The World's Scariest Train Rides
From your open-air seat on the Georgetown Loop Railroad, the world looks pastoral and idyllic. As you wind through the Rocky Mountains toward Silver Plume, a historic Colorado mining town, tranquil scenes of forested hillsides and wildflower-dotted meadows glide past—so slowly and languorously that you’re nearly lulled into a nap.
But just as you’re getting comfortable, you find yourself jolted into alertness—and fumbling for the Dramamine. Your train car is now teetering atop the Devil’s Gate High Bridge—a replica of the original 19th century bridge—over a 100-foot drop down to a jaggedly rocky riverbed. Though you’re essentially tethered to the earth and the bridge isn’t even three decades old, fears—of the bridge collapsing, and of losing your lunch on your seatmate’s lap—consume you.
Siderodromophobics (people with a consuming fear of trains) can easily point out the various occurrences—from a collision on the tracks to germ-swathed seats—that can turn a blissful rail journey into an unchecked nightmare. Even those of us who are usually rational about such things may feel a nagging anxiety after reading about the occasional train disaster.
But some train rides are disconcerting enough to prompt unease in even the calmest travelers. Alaska’s White Pass & Yukon Route, for example, seems to chug almost straight up in the air (it climbs some 3,000 vertical feet in just 20 miles); on Argentina’s aptly named Tren a las Nubes (“Train to the Clouds”), the Andean views are vertigo-inducing at almost 14,000 feet. And on the Kuranda Railway in northern Australia, the steeply pitched mountainside horseshoe curves can get even stalwart hearts pounding.
The good news is, no matter how frightening such rides may seem, statistics prove that trains are actually one of the world’s most reliable modes of transport.
“Conventional wisdom is that rail travel is exceedingly safe,” says Warren Flatau, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration. And the numbers back up the notion: according to bureau statistics, just 24 passengers lost their lives on U.S. trains in 2008. It’s a small fraction of the number of airplane deaths (502 worldwide, per the International Air Transport Association) and motor-vehicle fatalities (37,313, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates).
So the only real fear you should have when boarding a train is of being seated next to an overly chatty fellow traveler. Still, if you find yourself on one of these hair-raising routes, it’ll be hard to avoid gripping that armrest just a little harder.
Minami Aso Railways, Japan
The Ride: The soaring (and occasionally smoking) peak of Mount Aso—Japan’s most active volcano—looms beside the track of this route through the southerly region of Kumamoto. Primarily a sightseeing ride for spring and summer visitors, the journey is even more arresting in early November, when the mountain’s forested foothills are ablaze in magma-hot colors.
Insider Tip: Minami Aso runs with just three cars, each carrying up to 133 passengers. If it gets cramped, detach one of the windows—fresh air does a body good at any earthly altitude.
Georgetown Loop Railroad, Colorado
The Ride: In the late 19th century, when the northwestern corner of Colorado was rife with silver mines, the narrow-gauge steam train was simply a commuter route (albeit a hairy one, with four bridges over Clear Creek and steep horseshoe curves). The scariest of the bunch is Devil’s Gate High Bridge, partly because of its 100-foot drop, and partly because of how slowly the train wheezes across it.
Insider Tip: Get Rocky Mountain Low with an added tour of Lebanon Silver Mine, active until the 1880. Pack a jacket—the underground temperature dips to 44 degrees.
Chennai-Rameswaram Route, India
The Ride: Short of hailing a helicopter or paddleboat, the only way to get from India’s southeastern coast to the island of Rameswaram is by rail—a pulse-raising trek across Pamban Bridge, a circa 1914, 1.4-mile-long sea trestle that runs right through the heart of cyclone territory.
Insider Tip: Rameswaram Island is considered one of India’s holiest Hindu sites; the real reason to visit is Rameswaram Temple, a 12th-century shrine beloved for its 22 wells. (It’s said that each one has unique-tasting water.)
