Getting rocked to sleep at night and watching this wonderful world fly by during the day – night trains are as much of a highlight as the destination you’re travelling to and from. There’s a vast range of long-distance train journeys you can choose in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Some offer nothing more than a seat or basic bunk bed, others boast opulent suites with their own bathtub and butler. You can even travel for 2,622 miles for just $10.
2021 is the European Year of Rail, and many more night trains are either starting up or being proposed in this continent – it seems that overnight train travel is becoming fashionable again. In fact, in recent years there has been a trend towards ‘train cruises’, and these luxurious journeys are amongst the most spectacular in the world.
Although the routes listed below aren’t necessarily the longest overnight trains in the world, they do offer some of the most breathtaking scenery.
Moscow to Beijing
4,735 miles (7,620 km)
The third longest train journey in the world takes six nights to complete. For the first four days you’ll travel through Russia, skimming through Siberia and vast tracts of silver birch forest. The train speeds along the shores of Lake Baikal – the deepest freshwater body of water in the world – before crossing into Mongolia. Here the landscape changes to dry and dusty, with vast areas free from human habitation. After speeding through the Gobi Desert you’ll reach the Chinese border, where the train gets lifted up so that the wheels can be changed to a new gauge. Onwards through vast hills and beside deep gorges until you emerge into Beijing.
Although you can stay on the train from start to finish, it’s worth stopping off in Russia, as well as spending at least a week in Mongolia. Two trains a week travel between Moscow and Ulan Bator, and two trains a week link Ulan Bator with Beijing.
Toronto to Vancouver
2,775 miles (4,466 km)
In 3 days and 10 hours you’re going to see countless lakes and immense pine forests. The scenery then changes to the empty prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, before approaching the gigantic Rocky Mountains. At the rear of the train is the Park car. These carriages were built in the mid-50s and offer views back along the track, a bar, and a raised dome with 360° panorama.
VIA Rail offers long-distance train travellers everything from roomy economy seats to luxurious Prestige class cabins, from where you can watch the Canadian wilderness zoom by from the comfort of your double bed.
Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari
2,613 miles (4,205 km)
Spanning the full length of Eastern India, this route begins in Kanyakumari, on the very tip of this fascinating country, and ends in Dibrugarh, on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra and on the edge of the Himalayas. It takes a little over three days to complete, and you can travel for as little as $10 (but you’d be much more comfortable in 2AC class, where you get a comfortable bed, fresh linen, and air conditioning for just over $60!). Forests, farmland, wide rivers, and crossing the Tropic of Cancer are all highlights.
Indian Railways runs over 13,000 passenger trains every day, employing over 15 million people. If you’d like to travel in more luxury then the Palace on Wheels and Maharajas’ Express may not travel as far, but they do take several days to complete and make long stops in fascinating cities such as Jaisalmer and Udaipur.
Chicago to Portland
2,256 miles (3,631 km)
Not the longest train journey in the USA (that would be the 2,728-mile Chicago to Los Angeles route), the Chicago to Portland Empire Builder train is perhaps the most spectacular. It begins amidst the architecturally magnificent skyscrapers of Chicago, before traversing the Wisconsin Dells, the Mississippi river, and the immense plains of Montana. It then climbs into the Rockies to the Marias Pass which, at a height of 1,589m, traverses the Continental Divide. The Empire Builder then stops at Glacier National Park, before continuing on through the Cascades and, finally, downtown Portland.
Whether you stay in a cabin or go budget on a seat, you’ll have access to glassy observation cars. The Empire Builder crosses 7 US states and if you travel all the way between Chicago and Portland you’ll be on the train for almost two whole days.
Adelaide to Darwin
1,851 miles (2,979 km)
In 54hrs you will travel coast-to-coast through Australia’s immense interior. Shorter than the Perth to Sydney route (2,704 miles), The Ghan instead offers passengers the opportunity to see Uluru, Nitmiluk Gorge, and indigenous rock paintings, while gaining an appreciation of the scale of Australia that you simply don’t get by plane.
