For many rail travelers, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the track.
It’s rarely the most efficient way to travel, and it often struggles to compete with even a bus or a car, but a train is almost always a fantastic experience. This is the best way to see these countries.
Congo Ocean Railway
This narrow-gauge line, built by the French through dense jungle, offers plenty of adventure on its 312-mile route from the capital city of Brazzaville on the Congo Riverto the Atlantic port of Pointe-Noire. During filming, the train broke down for hours in a tunnel in the middle of the night.
“People will quite happily sit at the station waiting for days,” Whitworth says. “It’s an historic railway through a wonderful west African country, full of history and really vibrant modem culture.”
Serving as a lifeline for dozens of remote communities, this Frontier State rail line operates in all weather conditions. “It has always been a 365-days-a-year railroad. It has some of the most extreme snow- and ice-moving technology in the world,” Whitworth says.
The Konkan Railway, India
Known as the Monsoon Railway, this major line runs on the west coast of India between Mumbai and Mangaluru. The British considered the stretch too treacherous for building, but the project was completed by an Indian corporation in 1998. “They said it was just madness,” Whitworth says. “A phenomenal amount of bridges and tunnels had to be dealt with and they had to be flood-proof.”
The Ghan, Australia
Stretching nearly 2,000 miles from Adelaide to Darwin, this line follows a route established by the Afghan-run camel trains across the Outback, which is how it got its name, the Ghan. While a luxury train now serves the line, the film crew also rode an historic steam line called the Pichi Richi Railway, which followed an older Ghan route that had to be abandoned.
This modified bus running on train track climbs to elevations over 13,000 feet as it follows a 100-mile roller coaster route between the cities of Potosi and Sucre. “It sort of shudders and sputters over the top of the Andes. It’s a local peoples’ lifeline. You’re stuck with every man and his chicken and his guitar. It’s beautiful,” Whitworth says.
Yamal Railway, Russia
The northernmost passenger railway in the world opened in 2010 to carry workers to Siberian gas fields, but tourists can also take the trip from the town of Obskaya to Bovanenkovo. “The view is amazing, but it’s the same for 22 hours,” Whitworth says. And don’t expect to while away the hours drinking vodka with fellow passengers.
“It’s a dry train. There’s airport-style security, it’s strictly non-alcohol.” Multi-day tours connecting Moscow to the line carry passengers nearly 2,000 miles.
As Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, opens to tourism, visitors are discovering a huge 19th-century rail network constructed by the British.
Near the city of Mawlamyine, the television crew rode what the host pronounced the bounciest train in the world. “The tracks become like a roller coaster. Chris and the other passengers were literally bounced two feet off their seats,” Whitworth says.
Japanese rail adventure
For a different type of extreme trip, the host and television crew visited the country with perhaps the best rail service in the world, riding everything from bullet trains to steam locomotives. “Our premise was to see how many different trains we could go on in a week, and it was about 30. And every single train ran on time within seconds. It was extraordinary,” Whitworth says.
Hershey Electric Railway, Cuba
Nearly a century ago the folks that gave us the chocolate Kiss opened a 57-mile electric rail line to connect its sugar mill and company town of Camilo Cienfuegos (or Hershey) with the port cities of Matanzas and Havana, Whitworth says. “By traveling the rails, you experience the different eras of Cuban history.”
Sudbury-White River train, Canada
This 300-mile train along Lake Superior and into northern Ontario offers flag-stop service through one of Canada’s great wilderness areas, serving several communities only accessible by rail. “During hunting season you can haul your moose or bear carcass to the train,” Whitworth says.