There’s something enduringly romantic about train travel. The slower pace, the gentle rhythm, the ability to surrender responsibility and just gaze out of the window.
Night trains not only save a night in a hotel, but they are better for the environment than flying © Flystock / Shutterstock
If you have a long way to go, don’t unthinkingly jump on a plane. An overnight train ride is a far more fun, immersive and eco-friendly way to travel – better for you and for the planet.
It’s true of all – well, most – rail journeys. But it’s especially true of the sleeper train, the hotel-on-wheels aboard which you can bed down in one country and wake up in another. On which you can spend long hours admiring the view, chatting to new compartment-mates, sharing bread/biscuits/tea/vodka, watching sunrises and sunsets as you roll ever on.
Of course, it’s generally quicker to fly. But if you don’t have to, why rush? Train travel is far less damaging to the planet: it releases the least amount of greenhouse gases of all forms of transportation.
And it’s a more organic way to go. Roving by rail, covering each inch of land overground, means you’re better able to understand the connections that exist between places, see the segueing of scenery as cities become suburbs, which become farmland, which become foothills or deserts or plains.
Such journeys can be done in style. There are luxe overnighting locos that channel the bygone glamour of the Orient Express or the opulence of a maharaja’s palace, their wood-paneled carriages toting pianos and butlers. But you don’t need such accouterments.
The greatest joy is the journey itself; even a frustratingly slow, overcrowded overnighter has its own appeal – and will certainly make memories. Squeezed into a second-class Indian bunk, unfolding your couchette as you bump across Europe or lazing back in a super-fast intercity service in China, you might not get a lot of actual sleep on your sleeper, but you’ll get a dream of a ride.
Nicknamed the Reunification Express when it resumed service after the Vietnam War, this 1072-mile (1726km) ride between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City runs the length of the country, providing a perfect Vietnamese diorama: historic towns, bustling suburbs, rice paddies, emerald hills and the glittering South China Sea.
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
How: Choose from hard seat (cheapest) or soft, hard berth (six-bed compartment), soft berth (four-bed) or VIP cabin (two beds; book in advance). Tickets can be booked online.
Duration: About 35 hours.
Chicago to San Francisco, USA
On its epic 2400-mile (3900km) journey, the California Zephyr tackles sheer gorges, hot desert, snowy mountains and a tonne of tunnels and switchbacks. In 1869, these tracks were the first to cross the Continental Divide, linking the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Duration: The entire journey to San Francisco takes 52 hours non-stop.
Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam, Zambia and Tanzania
A sleeper train? Or a rolling two-day safari? The Tazara Railway crosses rivers, gorges and some impressive feats of railway engineering while trundling through the enormous, wildlife-filled expanse of Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. You might spot elephants, rhinos, lions and more from your window.
Duration: About 44 hours.
Brisbane to Longreach, Australia
Most of Australia‘s overnight trains are multi-day journeys across the continent, such as the Ghan that runs through Australia’s “Red Centre” between Darwin and Adelaide, and the Indian Pacific that links Perth and Sydney. The Spirit of the Outback, however, is just over a day-long jaunt from Brisbane to Longreach. After flirting with the coast the train turns inland to reveal a changing landscape as it heads into the outback.
How: The tickets can be booked online. The train departs Tuesdays at 6:10pm and Saturday at 1:55pm.
Duration: The 1325km journey takes 26 hours.
Rome to Syracuse, Italy
To get from the Italian capital to the historic Sicilian city of Syracuse, this overnight loco has to board a boat. Having traced the Calabrian coast, it’s lifted on to a ferry to cross the Straits of Messina, before being lifted back off to continue on its way.
How: Two sleeper trains leave Rome nightly at around 9.05pm and 11pm. Tickets can be ordered online.
Duration: About 12 hours, including 30 minutes at sea.
Europe’s other top sleeper services
Europe is a particular treasure trove when it comes to night trains, with services such as the Caledonian Sleeper, Berlin Night Express and the Red Arrow, so we’ve compiled a specific list of the continent’s other top sleeper trains. https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.481.0_en.html#goog_1328867855
The world’s most amazing scenic train journeys
From the varied terrain aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway to the endless green Scottish Highlands views on the Jacobite, see more of the world by train on these scenic train journeys.
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