The highest altitude railways in the world serve as crucial lifelines for remote communities and also cater to tourism and leisure. However, the harsh weather conditions at high altitudes pose significant challenges for their construction and maintenance, making them costly endeavors. Nevertheless, these railways are indispensable for connecting hard-to-reach regions.

South America dominates the list of the highest-altitude railways, with half of them located on the continent, along with two in North America. Surprisingly, Asian railways, despite hosting the highest-altitude railway globally, appear only twice on this list, both instances being in China.

Looking to the future, the Bhanupli–Leh line under construction in India holds promise, potentially reaching a staggering altitude of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet) at the Taglang La Mountain pass, which would make it the world's highest-altitude railway upon completion.

It's worth mentioning the Empresa de Ferrocarriles Ecuatorianos heritage railway in Ecuador, which would have secured the seventh spot on this list had it not been shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ownership was transferred to the Ecuadorean State in 2022, with plans underway to revive the service.

Here are the current top ten highest-altitude non-cable passenger railways in the world.

10. Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, US: 10,022 feet

​The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TSRR) is a narrow-gauge heritage railway situated in the United States, traversing between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. Originally constructed in 1880, this 103km (64-mile) railway has served various purposes over its history, including passenger transport, lumber hauling, and crude oil carriage.

Its highest point lies at Cumbres Pass, nestled in the San Juan Mountains, soaring 3,055m (10,022 feet) above sea level. While the summit of Cumbres Pass is uninhabited presently, during the railroad's active operation as a common carrier line, it hosted full-time railroad personnel.

9. Gornergrat Railway, Switzerland: 10,135 ft

The Gornergrat Railway is a cog railway winding through the Swiss Alps, connecting the picturesque village of Zermatt with the summit of Gornergrat, a prominent ridge in the Pennine Alps. Its pinnacle, the Gornergrat terminal station, sits at an elevation of 3,089m (10,135 feet), claiming the title of the highest open-air railway station in Europe.

For 14 years since its inauguration in 1898 until the advent of the Jungfrau Railway in 1912, the Gornergrat Railway held the distinction of being the highest railway in Europe. Operating with single-track electric trains, it has the capacity to transport up to 2,500 passengers per hour.

8. Jungfrau Railway, Switzerland: 11,332 ft

Reaching a staggering height of 3,454m (11,332 feet) at the Jungfraujoch railway station, it stands as the highest railway station across Switzerland and Europe. Nestled within the Jungfrau Tunnel, this station provides tunnel and elevator access to prominent landmarks such as the Top of Europe Building, the Sphinx Observatory, and the Ice Palace.

Topping the list as Switzerland and Europe's loftiest railway, the Jungfrau Railway links the mountain passes of Kleine Scheidegg and Jungfraujoch in the Swiss Alps. Operating above the snow line, this three-phase electric railway predominantly traverses the Jungfrau Tunnel, safeguarding it from severe weather conditions.

7. Lanxin Second Railway, China: 11,834 ft

The Lanzhou–Xinjiang high-speed railway, also known as the Lanxin Second Railway, is a significant high-speed rail link connecting Lanzhou to Ürümqi in Northwestern China. Integral to the Eurasia Continental Bridge corridor, this railway spans across China along an east-west axis.

Its highest point lies at the Qilianshan Number 2 Tunnel in the Qilian Mountains, soaring to 3,607m (11,834 feet) above sea level, thus earning the distinction of being the highest-elevation high-speed railway globally. Since its inauguration in 2014, the dual-track Lanzhou–Xinjiang line has served 31 stations along its 1,776km (1,104-mile) route.

6. Huaytiquina, Chile/Argentina: 3,845 ft

The Salta–Antofagasta railway, also known as the Huaytiquina, is a noteworthy single-track railway connecting the Argentine city of Salta to the Chilean city of Antofagasta. Stretching across 941km (585 miles) of non-electrified track, this railway, operational since 1948, traverses the Puna de Atacama plateau and the Atacama Desert.

