Swiss scenic trains – and the DIY alternatives
I was originally ready to post this last week, but then the news came that a landslip had caused the Glacier Express to derail into a ravine. Luckily nobody was too seriously hurt on board and I hope it won’t put people off travelling by train in Switzerland, as the country is home to some of the most scenic rail journeys in the world (and normally has a great safety record!). From the comfort of your train carriage seat you can see a procession of lakes, snow-capped mountains, dramatic gorges, alpine meadows and pretty villages. But along with its reputation for stunning scenery, Switzerland also has an equally well-deserved reputation for being an expensive place to visit. Two of the country’s most scenic train journeys – the Bernina Express and Glacier Express – travel through some of its finest scenery in trains with fancy glass-walled observation carriages. But they’re also both run by local train companies on the same lines as their regular services. So when I was planning my European rail trip I looked into whether the special scenic trains were worth the price or could you do it cheaper yourself – and if so was it worth the hassle?
The Bernina Express
The real version… The Bernina Express runs between Chur to Tirano, just over the border in northern Italy. It take around four hours and crosses 196 bridges and viaducts, passes 20 towns and villages, and goes through 55 tunnels. The route starts at the historic city of Chur and follows the River Plessur past a series of hilltop castles. It then crosses the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct, which curves around so you get a great view of the train as it travels over, and passes through the Landwasser tunnel into the Engadin valley, home to the St Moritz ski resort. From there it changes onto the Bernina Line and climbs up into the Upper Engadin, with views over to the Morteratsch Glacier, right up to the highest point 2253 metres up at Ospizio Bernina. And from there it descends almost 2000 metres back down to Tirano.
Tickets for the Bernina Express between Chur and Tirano cost 60 CHF one way in second class or 105 CHF in first class (which has bigger windows and wider seats). There’s also a compulsory seat reservation fee of 14 CHF in summer or 10 CHF in winter. You can also pay an extra 24 CHF for their bus connection if you want to transfer on to Lugano. So a summer ticket will cost a minimum of 74 CHF or £50 in total. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.
The DIY alternative… It’s easy to do the Bernina Express route on normal local trains, and although you don’t get the panoramic carriages, instead you can open the train windows which is much better for taking photos. It does involve a couple of changes along the way though, but Swiss trains are very reliable and the stations are tiny so it isn’t too difficult to do. The first change is at Samedan, which is near St Moritz and almost two hours from Chur. Then it’s a short seven minute journey to Pontresina where you change onto the train to Tirano. The whole journey takes about four hours and 20 minutes.
A though ticket from Chur to Tirano is around 60 CHF (£40). You can book tickets on the Swiss Railways or Voyages SNCF websites – though double check the routing offered as some include a bus and some use the Bernina Express trains (these are marked BEX) so are subject to the seat reservation fee. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.
The Glacier Express
The real version… The Glacier Express is known as the ‘world’s slowest express’ and takes almost eight hours to travel the 180 miles between the ski resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz. The journey starts beneath the Matterhorn in Zermatt, then descends over 1200 metres to the towns of Brig and Visp using a cogwheel railway to work its way down the steep slope. It then follows the Rhone Valley to Andermatt and climbs up to the windswept Oberalp Pass, the highest point of the line at 2033 metres up. Then it descends again to Distenis where you change from the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn to the Rhätische Bahn. From Distenis the train travels through the steep Rhine Gorge and from Chur it follows the same route as the Bernina Express, crossing the Landwasser Viaduct on its way to St Moritz.
Tickets for the Glacier Express on the full Zermatt to St Moritz route cost 140 CHF one way in second class or 254 CHF in first class. Both have panoramic windows and you can order meals and drinks to be served at your seat. There’s also a compulsory seat reservation fee of CHF33 in summer and 13 CHF in winter. So a summer ticket will cost a minimum of 173 CHF or £115 in total. Swiss Passes are valid on this route but Interail and Eurail passes only cover the section between Distenis and Chur.
The DIY alternative… As with the Bernina Express, there are also local trains running all the way along the route of the Glacier Express. But this one does involve a few more changes – though again small stations and reliable trains stop it being too complicated. The whole journey takes just over eight hours, so is only 20 minutes slower than the Glacier Express. You need to do four changes on the way though – at Brig, Andermatt, Distenis and Reichenau-Tamins (just outside Chur).
A through ticket from Zermatt to St Moritz costs around 130 CHF (£86). You can book tickets on the Swiss Railways or Voyages SNCF websites – though make sure to put ‘via Andermatt’ when you search as otherwise you’ll get taken on the quicker but less scenic route which goes via Zürich instead. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.
As you can see the price differences aren’t huge, so if you can afford the extra cost it may be worth it to avoid the hassle of all the train changes. But where the local trains really come into their own is if you don’t want to take the whole route. If you want to break up your journey on the Glacier or Bernina Express, you have to pay a seat reservation fee on each section. But on the local trains you can break the journey up as much as you like – stop off for a night or do some walking between one station and the next then carry on on the train. Often the train fares aren’t much cheaper in advance so you can buy them at the station.
If you want to take one of the scenic routes as part of a longer journey and are travelling on to (or coming from) another European country, you can also save money by booking with their train company instead of Swiss Railways (try OBB for Austria, Trenitalia for Italy or Deutsche Bahn for Germany).
With limited time to spend in Switzerland on our rail trip, we chose a relatively short section between Chur and St Moritz for our first Swiss scenic train experience. This spectacular stretch is part of both Glacier and Bernina Express routes and is short enough to do a return trip in one day and still have time to explore, or to add on as a diversion to longer rail journey, like we did. The trip takes two hours by direct train and costs 37 CHF (£25) each way – and although we booked onto a local train, it turned out that the Glacier Express carriages were attached to the same engine, so there really wasn’t much difference after all!
Have you ever been on the Glacier or Bernina Express, or do you know of any other good scenic train journeys in Switzerland?