The world’s highest railway is of course the Qinghai–Tibet railway, topping 5,072 metres.
The Rio Mulatos-Potosí line in Bolivia, built to bring all that silver out of that mountain, used to be top of the tree, clocking 4,786 m at Cóndor station. You can still do this line I found out, here’s a picture of the rolling stock.
The Ferrocarril Central Andino, which runs from Lima to Huancayo manages an astonishing 4,782 metres, which considering it’s 104 years old is pretty damn impressive. There’s some argument as to whether this, or the Bolivia line, was top train before the Tibet Railway came into existence. You can get a “proper” scheduled train up this one though. It will have required a truly supernatural effort on behalf of the guys stoking the steam engines that ran this line to get them up the Andean mountains, a feat that continued into at least the 1980s (the line had a gauge change in 2008/9, thus ending any further chance of the last steam engine they had, a Hunslet 2-8-0 built in Leeds. But it’s possible there could have been steam up it even this century, my research team are currently investigating the issue).
The Jungfraubahn which runs up the inside of the north face of the Eiger, climbs to a mind numbing 3,454 metres, and is easily Europe’s highest. Having done that and felt the effect, I can only wonder at how it feels to get up to Huancayo. By comparison, North America’s best effort is The Pike’s Peak Cog Railway in the USA at a puny 2,002 metres. And apparently the softies in the U.S. only allow you up there for 40 minutes cos they are worried about people passing out.
Ghum in India, near Darjeeling, is India’s top stop at 2,225 m. It’s often claimed to be the highest station in the world, I really don’t know why. Galera station in Peru is at 4,777 m, and Cóndor on the Bolivia line claims to be 9m higher still (though you could argue that to be a station you need to have something approximating a train stopping at it). Top station is now Tanggula on the Tibet line at 5,068m. It usually takes so long to get up to Ghum that you are unlikely to feel much altitude sickness there.
Another incredible Andean railway is the Guayaquil to Quito line, or Empresa de Ferrocarriles Ecuatorianos in Ecuador. This one manages a modest 3,609 m and is currently not fully operational, but they’ve managed to re-open quite a bit of it just for our benefit, including the section to Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) where the train shunts back and forth Darjeeling style. You can actually do this on another of these “Truss” creations. The lines south from Quito and east from Guayaquil have been restored and there is alleged to be a public service out of Quito down to Latacunga.
The Bernina is a mere 2,328 metres. Both the Tibetan and Andean railways, and for that mater the Jungfraubahn, are on a totally different level clearly. The Jungfraujoch train climbs so steeply that I strongly recommend you don’t imitate the hoards of Japanese and Indian tourists up there and instead take things very easy else you will regret it later.
Tibet, and Peru and Bolivia, are still sitting in my in-tray. But size isn’t absolutely everything. The views over the Bernina are in my opinion the best in Switzerland from a train, and the Swiss have an awful lot to offer in the “view out of the window” department. But it is the second stage, the Albula line with it’s spiralling tunnels and viaducts, in conjunction with the Bernina Pass, that gets it my Gold Medal.
To read more from Mark’s excellent blog go to.The Great European Railway Challenge