Operating as a tourist attraction, the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) service terminates at the highest point of the Huaytiquina, the Polvorilla viaduct (La Polvorilla), towering at 4,220m (13,850 feet) above sea level. To ensure a smooth journey, the railway was engineered to avoid steep gradients, boasting 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 2 spirals, and 2 zigzags.

5. Pikes Peak Cog Railway, US: 14,114 ft

The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, commonly referred to as the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, is a distinguished strub railway nestled in Colorado, scaling Pikes Peak, the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Established in 1890, this 14.3km (8.9-mile) railway stands as one of the remaining three cog railways in the United States.

With only two stops – at the base and summit of Pikes Peak – the Pikes Peak Summit terminus commands an elevation of 4,302m (14,114 feet) above sea level. Following a comprehensive four-year renovation concluded in 2021, the railway now operates diesel-powered trains alongside three new trainsets.

4. Ferrocarril del Sur y Sur Oriente, Peru: 14,698 ft

The Cusco–Lake Titicaca line of the Ferrocarril del Sur y Sur Oriente del Peru (Southern and South Eastern Railway of Peru) connects the historic city of Cusco to Lake Titicaca, a renowned tourism destination in Peru. Under the management of national operator PeruRail, various services are provided on this line, including the luxury sleeper service The Belmond Andean Explorer.

The railway reaches its peak elevation at the "Crucero Alto" pass, towering at 4,480m (14,698 feet) above sea level. The highest stop along this route is La Raya station, positioned at an elevation of 4,313m (14,150 feet).

3. Ferrovías Central, Peru: 15,692 ft

The Lima–Huancayo line of the Ferrovías Central del Peru (Central Railway of Peru) stretches from the capital city of Lima to Huancayo in the central highlands of Peru. Spanning 346km (215 miles) on a single-track, this railway stands as the highest standard-gauge railway in South America, adorned with 58 bridges, 69 tunnels, and 6 switchbacks.

The railway's zenith is marked by "La Cima" on the mining branch, reaching an impressive altitude of 4,835m (15,863 feet) above sea level. On the passenger line, the Galera summit tunnel under Mount Meiggs emerges as the highest point, peaking at 4,783m (15,692 feet). Galera station claims the third-highest spot among railway stations in the Western Hemisphere, situated at an elevation of 4,781m (15,681 feet).

2. Rio Mulatos–Potosí line, Bolivia: 15,702 ft

The Cóndor railway station along the Rio Mulatos–Potosí line in Bolivia takes pride in being the loftiest station in the Western Hemisphere, perched at an altitude of 4,786m (15,702 feet) above sea level. Nestled in a remote, mountainous region, the station exudes an air of solitude amidst its breathtaking surroundings.

Originally constructed to serve the Spanish colonial silver mint situated in Potosí, this railway, winding through the Andean Mountain Range, played a pivotal role in transporting silver ore from Cerro Rico, also known as Cerro Potosí, enriching the Spanish Empire.

1. Qingzang Railway, China: 16,640 ft

The Qinghai–Tibet railway, colloquially known as the Qingzang railway, stands as a monumental feat of engineering, linking Xining in Qinghai Province to Lhasa in Tibet. With over 960km (600 miles) of track soaring beyond 4,000m (13,123 feet) above sea level, it reigns as the world's highest railway line.

Venturing through the Fenghuoshan Tunnel, which reaches a dizzying altitude of 4,905m (16,093 feet) above sea level, this railway also claims the title of hosting the highest railway tunnel globally. In June 2022, a colossal project commenced to electrify the entire Qinghai–Tibet railway, with an estimated cost of CNY14.84 billion ($2.06 billion).

Tanggula railway station emerges as the highest station along the route, perched at an elevation of 5,068m (16,627 feet) above sea level. Merely a stone's throw away lies the railway's apex, reaching a breathtaking altitude of 5,072m (16,640 feet), marking an unparalleled triumph in railway engineering.