The World’s Steepest Train Rides

With air travel still difficult and subject to restrictions due to COVID, train travel is becoming increasingly popular. There are two kinds: leisurely journeys, especially in one of the brand new sleeper trains in Europe, or those that provide you with spine-tingling thrills. We’re here to talk about the latter.

Think trains that take you up mountains on tracks that make you hold your breath, through valleys and gorges so steep you can hardly see the bottom. For adventure seekers, there are several such dazzling trains in many parts of the world, and we will show you those that really provide you with an adrenaline rush. But worry not, they are all quite safe.

Pilatus Railway, Switzerland

The Pilatus Railway runs from Alpnachstad on Lake Alpnach to the Esel station near the summit of the 6,800-foot-high Mount Pilatus in the Swiss canton of Obwalden. It takes the crown as the world’s steepest rack railway with a maximum gradient of 48 percent. 

The line is 2.86 miles long, and, at the Alpnachstad end, it connects with steamships on Lake Lucerne. It’s operative from May to October, whereas the cable car on the opposite side runs year round. The 30-minute journey takes you past alpine meadows and striking rock formations. Commissioned in 1889, the fire engine red carriages were first pulled by steam engines before the line became electrified in 1937. Believe it or not, the original carriages are still in use, and so are the tracks. How is that for Swiss quality?

Oigawa Railway in Japan.
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Oigawa Railway, Japan

Enjoy a ride through the green tea fields of the Oi River in Japan. The Oigawa Railway is the only railway in Japan that is operated by steam locomotives, dating from the 1930s. The carriages are from the 1950s and feature wooden seats and old ceiling fans. The conductors will entertain you with the history of the railway and music on your way from Kanaya to Senzu. In 2014, a new steam engine called Thomas the Tank was added, recently joined by James. It may not be breathtakingly steep, but you can’t beat this line for originality and old-fashioned charm.

Schafberg Railway in Austria.
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Schafberg Railway, Austria

The Schafberg Railway, in the Salzburg province, is Austria’s steepest cog railway. It leads from the town of St. Wolfgang to the summit of the 5,850-foot Schafberg, through fields, dense woods, and two tunnels. Along the way, you get splendid views of Lake Wolfgang and the Austrian mountainscape.

The railway has run since 1893 and climbs at a gradient of 26 percent. There are three stops before reaching the mountain station, and the entire journey takes 35 minutes.

Diakopto Kalavryta Railway in Greece.
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Diakopto Kalavryta Railway, Greece

Go from beach to mountains in approximately one hour in a breathtaking journey on Greece’s only cog railway. The route leads from Diakopto, a charming beach town in Achaea in Western Greece, to the ski resort of Kalavyrta. What will give you a thrill is the journey along the Vouraikos gorge and river, especially when the river gushes vertically below the railway bridge. Kalavyrta is also the seat of a historical monastery.

Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire.
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Mount Washington Cog Railway, U.S.A.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is located in the White Mountain range of northern New Hampshire. Embark on a journey on North America’s only operating cog railway, starting from Marshfield Base Station to Mount Washington. The base station is already worth a visit, as it explains the history of the railway and features a cute souvenir shop. Today the train is pulled by biodiesel engines, but in a nod towards history, there are also two coal-fired steam engines in operation. Try to make your journey in the fall and enjoy the fabulous show of the turning leaves of the New England woods.

The cog railway ascends the western slope of the 6,288-foot mountain, the summit of which is crossed by the Appalachian Trail. Dress warmly, as the mountain is notorious for its erratic weather conditions.

Snowdon Mountain Railway in Wales, UK.
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Snowdon Mountain Railway, Wales

This is the only public narrow gauge rack and pinion railway in the UK. It runs from Gwynned in Northwest Wales up to the 3,560-foot summit of Mount Snowdon, the highest elevation in Wales. Due to the pandemic, the train currently only runs three quarters of the way up the mountain to the open station of Clogwyn. Even so, you can enjoy the waterfalls at Gwynned and the sheer edges of Rocky Valley. The train, which has operated since 1896, covers a total of 4.7 miles, and the carriages are pushed by diesel engines.

Peak Tram in Hong Kong.
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Peak Tram, Hong Kong

The Peak Tram in Hong Kong has been an institution since 1888, and it is used by thousands of passengers every day, locals as well as tourists. It is the best, most direct and scenic route from Garden Road Admiralty to Victoria Peak, passing the middle levels. Not only can you enjoy fabulous views of Hong Kong Harbor and the skyscraper skyline, but you also travel through the lush, tropical vegetation of the Peak. Your ticket allows you to visit the viewing platform at the top. The gradient reaches from four to 25.7 percent.