Four train journeys perfect for solo travellers

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Monisha Rajesh

5 min read

Monisha Rajesh is journalist and author who has written several books and countless articles on train travel. Here are just a few of her favourite routes for solo travellers.

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From the moment you board a train, wander the aisles and look around for your seat, there’s an innate sense of adventure. It’s a feeling that your destination is all around, in the peals of laughter from sleeper compartments, the scent of coffee brewing in the dining car, and the slideshow of scenery that plays out at the window, giving you a permanent sense of time and space. For solo travellers, trains provide a wonderful cloak of anonymity – or a readymade group of friends. You can hop on and off at will, move seats, linger at the bar, chat or hide behind a book, being as involved or as aloof as you choose. But the sense of belonging is innate, the knowledge that from the moment you board until the moment you leave, you’re drawn into the fold of a unique railway family, one that unites you for those few hours or minutes, whatever your reason for travel 

Exeter St Davids to Newton Abbot, UK

Although the UK’s trains aren’t the most reliable right now, the country is home to a handful of startlingly beautiful sections of railway that emerge on major routes. Blink and you’ll miss them. For the majority of passengers travelling the 250 miles between London Paddington and Penzance, the five-hour journey down to the Cornish coast is a pleasant parade of classic scenery, with sheep dotted on hillsides, wide-mouthed rivers and picket-fenced fields. But there’s a 19-minute segment that takes your breath away. Pulling out of Exeter St Davids, the train rumbles past fat graffiti on warehouse walls, before speeding alongside green marshland that narrows to a point. Here the trees drop away and the train runs tight against the majestic, mile-wide river Exe, spray splashing up to the windows, and rowers, sailing boats and kayaks competing for space beside it. In winter, the wetlands are brimming with birdlife, from curlews, dunlins and teals to bar-tailed godwits and avocets picking their way through the sands. Around Dawlish Warren, the river merges with the English Channel and a perfect sliver of foam rims the edge of the water, as walkers stroll along the coastal path watching waves break and fizz on the sand. Curling down the coastline, the train swings inland and runs along the River Teign before drawing into Newton Abbot.

Tickets are available from

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Latour de Carol to Villefranche-de-Conflent, France

Canary-yellow with red piping, Le Petit Train Jaune looks like a character from a children’s story book. Known officially as the Ligne de Cerdagne, the narrow-gauge railway was built between 1903 and 1927 to link the Catalan plateau with the rest of the region. Hooting in and out of nineteen tunnels and clattering over two incredible bridges, the train covers 39 miles of fabulous engineering work in just under three hours. With both closed and open-air carriages, the electric train gives passengers the chance to ride through the Pyrenees with the mountain wind whipping through their hair, and a spirit of community that welcomes solo travellers into the fold. Departing throughout the year, the train offers two completely different experiences between summer and winter: in warmer months you’ll rumble by sweet-smelling meadows and yellow slopes, where gentians bloom like an orchestra of tiny blue trumpets, and butterflies flit overhead. Rivers gurgle through the trees and hikers wave from the trails. But winter brings a bright white blanket of snow with naked trees shivering in the cold. In keeping with the rustic charm of the surrounding area, passengers are free to flag down the train as it passes, clambering into any available space before it gives a comical “poop-poop”, rattles, then revs off. Hugging rock faces and skirting canyons, the train reaches the highlight of the journey at the Pont Gisclard – unless you suffer from a fear of heights in which case you might want to close your eyes as the train crosses the suspension bridge above a deep valley of evergreen trees.

For timings and ticket prices visit

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Douro Valley Railway, Portugal

For first-timers to Portugal, one of the quickest ways to learn about the country and its culture is via the slow trains. Weaving through wine country, connecting major cities, and traveling to the edges of the coastline, the railways offer a fun way to meet local people and to try out food and drink. One train that does both is the historic Douro Valley railway that embarks upon a riverside round-trip for those who fancy a tipple on the move. Built in 1925, the steam train with its five wooden carriages is a huge hit with Portuguese tourists and wine-lovers as well as families on a fun day out – so it’s easy to make friends on the move. With polished wooden benches and wide-open windows, the train hisses then chuffs its way out of Régua station, a plume of black smoke in its wake. Following the twists and turns of the Douro river, the train rattles through the sun-soaked valley, a patchwork quilt of terraced vineyards, villas and olive trees. Throughout the journey local musicians strum guitars and pull accordions while passengers sip sweet Ferreira port and suck on rebuçados de Régua – honeyed candies sold by ladies in white smocks. Its whistle piercing the stillness, the train passes through Pinhão where passengers can hop out to photograph the charming station’s rich blue tiles and murals, stretch their legs and buy a couple of bottles of port to take home. Traveling full circle, the train returns to Régua with a final hiss and creak.  

Trains run between July and October. Visit for more information and ticket prices. 

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Cinque Terre, Italy

Short and sweet and done in quick bursts, taking the train between the Cinque Terre is one of the loveliest ways to absorb the beauty and peace of Italy’s most famous fishing villages. Scattered all over the cliffs and rocky coastline, this quintet of colourful villages encompasses the spirit of Italy with medieval cobbled passages, family-run hotels and homely trattorie. But it’s the bits in between that are home to hidden shrines and chapels, terraced vineyards and old footpaths flanked by olive groves. Most visitors tend to hike the trails connecting Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – each of which takes a couple of hours – but the four-minute bursts by train between the villages offer a peek into the bits you won’t spot on foot. Popping in and out of hillside tunnels, the train hugs the precipice of this gelato-colored jumble of buildings while the sea sloshes below. From the window, passengers can wave at flat-capped farmers tending their allotments and watch as cats sit tight on crumbling walls. Although trains run regularly throughout the day, the best service to take is the slowest regional train which will add on a little more than ten minutes to the 20-minute journey, but allows passengers to listen out for the sound of church bells carrying through the trees, and to smell the scent of lemon and rosemary, heavy on the warm air.

A Cinque Terre Train Card allows for unlimited travel between the villages in second class. Visit

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Monisha Rajesh

Monisha Rajesh is a journalist and author whose work has been published in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of Around the World in 80 Trains which was a National Geographic Traveller Book of the Year, and also Around India in 80 Trains and Epic Train Journeys. Currently working on her fourth book about the resurgence in sleeper trains, Monisha lives in London with her husband, two daughters and mini-dachshund, Juno.
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