The Best Train Museums to Visit Around the World

Exploring train museums is a fascinating way to journey through history and witness the evolution of railways across the globe. These museums offer visitors a chance to see vintage locomotives, railcars, and even step inside restored train models. Whether it’s the oldest locomotive on the continent or the impressive 3,000 square foot train model in Kentucky, each visit promises a unique experience.

King Philippe
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Belgian King Philippe after he arrived at the Royal Palace in Brussels

One standout destination is Train World in Brussels, Belgium. Opened by King Philippe in 2015, it houses the ‘Pays de Waes’ engine, the oldest locomotive in continental Europe, making it a significant stop for rail history enthusiasts. Another must-see is the Railway Museum in Saitama, Japan, where visitors can see a large collection of retired train cars and locomotives, enriching their understanding of Japan’s rail heritage.

Miniature train prototype at The Railway Museum

From Europe to Asia and the United States, these museums capture the essence of rail travel and its impact on societies. By visiting places like the Kyushu Railway History Museum in Japan or the Kentucky Railroad Museum, train enthusiasts can appreciate the craftsmanship and historical significance of these magnificent machines. Embark on a journey through time and explore the best train museums around the world.

Kyushu Railway History Museum
Kyushu Railway History Museum

The History and Evolution of Train Museums

Train museums have become crucial custodians of railway heritage. They preserve steam locomotives, vintage railcars, and other rolling stock, helping to keep the history and impact of railways alive for future generations.

Preserving the Legacy of Railways

From the late 19th century, railways reshaped nations and connected distant regions. To protect this significant era, enthusiasts and historians began preserving railway artifacts and creating museums. The goal was to safeguard the legacy of railways and share their stories with the public.

Museums like the Illinois Railway Museum in the United States, which is the largest in the country, play a vital role. They offer visitors the chance to see, touch, and learn about the grand era of steam locomotives and their contribution to modernization.

Famous Steam Locomotives and Rolling Stock

Steam locomotives are a highlight of many railway museums. These powerful engines symbolize the industrial age and are crucial parts of railway history. Notable examples include the oldest locomotive in continental Europe, the ‘Pays de Waes’, displayed at Belgium’s Train World.

Illinois Railway Museum
Illinois Railway Museum

In the U.S., the New York Central 3001 at the Illinois Railway Museum draws significant attention. Visitors can also explore meticulously restored rolling stock, from passenger cars to freight wagons, providing a tangible link to the past.

Railway Museums Around the World

Railway museums span the globe, each focusing on their region’s rail history. The Kentucky Railroad Museum in the U.S., for example, features a vast model train display and many interactive exhibits. It offers a hands-on experience for visitors of all ages.

Europe showcases destinations like Train World in Belgium, highlighting continental rail milestones. These museums ensure that the heritage of railways is not only preserved but also celebrated. They make historical narratives accessible and engaging for today’s audiences.

World’s Most Renowned Train Museums

Train museums offer a unique glimpse into the history and evolution of rail transport. The five museums listed here are celebrated for their important collections and remarkable exhibits.

National Railway Museum in York

National Railway Museum in York, England
Statue of George Stephenson in the Great Hall

The National Railway Museum in York, England, is one of the most famous railway museums in the world. It features an extensive collection of royal carriages, historic locomotives, and railway artifacts.

One of its highlights is the Mallard, the steam locomotive that holds the world speed record for steam engines. Visitors can also see the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train. The museum offers interactive displays, allowing visitors to explore railway engineering and history.

From the modern Eurostar to the vintage Stephenson’s Rocket, this museum provides a comprehensive look at rail history.

California State Railroad Museum

The California State Railroad Museum is located in Sacramento, California. As one of North America’s largest railway museums, it displays 21 meticulously restored locomotives and railway cars.

One of its standout exhibits is the Central Pacific Railroad No. 1, also known as “Governor Stanford”. This was one of the first locomotives used in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The museum’s exhibits cover the pivotal role of railroads in shaping California and the United States.

Visitors can also tour a reconstructed 1860s passenger station, providing a vivid picture of the past.

Kyoto Railway Museum in Japan

The Kyoto Railway Museum, located in Kyoto, Japan, offers an engaging look at Japanese rail history. The museum opened in 2016 and is known for its extensive collection of 53 railway vehicles, including steam, diesel, and electric trains.

A key feature is the roundhouse, with 20 preserved steam locomotives. There’s also a Simulator Room, where visitors can experience driving a train. The Nijo Station Building, now part of the museum, dates back to 1904 and showcases fascinating architecture.

Interactive exhibits and a large diorama make it a great educational experience for all ages.

Cité du Train in Mulhouse

Cité du Train in Mulhouse, France, is the largest railway museum in Europe. It is renowned for its vast collection of trains, from elegant royal saloons to robust freight locomotives.

The museum highlights include the “Fleche d’Or” Pullman car and the Bugatti railcar. An interesting feature is the thematic displays covering the different eras of rail travel, from the early days of steam to modern electric trains.

