Just got back from Mashad 2 nights ago – I was blessed with an opportunity to do the Ziyarat of Imam Ridha (as) there. There are a few different ways to get to Mashad if you are residing in Qum. Rail, Road and Air are all available, although you may have to travel to Tehran first before you can catch a plane or a train (if you want a specific type of train).
I chose to go by train with my wife; there are many travel agents around in Qum. There is one on Boulevard Amin not too far from Madrassah Al-Mahdi and the one I got my ticket from was on Dor-e-Shahr (near Kuche 21 or something). There are trains available from Qum for Mashad as well, or you can go to Tehran and catch a train from there. Usually the train journey from Tehran to Mashad is around 13 hours (it slows and stops down from time to time and then there is a delayed stop for Salat as well). The train I got from Tehran was one of the faster ones which was supposed to do the trip in 7 hours (as was quoted by the travel agent). But both going there and returning back took about 9 hours on average (with the speed of the train slowing down at some of the stations that it goes past, and with a delayed stop for Salat). I believe if you take those stops out, the trip can easily be done in 7 and half to 8 hours.
The train that I took was called Pardes – I believe it is specifically made for the shorter journey as opposed to the 13 hour journey. There is no “first-class” in it (from what I could see) and the inside of the whole train was designed somewhat like an airplane. Though the seats were a lot wider, and you had a lot more leg space compared to a plane. You are served breakfast and lunch like on an airplane (they come on the trolley with the food trays etc.). We were more than satisfied with the seating arrangements.
First-class seats are basically rooms that you can book a seat in or book the whole room itself (if it is just 2 people booking a room for example, then in order to book the full room you’ll have to pay the price for 4). In those rooms, the seats can turn into beds and you can sleep on them comfortably if you need to. I am not sure about the price-range for those, but the seats I booked for our journey came out to be around $9 CAD (one way for one person).
In this train they had a TV up in the middle and they just run some Iranian films on it that to keep people busy. The journey can be a boring one so bring a book or something to keep you busy (unless you can sleep the full trip). If you are expecting amazing scenery outside, don’t! It is just all desert, emptiness and mountains for the majority of the trip. You go past a lot of stations, I tried listing some of them on the way back (some of them are out of order):
Mashad, Neshabour, Shahrud, Zarin, Damghan, Semnan, Haftkaan, Abegarn, Gerdaab, Biabanak, Yatry, Peshiwa, and Ray were some of the stations. Some of them can be seen on this map for a rough indication.
The only issue I had was the time. Though the train that I took will take you to Mashad in about 9 hours on average and with the trip to Tehran from Qum you are looking at around 1 and half hours to 2 hours. That’s because unlike the airport which is on the outskirts of Tehran, the train station is inside the city so you have to drive a good 30 odd kilometres more from the airport to get to the train station and that is extra time spent on driving. All that together will make your trip from Qum to Mashad around 11 hours itself. I think it would be more worth it to go from Qum itself, even though the trip is a bit longer (13-14 hours), but you will save money on driving to and back to Qum as well as save 2 hours which can be spent on the train journey. If I get another opportunity to go by train, I will probably take it from Qum just to experience it.