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Tracking the World’s 10 Best Train Experiences

<i> Hardy is editor and publisher of The International Railway Traveler, a rail travel buff's newsletter based in Louisville, Ky. Fellow editors Anthony Perl and Zane Katsikis also contributed to this story. </i>

Trains are like people: They’re hard to compare objectively.

One traveler’s European luxury dream is another’s snobby, overpriced nightmare. A rip-snorting African adventure for one is a torturous hell-on-wheels for another.

And there are all kinds of trains: luxury trains, commuter trains, two-car rural trains, 20-car international express trains. Today’s trains boast lounges, diners, sleepers, office cars, health-club cars, children’s playground cars, even gambling cars.

Undaunted by this lack of easy comparisons, I have come up with a list of the world’s 10 best rail-travel experiences.

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Since my fellow rail travel buffs and I had trouble enough coming up with the following 10, I present them in no particular order.

American-European Express

If you can take only one luxury trip on this continent, try the Chicago-New York American-European Express. This classic beauty, which began service in late 1989, recently underwent a complete overhaul. Instead of being attached to Amtrak trains, it now runs under its own power between Chicago, White Sulpher Springs, W.Va. (to the posh Greenbrier resort), Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

Last year I enjoyed one of the best dinners I’ve had--on or off the rails--on the AEE. And the lounge car St. Moritz, with its blue star-studded ceiling, soft lights and jazz piano, provided one of the most elegant nights on tracks.

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India’s Palace on Wheels

In India, the Palace on Wheels is just that: a rolling parade of private cars formerly owned by maharajahs, pressed into luxury service for the benefit of tourists.

Plying the historic and culturally rich northwest section of India, the train runs once a week on a tour lasting six days and seven nights. Since each coach was specially made for its owner, they’re all one-of-a-kind.

The train boasts 13 sleeping cars, two diners and a bar/lounge. Both continental and Indian cuisine are served. Included in the fare are the cost of travel, meals on board, sightseeing in luxury buses, entrance fees, elephant and camel rides and entertainment.

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South Africa’s Blue Train

For the ultimate in luxury, however, one train outshines the rest: South Africa’s Johannesburg-Cape Town Blue Train.

With its multicourse meals, gold-tinted windows and hushed elegance, the Blue Train is a veritable five-star hotel on wheels. A hand-picked on-board hotel staff of 23 fawns over 107 pampered passengers. To slumber in its berths is to float on a steel-wheeled magic carpet.

Quite simply, the Blue Train is the ultimate by which all other luxury rail experiences are measured. It does not get better than this.

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Trans-Siberian

For the intrepid, there’s the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Beginning in Moscow, the aptly named “Russia” rolls across the heart of the Soviet Union on an eight-day, seven-night voyage spanning two continents and seven time zones (although the train’s clocks are kept rigidly to Moscow time) to arrive 5,800 miles to the east on the Sea of Japan.

There is nothing elegant about this train’s food or accommodations--passengers are assigned sleeping compartments without regard to sex. But for those who want to see the Soviet Union at its least-guarded, this is the way.

(Those with time, money, and tenacity should extend the trip by booking space on sleepers which cut off from the Trans-Siberian at Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal and head south to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and Beijing.)

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Australia’s Indian-Pacific

Another, more hospitable long and famous railroad ride is Australia’s Sydney-Perth Indian-Pacific.

The three-day, 2,461-mile Indian-Pacific girds the land Down Under from sea to sea, offering unparalleled views of the vast, inhospitable Nullarbor Plain. There’s not much scenic variation in this Australian outback, unless you’re partial to desolate moonscapes, but Australian congeniality reigns supreme in your traveling cocoon.

Besides private rooms, showers, dining and snack cars, the Indian Pacific’s several lounge cars are alive with activity throughout the trip.

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Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch

Switzerland boasts one of the world’s best rail systems. And the Glacier Express is undoubtedly Switzerland’s most famous train. Yet this incredibly scenic ride between St. Moritz and Zermatt is so popular, it can be a problem to find space on.

To escape the madding crowd, I suggest a trip up to the Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Oberland to Europe’s highest railroad station.

This journey takes you on the trains of three railroads and runs from Interlaken, then to a choice of either Wengen or Grindelwald, on to Kleine Scheidegg and up to the Jungfraujoch.

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The best part is getting there. One of the trains, which runs on a 0.8-meter gauge track, winds slowly up flower-studded hillsides. Poking your head through open windows, you can hear cow bells, breathe in the mountain air and call out to hikers on the nearby path.

Once on top, another world awaits. At 11,333 feet, the Jungfraujoch station is chiseled into the mountain amid a freezing, glacial world. Gazing from such a vantage point, you feel you’ve stepped back into an Ice Age.

Britain’s Settle-Carlisle

Another scenic European route, Britain’s Settle-Carlisle Line, almost gave up the ghost. British Rail’s threats to close the lightly-used 72-mile line sparked the longest closure proceedings in the railroad’s history and resulted several years ago in at least a temporary reprieve.

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That’s good news for rail travelers. Described by locals as “one of the three wonders of the north,” along with York Minster Cathedral and Hadrian’s Wall, the line has 14 tunnels and more than 20 viaducts, including the magnificent, 104-foot-high Ribblehead Viaduct.

Between Settle and Carlisle, the line crosses the Pennine Hills and Yorkshire Dales National Park, close to England’s Lake District. It’s perfect for hikers who like to get off and on at brief stops along the way in order to reach remote moorland walks.

Peru’s El Tren de Sierra

The Lima-Oroya, Peru El Tren de Sierra plies the world’s highest standard-gauge railway across the Andes Mountains. Besides engineer, conductor and brakeman, another crew member regularly rides this train: a doctor. His job is to dispense oxygen from a green canvas bag to passengers overcome by the thin, mountain air.

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After all, the train climbs to almost 16,000 feet over a series of 20 harrowing switchbacks, special tracks which allow the train to zigzag up the steep mountain grades as it makes its way above timber line.

At the crest of the Andes, you’ll find yourself higher than any mountain peak south of Alaska.

India’s Toy Train

Another “adventure” train of the mountain variety is India’s famed “toy train,” which snakes through the Himalayas between Darjeeling and New Jaipalguri.

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This classic two-foot gauge train is still pulled by the original steam engines that opened the line in the 1880s. The train takes a day to run up into the steep hills on its 50-mile trip over 550 bridges, six switchbacks and four complete loops. The scenery is as spectacular as the train is unreliable.

France’s TGV

While other countries are contenders in the high-speed train race--Japan with its bullet train and Germany, which is set to open its ICE in June--at 186 m.p.h., the French National Railroads’ TGV (train a grande vitesse) Atlantique is still the world’s fastest train. It began service in 1989 between Paris and the southwest of France. Riding the blue-and-silver, shark-nosed TGV Atlantique is like flying on rails.

The second-generation TGV (the first connects Paris with Lyon) is not only faster but more comfortable. It sports such high-fashion features as low, recessed table lamps, eye-pleasing upholstery with more spacious seating, conference rooms, a full-length cafe car and advanced telecommunications services.

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GUIDEBOOK

How to Find

10 Best Trains

Here are telephone numbers for more information on the best train rides:

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American-European Express, (800) 677-4233; Palace on Wheels and toy train, (213) 380-8855; Blue Train, (800) 727-7207; Trans-Siberian Railroad, (800) 847-1800; Indian-Pacific, (800) 423-2880; Glacier Express, Jungfraujoch Railway, (213) 335-5980; Settle-Carlisle Line, (800) 677-8585; El Tren de Sierra, (800) 875-0023; TGV Atlantique, (800) 345-1990.

--O.H.


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