The steepest rail journey in the world takes you through a land of ravines, waterfalls and fjords. But is it one of Europe’s best? CONAL HANNA reports.
The best thing to do in Flåm is get the hell out of there. It’s not that the tiny Norwegian village isn’t pleasant, just a testimony to the two main ways out of town: a jaw-dropping ferry ride up the fjords, or the astounding train ride that is the Flåmsbana.
Climbing nearly 900m within a 20km trip, the Flåmsbana is one of the steepest rail journeys in the world – you’ll be grateful for those five brake systems. Understandably, the train is quite slow, but the more time you have to take in this pristine scenery the better. With ravines, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and, of course, the fjord you’re leaving behind, this is a highlights package of Norwegian natural beauty. Little wonder it’s included on the ‘Norway in a nutshell’ tour that leaves daily from Bergen.
As an offshoot of the track linking Norway’s two biggest cities, Oslo and Bergen, work began on the Flåmsbana in 1923 to guarantee a supply line down to the Aurlandsfjord, on which Flåm (pronounced ‘flawm’) perches. It took 17 years to build, with avalanches proving a major hazard for a workforce that started at 120 but increased to 220. Most of the workers’ time was spent digging the 20 tunnels the train passes through, only two of which were excavated with machines. Every metre of tunnel took a month to dig. For sightseers, the tunnels, totalling nearly 6km in length, can be frustrating as they limit access to much of the spectacular scenery. But they are a work of art in themselves, one of them containing a 180° hairpin bend.
The bend is just one of many engineering feats associated with the line. The train follows the path of the river leading down from Myrdal to Flåm. In order to avoid some of the more dangerous parts of the climb, it actually crosses the river three times, though you wouldn’t know it – it was easier to re-route the river into the mountain than build bridges over it.
Having started among the deep greens of the Flåm countryside and the rich blue of the Aurlandsfjord, you soon find yourself surrounded by white. Having gone past towering mountains, thundering waterfalls and multiple postcard panoramas, reaching the town of Myrdal presents you with the toughest choice of all: push on for Bergen or Oslo, or just turn around and head straight back down.
• A single ticket on the Flåmsbana costs 160 kroner (£14). See www.flaamsbana.no/eng.
Europe’s greatest train journeys
The most breathtaking of Switzerland’s many beautiful rail journeys, though that could be put down to the altitude. Jungfraujoch is Europe’s highest rail station, after all. The train from Interlaken follows two different routes, meaning you don’t have to backtrack on the way down.
Glacier Express, Zermatt-St Moritz, Switzerland
This ‘express’ train practically crawls, but who could blame it? Having started at an altitude of 1604m in Zermatt, the tracks plunge nearly a kilometre, only to climb to a height of 2033m at the Oberalp Pass. They then plunge another 1400m, before rising to St Moritz (1775m). Along this up-and-down journey are 291 bridges, 91 tunnels and endless gorgeous scenery.
Bernina Express, Chur-Tirano, Switzerland
The first leg, from Chur-St Moritz, is also the Glacier Express, but the Bernina trip then continues across the Alps and finishes down among the palm trees of Italian Tirano.
This trip along the Riviera has wonderful coastal views. If sharing a carriage with wrinkly Frenchies in resort wear isn’t enough to have you feeling like a daggy backpacker, you can always continue on to Monte Carlo.
West Coast Railway, Fort William-Mallaig, Scotland
Proving Switzerland doesn’t have a monopoly on mountain scenery, the West Coast Railway showcases the surrounding Highlands, travelling past Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, plus several lochs and rivers. The Jacobite steam train makes for the most traditional vantage point; you may recognise both the train and part of the route from the Harry Potter films.
Following the path of the Rhine, this short trip passes numerous castles, vineyards and towns you can stop and explore both.
It might not be exceptionally picturesque, but it’s a damn sight more pleasant than the journey to Stansted. Opened in 1994, the Channel Tunnel revolutionised the way people approached trans-Channel travel.
Starting in the Swedish capital, this trip up into the Arctic Circle takes 17-and-a-half hours, but watching the scenery change in tune with your longitude is a fascinating way to approach the wonders of Lapland and the Icehotel.
Euromed, Barcelona-Alicante, Spain
The high-speed service that hugs Spain’s east coast deserves plaudits for both its efficiency and dramatic coastal landscapes.