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A tourist train is a rail operation intended not as practical transportation (a way to "get in" or "get around") but as a museum-style attraction to see, a tour as an activity to do, or a means to employ historic dining or sleeper train cars as somewhere to eat or sleep for novelty or entertainment purposes.

Tourist trains tend to distinguish themselves from practical rail transport by any of various factors:

  • Use of historic or non-standard rolling stock, such as restored steam engines or 1920s Orient Express dining and sleeper cars
  • Luxurious but expensive journeys; travel as kings and prime ministers did a century ago, but pay thousands of dollars or euros for a journey which would cost hundreds by air
  • Deliberately slow journeys, typically for sightseeing or to provide time to serve an elaborate meal on a relatively short-haul itinerary.
  • Tourist entertainment, such as a murder mystery aboard the train, where the novelty would quickly wear off were the same commuters to board the train every day
  • Circle tours or lines which travel to one tiny, distant town, wait a few hours at most, then bring the same travellers directly back to the point of departure
  • Package deals in which a sightseeing train makes a two-day (or longer) journey entirely during daylight hours, with a stay in a tourist hotel for the night bundled in the price
  • Package deals in which the train stops in one city for a day or more in the middle of the journey, bundled with a guided walking or bus tour of that intermediate city
  • Package deals in which the bundled food, lodging or entertainment are worth more than the transportation component, such as a gourmet dinner on a sightseeing return trip to an adjacent village
  • Infrequent or seasonal operation. A train that runs once a year to commemorate a historic event or to view the fall colours is not a serious competitor to a regional commuter train operator.

Historic and museum trains

Steam train in Wakefield, Québec in 2010
See also heritage railways.

Often, historic rolling stock from another era has been painstakingly restored and put back on the rails as a form of living museum exhibit. Steam trains, rolling stock from a bygone era or narrow gauge equipment which cannot run on most of the modern mainline system will often turn up on otherwise little-used track as a means for railroaders to preserve a nostalgic past.

Lines of steam currently in rail operation include:

Sightseeing and luxury trains

A few trains operate primarily for sightseeing or as nostalgia for an era before mass air travel in which the well-to-do rode the rails in style. Often, these trains are too costly, too slow or serve regions too isolated for these operations to qualify as practical transportation or obtain the subsidies provided to the main national transport network. Aimed at tourists, they usually also offer food, tours and activities.

Occasionally, a train deployed primarily as practical transportation will attract sightseers if it passes through particularly scenic locations. While these are not tourist trains per se, most of these are listed in the main rail travel articles for the country or destination. There are also a few passenger trains which serve remote points (such as Churchill, Manitoba or Schefferville, Québec in Canada) which have no intercity road access; these are subsidized as part of the main, national system.

Dinner trains

These runs occupy a similar role to that of a dinner cruise on a tour boat line; they are typically short (an hour to a few hours at most) and operate at relatively slow speeds on otherwise little-used lines. An elaborate dinner served in dining cars or panorama cars often takes up most or all of the time devoted to the trip.

  • The Sierra Railroad in Oakdale, California USA operates dinner trains, beer and champagne runs and murder mystery trips using heritage equipment. A few special/excursion trains (such as a "zombie train" for Halloween) operate seasonally.
  • The Orford Express between Magog and Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada (a sightseeing train) offered dinner aboard a panorama car on a short-haul trip.
  • There is a weekly Tequila Express from Ferrocarril Mexicano station in Guadalajara to the village of Amatitán in Jalisco, where (at the Herradura distillery) the entire tequila production process takes place. The train ride includes mariachi music, along with sample servings of tequila and Corona beer, fruits and cucumber and watermelon sprinkled with paprika.

Park railways

A large park may have a train which makes a circle tour of the park itself without going beyond the park boundary; a monorail at a large zoological garden is a common example. Sometimes these are practical transportation (much like the short-haul train between the terminals of a large airport), but often these are designed for sightseeing and employ novelty or panorama-view cars. A heritage steam train making a circle tour of a pioneer village museum park which could be toured easily on foot is a tourist train.

In the former Eastern bloc, including but not limited to Poland and East Germany, there are various narrow and very narrow gauge railways that run mostly through a public park and are often historically associated with or still operated by young people or members of the (state-sponsored during Leninist times) "pioneer organization" (e.g. the FDJ or "Jungpioniere" in the GDR). While they do provide some limited transportation value (getting you from one end of a rather large park to the other) they are usually kept for their novelty value and often employ uncommon ways of traction like battery based steam engines. Cities that have them include but are not limited to:

In Zimbabwe a one-car, 22 seat tram operates as the "Elephant Express" for a two-hour, 70km journey on the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls rail mainline along the northern boundary of Hwange National Park. The schedules tend to be arbitrarily flexible and very much at the mercy of other through traffic which has priority.

Excursion trains

These occupy a similar role to a chartered bus, aircraft or ship. Some are extra trains, outside the primary schedule, which a mainstream rail operator has added to provide transport for a major sporting event or popular tour destination. Others are operated by private, non-railway entities which have paid to use the rails or chartered the train itself. These were once common in national election campaigns as a means to transport candidates to "whistle stop" appearances in every town on the line, a task now fulfilled most often by a partisan election campaign bus. Some of these trains have been preserved and are either still run for excursions (which may require deep pockets) or are on display in various museums and private collections. While the former use for political campaigning has died a slow death in North America, a 1950s campaign train was brought back as recently as 2009 for a political campaign in Germany to demonstrate an unbroken line of tradition between the party then and now.

A "special" or "extra" train may be added as an excursion run by either a mainline rail operator or a tourist train line; some operators add an extra train seasonally for fall sightseeing.

Decommissioned rolling stock

Long after an engine or car's travelling life on the rails is over, it may still see use as part of a static exhibit in a museum, park or public venue; a town which uses a former historic rail station as a landmark or travel information office may complement this by restoring a historic engine of the same era for public display beside the old station house. Rail and transportation museums often hold extensive collections of rolling stock. As novelty architecture, a dining car may be installed in a fixed location to house a restaurant; a motel may be constructed using decommissioned sleeper train cars or the distinctive red cabooses which once provided crew quarters at the end of North American freight and goods trains.

Rail and transport museums holding historic equipment or decommissioned rolling stock include:

See also

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