Services along this route were inaugurated in 1929, and in addition to having one of the longest routes in the world, The Ghan is also one of the longest passenger trains. At one point it stretched to 44 carriages – just over one kilometre!
Pretoria to Cape Town
994 miles (1,600 km)
Although you can travel from the border with Zimbabwe to Cape Town by long-distance train, the luxurious Blue Train between Pretoria and Cape Town is South Africa’s longest continuous train journey. And wow, what a journey. Not only is the train a wonder in itself (with a bar that looks like a sophisticated wood-panelled club, an elegant observation car, and suites with marble-lined bathrooms), it also travels through valleys, vineyards and vertiginous mountain scenery.
There is a cheaper option to travel this route, but it stops at Johannesburg rather than Pretoria. However, this is still a long-distance journey which takes 26 hours, and costs as little as $12.
Bangkok to Singapore
1,233 miles (1,920 km)
In under three days you’ll travel through three countries – starting in Thailand and the bustle of Bangkok, along the Gulf of Thailand coast, over the infamous River Kwai, into the lush forests of Malaysia and grand skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur, and finishing in the twinkling lights of Singapore. The train’s interior may well distract you from the views, with plush, old-timey interiors and exceptional cuisine. Your room for the night comes with an en-suite bathroom and wood-panelled walls – all the luxury you’d expect from a train operated by the same people who run the legendary Venice-Simplon-Orient Express.
This route is the end of the proposed Kunming to Singapore railway line, which will continue from Bangkok and through either Laos or Cambodia and Vietnam into China. It’s due to be completed in 2022 and will be 2,400 miles (3,900 km) in length with a journey time of 30 hours from one end to the other.
Buenos Aires to Tucuman
718 miles (1,156 km)
South America’s longest train journey begins in the magnificent capital of Argentina before gliding along the Pampas 26.5 hours later, through the large city of Rosario, across the huge Parana River, and on to Tucuman – just in sight of the snowy Aconquija mountains on the edge of the Andes.
Train travel is rare in South America, but because of the size of Argentina it has one of the longest networks in the world. The Buenos Aires to Tucuman route is now 73 years old, and although the long-distance train that ran along it was once considered one of the most luxurious in the word, sleeper cabins are now much more basic (but clean and comfortable), but you do get access to the dining car which serves delicious Argentinian cuisine.
Milan to Siracusa
660 miles (1,063 km)
Travel at night and enjoy the typical comforts of a basic sleeper cabin, waking up to the scenery of south-west Italy’s Campania region. You’ll soon also be able to see the Mediterranean as the train hugs the coast. Head to the rear of the train for views back along the track – perfect for watching the journey through verdant valleys. Perhaps the highlight of this long-distance train is the ferry that takes the carriages across to Sicily (exit your carriage for the ferry journey to see this unusual sight, before re-boarding for the final leg along the Sicilian coast and Mt Etna).
There are many train ferries in existence worldwide, the one between Villa San Giovanni on the Italian mainland and Messina in Sicily offers views of the island’s mountainous interior, as well as the many shops which cross the Strait of Messina.
Prague to Split
628 miles (1,010 km)
Over 21 hours you’ll see the grand capitals of Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. The Regiojet train winds through hills, ancient forests, and villages as you whizz along on the journey south. You’ll pass various mountain ranges both during the day and as you sleep in either a chair or comfy couchette bed (breakfast included). Your first glimpse of the Adriatic precedes the train’s descent into sunny Split – gateway to some stunning Croatian islands.
Although new long-distance train routes are popping up all over Europe, there are many already in existence. Paris to Moscow is the longest on this continent (2,164 miles, 3,483 km), with others covering destinations as far north as Narvik in Norway – 140 miles inside the Arctic Circle – all the way south to the aforementioned island of Sicily.