Five of the best train journeys through southern India

Trains in the south tend to be newer, cleaner and more punctual than those in the north, with a range of options available for many routes. Here are four trains that showcase everything from the mountains to the sea, with plenty of jungles, farms and vill

A boat passes under the railway bridge connecting Pamban Island to the mainland.

Photograph by Alamy
By Monisha Rajesh
Published 22 Feb 2023, 10:00 GMT

Largely offering a more efficient and modern service than routes through India’s north, trains in the south also have a wider range of options available for the same route — allowing more flexibility, depending on your time restrictions and budget. Whether you’re looking to gaze out upon the lush vegetation of the so-called ‘Green Route’ between Bangalore and Mangalore or let glimpses of rural life as you journey from Kerala to the southernmost tip of India, there’s simply no finer way to discover India’s south in all its beauty and complexity than by rail.

Chennai Egmore-Rameswaram Express: Chennai to Rameswaram

Departing Chennai at 7:15pm, this train travels down the southeast edge of India to Pamban Island, home of the Ramanathaswamy Temple, one of the four main sites of Hindu pilgrimage. A comfortable sleeper experience, this service allows plenty of time to eat dinner on board and to observe the twilit city before the railway’s lights-out rule comes into force at 10pm. On waking, passengers can nurse frothy coffee in the open doorway and prepare for the journey’s highlight: a spectacular sea crossing as the rising sun throws a sheet of gold across the water. Passengers will feel like they’re rolling through the waves as the train takes around five minutes to complete the stretch, pulling into Rameswaram in time for breakfast. 
Top tip: Book a berth in a second class carriage with air conditioning, then find a seat in general class for the crossing.

Yesvantpur-Karwar Express: Bangalore to Mangalore

This train traces a glorious stretch of railway through the heart of Karnataka state, connecting the city of Bangalore with the port hub of Mangalore. Known as the Green Route, it’s an explosion of forests, rope-like creepers, clusters of wonky palms and skinny waterfalls with rainbows forming in their spray. Over 10 hours, the train slips into around 60 tunnels and thumps across more than 100 bridges over coffee plantations, thrashing rivers and valleys thick with growth.
Top tip: Book seats in the Vistadome carriage, which enables passengers to experience 360-degree views from rotating seats.

Left: Top:

Lemons on sale at KR Market, Bangalore.

Right: Bottom:

A woman climbs the steps of Malleswaram temple, Bangalore.

photographs by AWL Images

The Island Express: Thiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari

In just under three hours, the Island Express clanks its way down the Malabar coast, from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu — the southernmost tip of India where the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal converge in a blend of different-coloured sands. Inching its way through wet, lizard-green jungle where giant leaves slap at the barred windows, the train lets passengers peek into rural life where kids play cricket with planks, saris hang out to dry in fields, and the smell of roadside cooking drifts in and out on the breeze. 
Top tip: Buy a ticket in general class where the windows are open so you can feel the breeze.

Mandovi Express: Mumbai to Madgaon

With a total of 2,000 bridges and 92 tunnels, the Konkan Railway is a feat of engineering excellence. Designed and constructed entirely by Indian engineers, the track bores through mountainous terrain, circumventing a multitude of rivers. Bound by the Arabian Sea on one side and the Sahyadri Hills on the other, passengers benefit from warm sea air billowing through the open doors, dense coconut groves, and a pantry car that serves  Indian Railways’ best food.  
Top tip: Carry plenty of 10- and 20-rupee notes to buy tea, coffee and freshly fried snacks brought round by hawkers.

A train passes through the tea country of Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.

A train passes through the tea country of Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.

Photograph by Getty Images

Nilgiri Mountain Railway: Mettupalayam to Ooty (Udhagamandalam)

Completed in 1908, the single-track Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a hit with domestic travellers looking to escape the heat: honeymooners, families and students on long weekends often fill up the wooden benches, sharing hot samosas and singing Hindi movie hits. Climbing to an altitude of 6,200ft in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, the steam train still uses a rack-and-pinion traction system to pull passengers past farms, tea estates and banana plantations, the cool scent of eucalyptus increasing at every twist and turn. 
Top tip: Reserve a ticket at least two months in advance as the train fills up quickly.

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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