Railroads’ advent in the early 19th century massively changed the entire world by providing a safer and faster mode of travel, altering the human perception of time and space, enabling commerce on a vast scale, connecting societies and cultures, and allowing people to see the innate beauty of the world in a different perspective. While they were soon replaced by other means of transportation, these once-sprawling railways have imprinted a lasting legacy to the history of the world.
Today, many of them continue to be maintained and run for the purpose of historical interest and letting people recreate or simulate the experience from these magnificent heritage railways. Here, let’s discover some of the best heritage railways in the world, waiting for you to visit.
Train of the End of the World (Argentina)
Southern Fuegian Railway, more popularly known as the Train of the End of the World is a heritage railway situated in Ushuaia, the capital city of Tierra del Fuego Province, Argentina. The city was established as a penal colony, seeing the arrival of the first prisoners in 1884.
In 1902, work started to build proper prison building inmates. Thus, it required the construction of the freight line on wooden rails to transport materials like sand, rock, and timber. Initially, oxen pulled wagons on its tracks but the railway was eventually improved and upgraded to run a steam locomotive.
Also called the “Prison Train,” it was decommissioned in 1952 but was retook its historic path more than four decades later in 1994 to serve as one of Ushuaia’s most fantastic attractions.
Puffing Billy Railway (Australia)
Puffing Billy Railway is one of Australia’s Victorian Railways, which opened at the beginning of the 19th century. It was constructed for the local timber and farming community, traversing through the southern foothills of the magnificent Dandenong Ranges to the quaint town of Gembrook. A landslide in one of its lines resulted in its formal closure in 1954 but was preserved and restored in the succeeding decades, along with the clearing, restoration, and extension of its original lines.
Today, Puffing Billy Railway ranks among the most popular and premier heritage railways in the world. Ride it and get the fantastic opportunity to relive the Victorian Era, whilst chugging through the temperate rainforest, rolling hills, wide farmlands, and towering trees overhead.
Dendermonde–Puurs Steam Railway (Belgium)
Running from the 1930s, Dendermonde–Puurs Steam Railway is a 14-kilometer heritage line located in East Flanders and Antwerp, Belgium. It is currently maintained by Belgische Vrienden van de Stoomlocomotief (BVS), a non-profit historical railway society. A one-way trip on this iconic Belgian railway, with trains powered by both diesel and steam, takes about 70 minutes.
Various television and movie production companies use it as an alternative setting for the Belgian national railway. Yet, it appeals most to people looking for a great trip to spend with their families. Upon returning, don’t miss out on stopping at their yard and workshop to further learn and see their beautiful collection of rolling stock, as well as witness current works on locomotives, commuter trains, and carriages.
Kalka–Shimla Railway (India)
Situated in North India, Kalka–Shimla Railway is an engineering masterpiece, considered as the greatest narrow-gauge line in the country. It’s no surprise as this high-altitude 96.6 kilometer-long track crosses 800 viaducts and bridges.
Built in 1898 and opened in 1903, it connects Kalka to Shimla through a mountainous route traversing pine, deodar, oak, maple, and ficus trees. In 2008, it was listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site under “Mountain Railways of India,” which includes two other iconic Indian railways, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.
White Pass and Yukon Railway (USA and Canada)
Dubbed as the “Scenic Railway of the World,” the White Pass and Yukon Route enliven its monicker, given the unparalleled beauty it bestows upon its passengers. It was built in 1898 and completed in 1900 to fulfill the needs for transportation during the Klondike Gold Rush. Running from Skagway into the heart of Yukon, taking a trip in this authentic narrow-gauge railway allows you to pass through glacial rivers, gorges, waterfalls, majestic peaks, trestles, and tunnels. All you can expect in this trip is breathtaking vistas from the unspoiled and untamed beauty of Alaska and Canada.
Talyllyn Railway (UK)
Opened in 1865, Talyllyn Railway was initially operated to transport slate from Bryn Eglwys to Tywyn. A year later, it became the first railway given authority through an Act of Parliament to carry passengers using a steam locomotive. The quarry closed in 1946 but was saved by volunteers in 1951, making it the world’s first preserved narrow-gauge heritage railway.
Riding the Talyllyn Railway feels like stepping back in time to the Victorian Era. It passes through some of Wales’ most fascinating countryside, woodlands, foothills, and over ravines that the Victorians used to travel daily. In 2021, Talyllyn Railway was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, proving its heritage and cultural value.
Rhaetian Railway – Albula/Bernina Route (Switzerland)
Rhaetian Railway is another marvelous work of engineering, winding its way through the beautiful Graubünden mountains made possible by tunnels, viaducts, and other incredible man-made structures. Two of its railways that traverse the Swiss alps are listed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites.
First is the Albula line. Opened in 1904, it runs 67 kilometers long between Chur and St. Moritz, providing spectacular views of mountains and the boldly six-arched curved limestone Landwasser viaduct. The second is the Bernina Express, which runs 61 kilometers. It passes by the massive, picturesque Morteratsch glacier and climbs 2253-meter-high Bernina before going down to the municipality of Poschiavo.
Death Railway (Thailand)
From the alluring temples to bustling night markets, quaint art galleries and museums, gorgeous beaches, and beautiful national parks, there’s no running out of best spots to visit in Thailand. As such, it’s no surprise that it’s home to a historic railway, dating from World War II – the Thai-Burma Railway or popularly known as the Death Railway.
The Death Railway was a 415-kilometer long railway that ran between Ban Pong, Thailand and Thanbyuzayat, Burma. It was built amidst the Japanese invasion from 1940 to 1943 by 60,000 prisoners of war and 180,000 to 250,000 civilian laborers forced by the Japanese troops. Around 100,000 people died during its construction because of miserable monsoons and heat, lack of medical supplies, poor hygiene, and beating received from the invaders.
Today, the Thai portion of the Death Railway continues to exist but the line that connects the two countries fell into disrepair and was never restored ever since. The line near River Kwai in the town of Kanchanaburi is among Thailand’s most popular rail lines. It now spans through the beautiful and serene countryside, far from the horrendous history it carries behind.
Those are some of the best heritage railways the world has to offer. Yet, take note that this is not a comprehensive list as Britain alone has over 150 heritage railways, having the oldest railway network and richest heritage. Of course, there are many more fascinating heritage railways in the United States and the entire world, each one boasting a unique history and ready to provide its passengers a distinct, memorable experience.