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Glacier Express at Trun. The slowest express train in the world

Travelling in style along Switzerland’s scenic railways

Few countries in the world are as scenic as Switzerland, where majestic mountains, verdant valleys, flowing rivers, and frozen glaciers are only some of the natural features to be seen in this land of exceptional Alpine scenery.

Rail travel in one of the special Swiss scenic trains a must-do experience

Few countries in the world are as scenic as Switzerland, where majestic mountains, verdant valleys, flowing rivers, and frozen glaciers are only some of the natural features to be seen in this land of exceptional Alpine scenery. In a superbusy, urbanised world, the chance to replace concrete with mountains is one much enjoyed by visitors to Switzerland, where languages, cultures, terrains, and microclimates meet as if attending one of the many international conferences hosted in this cosmopolitan land in the centre of Europe. Some of those events even take place on board trains while passing through what many people consider to be the world’s most beautiful country.

Glacier Express Excellence Class
Glacier Express Excellence Class

Switzerland’s railway system is widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive in the world. Generally, it is possible to go anywhere in the country by train, with smaller villages accessible by PostBus or mountain railway connections that are part of an integrated national transport system. Some of the most dramatic views are seen in pristine areas both remote and rugged, places where trains go but cars do not. Though Switzerland’s landscapes can be enjoyed through the windows of almost any train, premium panoramic trains offer exceptional views along routes of particular interest to the country’s visitors.

Bernina Express at Alp Gruem
Bernina Express at Alp Gruem

Extraordinary feats of engineering were undertaken to surmount the daunting challenge of topography; these masterful achievements have themselves become sights to see and experience. Tunnels dug through mountains, sweeping curves of railway lines, and 360-degree circular tracks are among the logistical aspects of the train journeys that make them all the more memorable, though perhaps it is the elevated tracks looming vertiginously high above the surrounding landscapes and the bridges hundreds of metres above the ground that induce the most awe from passengers lucky enough to be in Switzerland in the first place. Three routes especially stand out among the world’s most beautiful rail journeys.

Perhaps the most famous of Switzerland’s premium panoramic trains is The Glacier Express. Linking the villages of St Moritz in the southeastern Graubünden canton and Zermatt in the Valais on the southwestern border with Italy, The Glacier Express connects two of Switzerland’s most exclusive ski resorts via an eight-hour journey through spectacular scenery. New in 2019 is Excellence Class, a category of travel above First Class that offers exceptional dining paired with comfortable lounge seating and a personal travel guidance as the train travels across 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels on its journey between St Moritz and Zermatt.

The GoldenPass Line arriving at Gstaad
The GoldenPass Line arriving at Gstaad

One of the most startling of those engineering marvels is the elevated curved track along the route of The Bernina Express that heads directly into the side of a mountain, where the tiny black hole seen from far away grows in size to become the tunnel that will accommodate the train. The Bernina Express is beloved by those who have ridden the rails to reach the remotest parts of Switzerland. Departing the Eastern cities of Landquartor Chur, The Bernina Express continues to the glamorous resort of St Moritz before passing through the sharp, snow-covered granite peaks chiselled by glaciers. It is just after Pontresina, the charming village adjacent to St Moritz, that The Bernina Express rolls into the deep mountain crevices before reaching the vantage point of Alp Grüm. At 2091 metres above sea level, the wide vistas seen from here over the Palü glacier and valley of Valposchiavo are truly inspirational. Visitors can have lunch at the restaurant in the Alp Grüm train station before descending on foot 420 metres to the Glacier Garden of Cavaglia before reboarding the train to continue the journey southward to the picturesque town of Poschiavo.

The Bernina Express going down the street in Le Prese, Valposchiavo
The Bernina Express going down the street in Le Prese, Valposchiavo

The microclimate of Valposchiavo makes this part of Switzerland sunnier than other areas, thus allowing the cultivation of warm-climate fruits and vegetables. Some passengers opt to spend the night at the historic Hotel Albrici after enjoying dinner in Albrici’s beautiful Sala delle Sibille, where the room’s walls and ceiling are panelled in wood in the traditional Alpine style.

One of the engineering highlights of The Bernina Line is the Brusio Circular Viaduct, a circular stretch of track built to reduce the gradient of the railway line to a more manageable 7% in order to change elevations from the heights of the Alps to the lower altitude of Tirano, the town in Italy that is the terminus of The Bernina Express. The Bernina Line between St. Moritz and Tirano is one of the few railway lines in the world accorded the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status.

For travellers to the Lake Geneva region, The GoldenPass Line connects Lucerne with Montreux via Interlaken and Zweisimmen passing through the mountains of the Bernese Oberland on its way. The view of Lake Geneva as it is revealed upon exiting the last tunnel just before the train’s arrival at the Montreux station on a sunny day is nothing less than spectacular. Along the GoldenPass Line is Gstaad, the legendary village home to the world’s most exclusive boarding school, Le Rosey, whose alumni include members of many royal families. This small village hosts numerous events to keep its sophisticated residents entertained, including the annual Menuhin Music Festival and Swiss Open men’s tennis tournament.

scenery along The Bernina Line
scenery along The Bernina Line

As if travelling the far reaches of Switzerland as a passenger on one of these trains were not special enough, it is also possible to charter a train or a private carriage to be attached to any scheduled train in the country. Whether preferences run to the modern facilities of Le Salon de Luxe or the historical aura of The Red Arrow Churchill, the experience of travelling by private railway car elevates the already lofty Swiss rail experience to a yet higher level. Aside from long-distance premium panoramic trains around Switzerland, local areas also have trains covering shorter distances. One of these is the Rhaetian Railway open-air scenic carriages that run from Landquart along the spectacular Albula Line to Samedan in Engadin.

The beauty of Montreux is visible right from the station platform
The beauty of Montreux is visible right from the station platform

It comes as something of a pleasant surprise that holders of a Swiss Travel Pass can enjoy unlimited travel on these special scenic rail journeys. The Swiss Travel Pass entitles travellers to ride not only all trains in Switzerland, including premium panoramic trains such as The Glacier Express, The Bernina Express and The GoldenPass Line, but also all buses and boats. Seat reservations for premium panoramic trains are required but easily made online or in person at a Swiss railway station. More information at www.myswitzerland.com ◼

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© This article was first published in June-July 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.

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