is ever forget this amazing trip.

Journey time 7 days

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4. Switzerland: Zermatt to St Moritz on the Glacier Express

Red train crosses huge viaduct on Switzerland's Glacier Express routeLuckily the concept of 'Express' in this context is not about speed. It actually takes a lengthy seven hours to cover the 180 miles between the two destinations, but, of course, the leisurely pace allows for plenty of 'oohing' and 'ahhing' and photographs as you take in the jaw-dropping scenery surrounding you from the panoramic windows of the red narrow-gauge train. The high point, literally, is the 7000ft Oberalp Pass, but the Alpine meadows, soaring peaks, elegant viaducts and deep gorges combine to create what must be the most majestic route in Europe. And the lunch with wine that’s included in your ticket price is served at your seat, so you don’t have to miss any of the scenery by moving. 

Journey time 7 hours

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5. USA: Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr

A silver Amtrak Zephyr train pulls into a stationThe most scenic of Amtrak’s rail journeys officially begins in New York on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, but the best part of it is the second leg, which sets off from Chicago each afternoon to cover the 2438 miles to the Pacific Coast. With the exception of Iowa’s endless cornfields, it is a stunner, particularly once you reach Denver, when the real magic of this journey begins. The ride through the Rockies, up to 9270ft above sea level, followed by the canyons of Colorado, the peaks of Utah, the deserts of Nevada and the Sierra Nevada, is incredible, and the views front, back, and all around you are amazing; try to get into the Sightseer Observation Car at some point to really appreciate it.

Journey time 2 nights

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6. Australia: Darwin to Adelaide on the Ghan

Crossing a bridge in the wilderness on the Darwin to Adelaide route across AustraliaNamed after the Afghan drivers of the camel trains that ventured into the heart of the Australian outback in the 19th century, the Ghan’s different routes take in the whole of Australia, but it’s this 1851-mile north-to-south option that holds the most appeal, taking in, as it does, the fertile lands of the Northern Territories, before passing the red MacDonnell Ranges to arrive at Alice Springs, from where the original Ghat route ran to Adelaide. For a really special holiday, indulge in some of the packages the line offers, which include off-train excursions to a national park and underground mining town and a river cruise.

Journey time 4 days

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Thailand's Maeklong Railway inches its way through a market, with stalls on either side of the rails7. Thailand: Wongwian Yai (Bangkok) to Maeklong (Samut Songkhram) on the Maeklong Railway  

At just 41 miles, this is the shortest train ride in my top 10, but makes the grade for being the maddest. Running through the middle of the Maeklong Railway Market, the train literally brushes the produce that is quickly whisked off the tracks when the warning bell goes off to announce its imminent arrival. You’d think that in the 112 years since the train started operating, the stalls might have been pushed back from the track, but not a bit of it; six times a day the bell rings, the approaching train’s fog horn goes off, and everyone rushes to move their wares off the track and pull awnings out of the way. It is, undoubtedly, the most bonkers ride you will ever experience – particularly when you have to get off at Samut Sakhon, take a boat to cross the river Tha Chin, and board another train!

Journey time 2-3 hours

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8. Norway: Oslo to Bergen on the Bergensbanen (Bergen Railway)

View of snow-capped peaks from the Oslo-Bergen trainTrain journeys through Scandinavia are almost certain to be winners whichever you choose, but I’ve chosen this 308-mile high-altitude trip through wild and rugged southern Norway over a more northerly Arctic Circle one because of the variety of landscapes and scenery on offer. Numerous tunnels hewn out of the solid rock link rugged peaks and one of Europe’s highest mountain plateaux with mirror-like fjords fed by waterfalls and pretty towns and villages – including Myrdal, where a connection with the Flåm Railway is a must; it’s one of the world’s steepest train rides on a regular track, with an altitude difference of 2,837ft over its one-hour journey. Mind you, the Bergensbanen has some pretty impressive stats of its own; 182 tunnels hewn from solid rock, and engineering feats at a height of more than 4,000ft – 800ft above the highest point in England.

Journey time 7 hrs

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9. S Africa: Cape Town to Johannesburg on the Shosholoza Meyl Sleeper

The Shosholoza Meyl Sleeper en route from Cape Town to JohannesburgAs anyone who watched Griff Rhys Jones’s Slow Train Through Africa last year will know, there are many lesser-known journeys through this astonishing continent to rival the Blue Train, including the refurbished Desert Express through Namibia’s gorgeous scenery. But if it must be the Blue Train route, the Shosholoza Meyl Sleeper offers fantastic value for money, with prices starting at £33. For £147 you can have a private sleeper with everything from breakfast and high tea to a five-course dinner in the dining car included, and plenty of daylight hours to take in the stunning scenery.

Journey time 27 hours

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10. Peru: Cusco to Puno/Lake Titicaca on the Andean Explorer

View of mountains from the window of Peru's Andean ExplorerThis spectacular 10-hour trip through the Andes Mountains is a luxury option, including as it does an open-air observatory car, live entertainment, fine dining, cocktails and two refurbished 1920s Pullman coaches acting as both dining and passenger cars. You’d expect no less, given that it’s operated by Peru Rail/Orient Express, but rather than the thousands of pounds you might expect to pay, a one-way trip is around £140. Highlights include La Raya, situated at a very lofty 14,150ft, the alpaca-studded plains of the Altiplano, and the market at Juliaca, through which the train passes. 

Journey time 10 hours

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