Mountain railway journeys: Five ways to let the train take the strain

Enjoy spectacular scenery on the world's most dramatic climbs, writes Christopher Beanland

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The Independent Travel

It's probably quite fun to climb a mountain, but if you prefer to admire brooding highland vistas from a heated and hospitable railway carriage, there is a slew of iconic journeys that pack a peak-shaped punch.

With winter upon us, thoughts turn to snow - and letting the train take the strain through the frosty uplands of Europe has never been easier. The most recent series of Michael Portillo's Great Continental Railway Journeys  on BBC2 shows just how easy it can be - after all, George Bradshaw's guides have been directing rail travellers around the continent's iron roads for more than 100 years.

But mountains don't have to mean ice and snow: in South America and South Asia, there are classic mountain railway trips you can take wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

The high road

The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig (scotrail.co.uk) is Scotland's most famous mountain railway, with its summit at Courror hitting 411 metres – Britain's highest station. Several daily departures run on this line. But for real rail aficionados the Great Highland Line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh edges it: deer sit untroubled, just a few yards from your window, and you get breathtaking views of isolated grouse moors up to which it would take a day or more to hike.

At Kyle, the friends of the line have just refurbished the station's signal box (bit.ly/SignalBox) which you can rent on 13 December for seven nights for £200. It accommodates two trainspotters: there's a model railway in the box, which is open every day – you do have to let people in to look, but you get free tickets. An off-peak return from Inverness to Kyle is £35.20.

Through the snow

The Glacier Express (glacierexpress.ch) is the quintessential Swiss rail journey. The carriages have not only huge picture windows, but rooftop ones too, so you can admire the view from every angle as the train climbs from Zermatt through the Mattertal Valley and over the Oberalp Pass – at more than 2,000 metres. On the way back down to St Moritz the train seems to fly from a cliff, across the famous Landwasser Viaduct, before slithering snakelike into a waiting tunnel.

Planet Rail (01347 811810; planetrail.co.uk) has a new seven-night package, including B&B accommodation (one night in Cologne, three in St Moritz and three in Montreux), plus the journey and lunch on the Glacier Express, for £1,895 per person. Based on two sharing, the price also covers rail travel from London (Eurostar and TGV) and a taxi transfer between Paris stations.

Tea time

Enchanting tea-draped slopes are the backdrop for the railway line that potters up through Sri Lanka's highlands, from the modern capital Colombo to the ancient capital Kandy, and on to Ella. Gorges, tight bends and steep slopes mark this line out as something which will dish out theme park-style thrills.

Great Rail Journeys (01904 734194; greatrail.com) offers a 14-night trip round Sri Lanka, including rail travel through tea country. Also part of the package are tours around Nanu Oya tea plantation and Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, plus accommodation and economy flights from London. Prices start at £2,245 per person.

The Rocky road

The Rocky Mountaineer (0800 088 5541; rockymountaineer.com) is a private rail operator that runs trains over four different routes up and down the Canadian Rockies. The most popular journey is the "First Passage To The West", which chunters from the coastal gem Vancouver up through Kamloops and on to beautiful Banff.

Glass-topped dome cars in Gold Leaf Class offer the most stirring views of the Rockies. Seven nights in a Gold Leaf cabin with complimentary drinks and snacks cost from £5,116 per person. Departs Vancouver on 20 April 2015, book direct with Rocky Mountaineer.

Air Transat (020 7616 9187; airtransat.co.uk) has flights from Gatwick to Vancouver for £581 return, departing on 16 April 2015 and returning 30 April.

Andean adventure

In 1980 the late Independent writer and humorist Miles Kington made a film for the BBC about his trip from Lima up into the Andes; the route has only grown in popularity since. Looking back at Kington's programme, however, the train looks positively Spartan compared to today's luxurious Andean Explorer.

The Explorer (00 51 84 581414; perurail.com) sedately rattles from Cusco to Puno, where the waters of Lake Titicaca lap up almost against the line just before the train pulls into Puno Station. It takes 10 hours and costs £179 one way.

American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Cusco, via Miami and Lima, for £1,328 leaving on 10 January 2015 and returning 17 January (some legs of the journey operated by LAN). The Explorer sedately rattles on to Puno, where Lake Titicaca laps up almost to the rails

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