CHATTING over a hot chai and a samosa as you hurtle through rice fields and deserts is a must-do on any exploration of India. Domestic services have up to eight classes, from intense standing room-only carriages to luxury AC1 private cabins. My tip? Opt for AC2 or AC3, two- or three-tiered bunk-bed cars, both super-good value for Brits.
Booking tickets is maddeningly complicated — ask your hotel to do it for you and, once bought, check your ticket is ‘confirmed’ as services do get oversold. The 11-hour overnight Konkan Kanya Express from Mumbai to Goa (£11, irctc.co.in) is a good introduction to the country’s 40,000 miles of track. After leaving the bustle of Mumbai, it heads along the Arabian Sea coast and you’ll wake up amid the rustling coconut palms of Goa.
If it’s supreme comfort you’re after, it’s all about the Maharajas’ Express (£5,355pp including flights, wexas.com). Wexas offers an eight-day tour of the Golden Triangle, which includes three nights on the train. You’ll visit Delhi, the Taj Mahal at Agra and Rajasthan’s pink city, Jaipur. There’s even a chance of spotting tigers in the Ranthambore National Park. On board, you’ll be treated to bygone-era levels of opulence: think butlers, porters and cocktails from crystal glasses as beautiful Rajasthan slides by outside.
Combine an African safari with an old-fashioned overnight service for the ultimate African adventure. The new Stimela Star from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (£375pp one-way, ganeandmarshall.com) has three classic 1950s carriages that ooze bygone style – think wooden panelling and cosy bunks combined with conveniences like hot showers and decent coffee.
The train sets off from outside the Victoria Falls Hotel (built for workers on the never-completed Cape to Cairo railway). After settling in, you’ll sit for a three-course dinner followed by coffee and drinks in the lounge carriage, where you’ll learn about the surrounding bush and Zimbabwe’s history of rail travel as the train chugs gently through the country under the moonlight.
As far as epic train journeys go, they don’t get much grander than The Ghan (from £1,075pp one way, greatsouthernrail.com.au) in Australia, which runs almost 3,000km from Darwin to Adelaide. Passengers spend four days and three nights aboard the all-inclusive train, making daytime stops along the way, including in the desert at Alice Springs for a camel ride (the train takes its name from the 19th-century Afghan camel drivers who crossed Australia). As far as food goes, it’s high-end but Aussie through and through: crocodile and kangaroo are both on the menu.