9 of the World's Best Long-Haul Train Journeys

California Zephyr train in front of desert mountains in Utah
On the way from Chicago to San Francisco, the iconic California Zephyr passes Utah's Book Cliffs, a series of desert mountains.

Kabelleger / David Gubler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Trains are more than just a sustainable alternative to air travel; sometimes, they can be a vacation's main event. Be it a four-day journey through the Red Centre on the Indian Pacific or three days aboard the retro California Zephyr, whose route from Chicago to San Francisco has attracted slow tourists for decades, these long-haul train trips provide incredible "land cruising" through the scarcely seen backcountry of Southeast Asia, Outback Australia, the Canadian Rockies, the jungles of India, and other beloved destinations.

Here are some of the world's most iconic and scenic train journeys.

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Trans-Siberian Express (Russia)

Trans-Siberian train running alongside Baikal Lake, Russia
The Trans-Siberian line runs by Baikal Lake in southern Sibera. Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

At 5,772 miles, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway line in the world. The main line of the Trans-Siberian Express covers almost 6,000 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok. Like many of today's lengthy rail lines, it's used primarily by freight trains, but passenger trains use the tracks sometimes, too. The Trans-Siberian Express takes seven days and passes through Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Chita.

Passengers—a mix of Russians and tourists—get glimpses of the Russian countryside, flat plains, and numerous rivers. There's also an opportunity to take the Moscow-Beijing train (which breaks off the main line in Chita) for views of the storied Gobi Desert. The Trans-Siberian Express isn't a luxury train, but it is inexpensive and reasonably comfortable, with sleeper compartments available.

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Indian Pacific (Australia)

Indian Pacific Railroad cutting across Australian savannah and bush
The Indian Pacific Railroad is an elegant way to see iconic Australian terrain. Totajla / Getty Images

Australia is home to an impressive rail network that includes two cross-country lines. The most notable of these is perhaps the Indian Pacific, named for the two oceans it connects. In between them is, of course, the fabled Outback, the Blue Mountains, arid flatlands, grasslands, and rural farmland. The route runs 2,700 miles between Sydney in the east and Perth in the west, and passengers pass through the South Australian capital of Adelaide as well. The interior of the Indian Pacific has been described as elegant and luxurious, making the three-day journey especially memorable.

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The Ghan (Australia)

The Ghan snaking through Australian Outback with mountains in background
The Ghan is a great way to see Australia coast to coast.

Roderick Eime / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Another Down Under epic, the Ghan takes rail riders on a two-day journey between the country's southern and northern coasts: from the southern city of Adelaide to Darwin in the far north. This 1,851-mile line passes through the Finders Mountain Range, the stark deserts of central Australia, and the tropical lands of the far north. It's an ideal way to see the sparsely inhabited, diverse landscapes of inland Australia. The Ghan is cheaper than a flight, plus it's safer and more comfortable than driving. Unlimited ride and multi-ride passes and discounts make rail travel affordable in Australia.

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The Canadian (Canada)

Close-up of the Canadian with Rocky Mountains in background
The Canadian takes travelers through the Rocky Mountains, from Vancouver in the West to Toronto in the east.

Timothy Stevens / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

VIA Rail Canada runs a service fittingly dubbed "The Canadian" that spans 2,800 miles between Toronto and Vancouver. The journey takes four nights and three days, passing through the forests of the Great Lakes region, the plains, the Canadian Rockies, and British Colombia's Pacific Northwest. Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Edmonton are major cities along the route.

Special features on this train include dining cars and "sky dome" cars with glass ceilings ideal for sightseeing. The Canadian also has special sleep cars. Most of VIA's service focuses on The Corridor, a high-traffic section of tracks from Quebec City, Quebec, to Windsor, Ontario. Sightseers and those who prefer trains over cars and planes are the main clientele on this lengthy rail journey.

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Himsagar Express (India)

Large orange Kanyakumari railway station sign with sleeper train on tracks
You'll need the sleeper car when you travel on the Himsagar Express, India's longest train route.

Pranchiyettan / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.5 IN

India has many long-haul train routes, but the Himsagar Express, operated by Indian Railways, is the longest. It runs 2,354 miles from the state of Kashmir in the north all the way to Kanyakumari, a town in Tamil Nadu on the southernmost tip of the subcontinent. This three-day journey passes through India's heartland, featuring a stop in Delhi, a brush with the Bay of Bengal, and a pass through the western boomtown of Kochi (Cochin in colonial-era spelling).

The line passes through several national parks, highlighting a variety of ecosystems and revealing some of India's diverse cultures. The train has air-conditioned sleeper cabins, though budget-conscious travelers can get by with traveling in less comfort for a lower fare.

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California Zephyr (U.S.)

California Zephyr train with Colorado Rocky Mountains in background
The trip from Chicago to the Bay area on the California Zephyr lasts about two days.

Burlington Route / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The California Zephyr's Chicago-San Francisco Bay Area run is the longest offered by U.S. train company Amtrak. The 2,438-mile route, stretching from Chicago's Union Station to the Bay Area suburb of Emeryville, is good for land cruisers seeking a taste of diverse Western and Midwestern scenery. After moving through the heart of Middle America, the Zephyr winds through the Colorado Rocky Mountains and desert mountains of Utah, stopping in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno before negotiating the Sierra Nevadas, Sacramento, and the Bay Area. The California Zephyr runs daily, and the total journey lasts just over two days.

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Qinghai-Tibet Railway (China)

Qinghai-Tibet Railway tracks crossing over water, surrounded by mountains
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway crosses water and navigates through scenic mountains. Yuanyuan Xie / EyeEm / Getty Images

The high-elevation Qinghai-Tibet Railway, dotted with three different mountain ranges, offers one of the more scenic trips in China, a country famous for its high-speed rail network. It runs 1,215 miles between the Southern boomtown of Guangzhou and the Tibetan city of Lhasa. This 2.5-day journey passes some of the country's most scenic landscapes—the lush and mountainous areas of Southern and Central China, the stark-but-picturesque Tibetan plateau, and the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range included. Part of the track is more than 16,000 feet above sea level, the highest section of rail in the world.

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Reunification Express (Vietnam)

View from train of colorful cars cutting through the jungle
The Reunification Express offers ocean, mountain, jungle, and city views.

plusgood / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Vietnam's 1,000-plus-mile North-South Railway supplies the track for the Reunification Express, which runs between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. This 30-hour journey is ideal for sightseeing, as it cuts through Vietnam's jungle, runs alongside the iconic Hải Vân Pass—a mountain pass overlooking the sea—while passing through fields upon fields of emerald-green rice paddies, and travels directly through bustling cities. In fact, one section in which it squeezes through a residential neighborhood in Hanoi has become a major tourist attraction dubbed "train street," now closed to nonlocal foot traffic.

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Eastern and Oriental Express (Southeast Asia)

Eastern and Oriental Express crossing bridge over River Kwai, Thailand
The E&O is about as luxurious as a train ride through Southeast Asia gets. Jeremy Horner / Getty Images

The famous Eastern and Oriental Express, colloquially called the E&O, runs about 1,200 miles between Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand, stopping in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, along the way. Operated by the luxury hotel chain Belmond, the E&O's train cars are bedecked with lavish Thai silks and Malaysian embroidery against cherrywood paneling and gold detailing. It's a comfortable four-day ride through rural and urban Southeast Asia, but it's also notoriously expensive (about $3,000 per person). On the journey, passengers are treated to views of coastline, mountains, dense jungle, and small villages.