White Pass & Yukon Route, Alaska
The Ride: Built during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, this narrow-gauge steam train now ferries thrill-seeking tourists rather than panners and diggers. More than 450,000 visitors per year make the cliff-clinging journey, which chugs up 3,000 feet in 20 miles, and which has been deemed an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Insider Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the Captain William Moore Bridge, a 110-foot-long cantilever bridge built in 1901 that the train route passes by. The bridge was ingeniously engineered to cross an active earthquake fault; only one end is anchored securely so that when the ground below shifts, the bridge isn’t wrenched apart.
Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway, England
The Ride: The epitome of short and sweet, the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway delivers on its name, pulling you roller-coaster style up the 500-foot cliff that spans these two southwesterly coastal towns. Eco-fueled by water since 1888, each car holds 40 people and weighs 10 tons when fully packed.
Insider Tip: Since the ride is short, round out your trip to North Devon with a visit to nearby Exmoor National Park. You’ll likely spot an Exmoor pony, native to the moors in this part of England.
Tren a las Nubes, Argentina
The Ride: Though this train route connecting Salta (in north-central Argentina) to La Polvorilla (on the Chilean border) was approved for construction in 1921, the nearly impenetrable Andean terrain kept it from completion until 1948. Take the journey yourself, and you’ll see why laying the track was so challenging: it passes through 21 tunnels, across 13 viaducts, and around numerous spirals and zigzags.
Insider Tip: Tren a las Nubes (“Train to the Clouds”) runs only on Saturdays. Since it leaves at 7:05 a.m. and doesn’t return until nearly midnight, pack a lunch (or hit the onboard restaurant for beef empanadas and dulce de leche crêpes).
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, NewMexico
The Ride: This rail route has elicited oohs and aahs since 1880, when it was forged as the Rio Grande Railroad’s San Juan Extension. Departing from the far-north town of Chama, the train crosses teetering trestles, clings to narrow ledges over the 800-foot Toltec Gorge, and winds over 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass (the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the United States).
Insider Tip: Keep an eye out for copious wildlife, including mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, antelope, eagles, and hawks.
Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe Train, SouthAfrica
The Ride: This Garden Route train’s scariest episode occurred during its construction in 1908, when a temporary wood bridge collapsed into the Great Brak River (bringing a locomotive with it). Though it’s a much sturdier operation these days, you’ll still catch your breath crossing the Indian Ocean on the 118-foot-high Kaaimans Bridge. The rest of the journey, which brings you past picturesque resort towns, the St. Blaize lighthouse, and the roaring Gwaiing and Malgate rivers, is more soothing.
Insider Tip: When the train arrives in Mossel Bay, at the Dias Museum Complex, step inside to mail postcards back home from the official box on the “Old Post Office Tree,” a centuries-old milkwood tree that was used by Spanish explorer João da Nova in 1501 to hold important letters.
Argo Gede Train, Indonesia
The Ride: On the three-hour ride from Jakarta’s Gambir station to Bandung (the “Paris of Java”), you’ll wind through emerald-green mountains, deep river valleys…and across sky-high Cikurutug Bridge. The train slid off its tracks here in 2002—although, thankfully, no one was injured. Since then the railway authorities have amped up their commitment to passenger safety.
Insider Tip: Bandung is touted as a shoppers’ mecca, thanks to the discount boutiques lining Cihampelas Street. Most wares come direct from nearby factories, so prices are rock-bottom.
Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia
The Ride: The railway has “Scenic” in its name, but “Vertiginous” could also have made the cut. Carved into the dense tropical rainforest in the late 1800s, the Kuranda crosses dramatic trestles, winds past gushing waterfalls, and traverses the sea-deep Barron Gorge National Park in the hour and 45 minutes it takes to get from Cairns to Kuranda. The train runs three times daily, 364 days a year (excluding Christmas—apparently Santa and scary don’t mix).
Insider Tip: For a calmer moment after exiting the train, head directly to the nearby Butterfly Sanctuary, where neon-blue Ulysses butterflies will remind you that travel isn’t always fast and furious.