The Largest Rail Networks in the World

longest rail network

Today, we’re going to investigate which country has the largest rail network in the world. Domestic travel in some nations is almost defined by the railways and there are many countries where travelling by train is the easiest and most convenient way to get around.

However there may be a few surprises in the global rankings below. All countries are listed by the total track lengths of their rail networks. Figures are rounded up or down to the nearest 1,000 km and include both passenger and freight lines. The data comes from the latest available info from unless otherwise stated.

Which country has the largest railway network in the world?

1. USA – 149,000 km

USA rail travel
Amtrak via Mike Knell, CC BY-SA 2.0

The United States isn’t a country you’d necessarily associate with rail travel. Travelling between cities in different parts of the country is always quicker and often cheaper by air while car ownership is very high and most people travel shorter distances by road unless they’re lucky enough to live in one of the few cities with good public transport systems. However the vast size of the USA means the rail lines that do exist cover large distances and it is home to the largest rail network in the world.

According to Unece’s data, there are almost 150,000 km of rail tracks in the US. The dream of high speed rail linking the country remains just that for now but concerns about climate change and the polluting effects of planes may see that discussion return to the table over the coming decade. The most popular lines for now include the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington route in the northeast of the country while there are a few long-haul Amtrak services which connect the coasts taking around 3 days to cover 5,000 km.

Freight services do account for a lot of the traffic on America’s railways though and they remain a popular way to transport goods.

2. China – 141,000 km

fastest train in China
Shanghai Maglev via Andreas Krebs, CC BY-SA 2.0

As of 2020, China has around 141,000 km of rail tracks but plans are in place to expand that to 200,000 km in the next 15 years. That includes a number of new high-speed lines which will make getting from A to B in the country much quicker by connecting a number of the most important cities. By the time you’re reading this, it may already have the largest network in the world given how quickly they are building new tracks.

Unlike in the US, the railways are already a very popular way to get around with a number of high-speed lines already in place such as the 1,300 km Beijing-Shanghai service which has reduced journey times to just over 4 hours. China looks like it may also be the front-runner in the implementation of the magnetic maglev services – the fastest trains in the world.

3. Russia – 85,000 km

Russia is the world’s largest country by surface area so it’s no surprise to see it rank near the top of this rundown of the longest rail networks in the world. It certainly has the longest individual rail-line. The iconic Trans–Siberian Railway covers 9,259 km linking Moscow with Vladivostok in Russia’s distant far east.

Even so, that still only accounts for around 11% of Russia’s total rail tracks which are fully nationalised. There are many lines in the more heavily populated European part of the country connecting all the major cities and it’s one of the most popular ways to get around for Russians and visitors alike. Most are relatively slow by modern standards but there are some faster services such as the 250 km/hr Moscow–Saint Petersburg line.

4. India – 68,000 km

digital nomads India

Indian Railways reported a total track length of 68,000 km in 2020 making it the country with the world’s fourth largest rail network. With long delays common, low speeds and cramped conditions on many trains, India may not have the best railway system in the world but it is still very popular in the country with locals and visitors alike thanks to low fares, stunning views and the true sense of adventure.

Every journey brings new experiences, new people and new sights, smells and sounds. They are not always savoury ones but there is no better way to explore India than by rail and its network is vast with tracks linking everywhere from the very biggest cities to Himalayan outposts.

5. Canada – 63,000km

Canada rounds off the top five with more than 63,000 km of railways. A bit like the United States, the long distances involved make railways a relatively unpopular option for inter-regional travel but the country is home to the world’s second longest train journey. The 4,466 km from Toronto’s Union Station to Vancouver’s Pacific Central takes four days and lets you take in many of the natural wonders of Canada from the comfort of a warm rail carriage. It’s one of the most popular journeys in the world with rail lovers.

The railways also provide a vital means of connection for some Canadians situated in isolated areas. The entire network is vast, spanning from as far east as the Atlantic port city of Halifax in Nova Scotia to Prince Rupert on British Columbia’s northwest coast, very close to the border with Alaska.

The Largest Rail Network in the World – The Top 10

Ranking Country Total Track Length (km)
1 USA 149,000
2 China 141,000
3 Russia 85,000
4 India 68,000
5 Canada 63,000
6 Germany 38,000
7 Argentina 37,000
8 Australia 36,000
9 Japan 31,000
10 Brazil 29,000

The largest rail network in the world that is fully within Europe is found in Germany which has an extensive network spanning the whole country. While passenger services are relatively uncommon in South America, both Argentina and Brazil have lots of rail tracks, used largely for freight services and this contributes to their place in the top ten. Australia and Japan also feature with the latter having one of the busiest rail networks in the world as well as almost all of the busiest train stations in the world.

The Argentina, Brazil, Japan and Australia data comes from Wikipedia’s articles on rail transport.

This post was published in September 2021.

The Largest Rail Networks in the World

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