The museum also offers multimedia shows and interactive stations, providing a rich, immersive experience.

Nuremberg Transport Museum in Germany

Nuremberg Transport Museum in Germany
A 1920s advertisement which says “Visit the new Transport Museum in Nuremberg”.

Located in Nuremberg, Germany, the Nuremberg Transport Museum is one of the oldest of its kind. It explores the history of railways in Germany and features several historic locomotives.

The museum is famous for its collection of royal trains, which belonged to Bavarian kings. Exhibits include the locomotive “Adler,” a replica of Germany’s first railway engine from 1835.

It also has a section dedicated to model trains, with intricate layouts depicting German railways through the ages.

Interactive exhibits and detailed displays offer in-depth insights into the technological advancements of rail travel.

Iconic Trains and Carriages on Display

Visitors to railway museums can expect to see famous trains from history, meticulously restored locomotives, and luxurious carriages. Here are some of the most iconic examples on display around the world.

Streamlined Shinkansen to Classic Orient Express

Shinkansen: Known as the “Bullet Train,” Japan’s Shinkansen revolutionized rail travel with its speed and efficiency. The sleek design of the early models, like the Series 0, is a highlight at museums like the SCMaglev and Railway Park in Nagoya, Japan.

Orient Express: The Orient Express, synonymous with luxury and intrigue, can be seen at the Train World in Brussels. One famous carriage, the CIWL Wagon-Lits, offers a glimpse into the opulent past of this legendary train. These carriages featured elegant interiors, complete with plush seating and fine dining services.

Together, these trains showcase the pinnacle of train design and engineering from different eras and regions.

Restored Vintage Locomotives and Rolling Stock

Big Boy: One of the largest steam locomotives ever built, Union Pacific’s Big Boy, is a marvel of engineering. The fully restored Big Boy No. 4014 can be seen at various locations and events across the U.S., and some models are housed in museums like the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Mallard: The Mallard, a famous British steam engine, holds the world speed record for steam locomotives. It is a prime exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York, UK. Visitors can also explore vintage rolling stock, from working steam engines to historic railcars like the 19th-century Pullman coaches.

Steam engines, diesel locomotives, and rolling stock from different periods give a comprehensive view of how railway technology evolved.

Interactive and Educational Exhibits

Many train museums around the world offer unique interactive activities and educational displays. These exhibits provide visitors with hands-on experiences and insights through authentic memorabilia and artifacts.

Engaging Visitors with Hands-On Experience

Several museums feature interactive displays that engage visitors by allowing them to experience railroading firsthand. For example, the Exploratorium in San Francisco is known for its immersive experiences. Visitors can participate in simulations and even operate model trains.

At the Kentucky Railroad Museum, guests can explore the insides of authentic railcars and try out various train controls. The Museum of Childhood in London offers special sections where kids can learn while playing, including train-themed activities. These interactive elements help to engage all ages and make the history of trains more tangible.

Belgium’s Train World also provides interactive features, such as a cab simulator that allows visitors to experience what it’s like to drive a train. These hands-on activities not only entertain but also educate visitors about the intricacies of railroad operations.

Learning Through Authentic Memorabilia and Artifacts

Visitors can gain a deeper understanding of railroading history through exhibits filled with authentic memorabilia and artifacts. The Kentucky Railroad Museum hosts a significant collection of steam and diesel locomotives, each with plaques detailing their histories.

Train World in Belgium showcases the ‘Pays de Waes’ engine from 1845, the oldest locomotive in continental Europe. This artifact provides historical context and helps visitors understand the evolution of train technology.

SPYSCAPE in New York includes a special train section with actual tools and gadgets used by spies who traveled by rail, adding a unique twist to rail history. These artifacts bring the past to life and offer educational insights into the development and impact of railroads.

The combination of interactive experiences and real-life artifacts ensures that visitors of all ages leave these museums with a comprehensive and engaging understanding of railroading history.

Scenic Train Rides and Journeys

Scenic train rides offer breathtaking views and unique travel experiences. From historic routes to modern adventures, these journeys provide both entertainment and exploration through varied landscapes.

Riding Historic Routes and Panoramic Landscapes

Some of the most scenic train rides take you along historic routes. The Reunification Express in Vietnam is one such journey; it travels from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, passing through historic cities and coastal views. The Glacier Express in Switzerland offers a breathtaking route from Zermatt to St. Moritz, winding its way through the Swiss Alps.

The Talyllyn Railway in Wales is another incredible option. It’s a narrow-gauge, coal-fired railway that moves at a relaxing pace through beautiful Welsh landscapes. These historic routes combine natural beauty and rich history, making them ideal for both sightseeing and cultural appreciation.

Train Travel as Entertainment and Exploration

Train travel is not just a means of transportation; it’s an experience in itself. Scenic train rides like the Glacier Express are famous for their onboard luxury and panoramic views. Large windows and comfortable seating make it easy to take in the picturesque scenery without any rush.

