Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia
Courtesy of the Kuranda Scenic Railway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway, in Australia 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.
By
updated 10/26/2009 9:33:00 AM ET 2009-10-26T13:33:00

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 century-old Devil’s Gate High Bridge, over a 100-foot drop down to a jaggedly rocky riverbed. Though you’re essentially tethered to the earth, fears — of the 125-year-old 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.

White Pass & Yukon Route, Alaska
Wouter Radstake
Built during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, this narrow-gauge steam train's White Pass & Yukon Route, 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.
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.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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