Train trips also offer unique exploration opportunities. Travelers can enjoy the changing landscapes from the comfort of their seats, experiencing everything from mountains to coastal views. The slower pace and scenic perspectives turn these journeys into memorable adventures, where the journey is as enjoyable as the destination.

Whether it’s the historical routes or the sheer thrill of exploration, scenic train rides provide unique and unforgettable experiences for travelers.

Preservation and Modernization in Rail Transport

The balance between maintaining historic trains and integrating new tech is crucial. Both old and new trains showcase different eras of rail travel, each with unique challenges and innovations.

The Challenge of Maintaining Heritage

Preserving historic trains involves intricate work. Museums often maintain steam and diesel engines that require regular care to keep them operational. For instance, the “Pays de Waes” engine of 1845, housed in Belgium’s Train World, is the oldest locomotive in continental Europe and needs constant attention.

Historic railcars and engines are essential pieces of history. These relics face wear and tear, needing parts that may no longer be in production. This challenge means museums must sometimes craft parts from scratch or find modern alternatives while keeping the integrity of the original design. It’s a balancing act of heritage and practicality.

Innovative Designs and Future of Railroads

Modern trains like the TGV and bullet trains represent the forefront of rail travel. These trains highlight advancements in speed, efficiency, and safety. For example, Japan’s bullet trains can travel at speeds over 300 km/h, reducing travel time significantly.

Innovative designs focus on sustainability, with trains incorporating energy-efficient technology. Advances include regenerative braking systems and the development of hydrogen-powered trains. As rail transport modernizes, it aims to provide faster and more environmentally-friendly travel options, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in transportation while maintaining a connection to rail history.

Architecture and Infrastructure of Train Museums

Train museums often feature uniquely designed buildings that once served operational railroads. These structures include roundhouses, depots, and storage facilities which are integral to the functioning and historical authenticity of the museums. The evolution in the layout and design of these museums reflects the shift from purely industrial uses to modern educational purposes.

Roundhouses, Depots, and Storage Facilities

One key architectural element is the roundhouse. Originally used for servicing and storing locomotives, roundhouses have large circular or semicircular designs with a turntable at the center. This setup allowed engines to be moved into different stalls for maintenance.

Train depots often serve as the main exhibition spaces. These buildings, which were once bustling hubs for passengers and cargo, now house artifacts, photos, and historical displays. Their long platforms and spacious interiors provide an ideal setting to showcase large train engines and cars.

Storage barns are used to house parts of the collections not on display. These barns are designed to protect the trains from the elements, preserving their condition for future exhibits. Most barns and depots retain their historical architecture, which adds to the museum’s authenticity and charm.

Evolving Functionality and Design in Museum Layout

The design of train museums has evolved to balance historical restoration and modern accessibility. Many museums have adapted former industrial spaces to make them visitor-friendly while keeping their historical significance intact.

Some museums incorporate interactive exhibits to engage visitors, such as simulators or hands-on activities. These are often housed in areas that were once operational spaces but have been repurposed.

*Accessibility is another key aspect. Modern designs include ramps, elevators, and clear signage. These features ensure that the museum is accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. Lighting and ambiance are carefully managed to create an immersive and safe environment for all visitors.

The blending of historical architecture with modern amenities makes train museums both educational and enjoyable for all ages. Each train museum’s layout reflects its unique history, combining preservation with the needs of today’s audience.

Unique Features of Specific Train Museums

Many train museums around the world offer unique features that make them stand out. These features range from outdoor displays and unique exhibits to special collections and archives that provide deeper insight into rail history.

Outdoor Displays and Vast Exhibits

The Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois, is notable for its vast outdoor displays. It is the country’s largest railroad museum, showcasing numerous trains and related equipment across extensive terrain. Visitors can walk through historic railcars and locomotives, making it an immersive experience.

The Colorado Railroad Museum also emphasizes outdoor exhibits. Located in Golden, Colorado, it features a historic turntable, a variety of antique steam and diesel engines, and even mountain railroads, capturing Colorado’s rich rail history.

Special Collections and Rare Finds

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely, Nevada, offers something truly special. This museum gives visitors the chance to experience train robbery reenactments, stargazing rides, and even participate in weeklong summer camps. These unique programs make the museum a dynamic and memorable destination.

The Kentucky Railway Museum is home to a massive 3,000 ft² model train exhibit. This museum also includes a significant collection of steam and diesel locomotives. Many railcars are open to visitors, providing a detailed look at the inner workings of historic trains.

Libraries and Archives within Museums

Libraries and archival collections are equally important. The B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has an extensive library and set of archives. This facility contains a vast collection of historical documents, photographs, and maps related to America’s oldest railroad.

The Medina Railroad Museum in Medina, New York, maintains a prominent archive as well. Their library includes various historical records, photographs, and other artifacts related to the region’s railway history. This makes it an invaluable resource for researchers and train enthusiasts.

Indoor exhibits, outdoor displays, and archival resources all contribute to the unique importance of these museums. Each institution not only preserves the physical artifacts of rail history but also provides educational opportunities and memorable experiences.