A review of Switzerland's most famous scenic trains: the Glacier Express, Bernina Express, William Tell Express, and the Golden Pass.
Saying the Swiss Alps are magnificent qualifies as one of the world's foremost understatements. It is nevertheless true, and viewing them "up close and personal" through a big train window is surely the most comfortable way to see them.
Four of the most scenic Alpen rail routes are the Glacier Express, the William Tell Express, the Bernina Express, and the Golden Pass
The Glacier Express is the best-known of the four, billing itself as the "World's Slowest Express Train" - which it may well be, taking nearly eight hours from St. Moritz to Zermatt. It is also the most popular, and you are advised to reserve well ahead, especially in spring and summer.
Every morning in summer, two or three trains leave from both Zermatt and St. Moritz. (One train only in winter.) From St. Moritz, where we began our journey, the Glacier Express climbs over the Bergün Pass toward the small town of Filisür with its tiny, picture-postcard train station. From there, it descends into Reichenau and turns westward to begin the long climb toward the Furka Pass. This segment is perhaps the most beautiful of the trip, an excuse to burn film. Everywhere you look, there is another mountain, another glacier worthy of a photo.
Unfortunately, the Glacier Express uses the Furka Tunnel, thus missing some of the best scenery in the region. In winter this is a moot point: the pass is closed and the tunnel is your only option - whether you're in a train or a car.
After the tunnel, the train descends into the Rhône valley. While the vistas on this descent are perhaps not as breathtaking as those on the first part of the trip, they're no excuse to put away the camera and pick up your book, either. The valleys widen and become flatter as the train heads toward Brig and passes through a series of small towns. Outside, the Rhône rushes past castles, its path diverted only by great boulders covered by a heavy layer of snow, courtesy of the previous day's winter storm.
At Brig, the train leaves the valley and turns south, climbing to its terminus. The best views on this segment await you at Zermatt, where the Matterhorn rises above the village.
The dining car on the Glacier Express is better than most. The service is good and the car itself is comfortable. The food, while above the average of meals served in moving vehicles, shows the limitations of a small kitchen. Lunch is about $40 You might opt to bring a picnic lunch.
Drinks are served in the special Glacier Express "leaning" glass. its base is tilted to compensate for the steep grades and winding bends, to prevent spilling. The glasses, of course, are sold as souvenirs.
The Best of the Rest
The Bernina Express travels from Tirano on the Italian-Swiss border to Chur via St. Moritz, or vice versa. While this trip is only half as long as the Glacier Express, it is its equal in scenery. From Tirano at 1400 feet, the train climbs quickly to the Bernina pass at 7500 feet, past Lake Poschiavo and Lake Bianco.
The first town after Tirano is Brusio. Here you climb the famed circular trestle and begin a long series of switchbacks up the mountain, through many tunnels and along narrow ledges cut into thickly-forested terrain. The view back down the valley at sunset - steep mountains rising up either side and the last glint of light shining off Lake Poschiavo - is itself worth the ticket price.
As we climbed above treeline into the glacier region, the landscape became more foreboding, white with a fresh layer of snow piled into high drifts by a strong wind. From time to time, the train would explode through these drifts and the snow would blow past the sides of the trains, obscuring the view momentarily and allowing for a little romantic fantasizing about murder on trains stuck in the Alps.
On the other side of the pass the train descends the steepest grade in Europe served by a non-cogwheel train and passes several ski areas before pulling into the station in St. Moritz. From there, the train follows the same route as the Glacier Express until Reichenau where it turns east toward Chur.
The William Tell Express links German-speaking central Switzerland with Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton. The route begins at Lucerne aboard a paddle-wheel lake steamer for a three-hour cruise and a lunch. At Flüelen, passengers board the train which proceeds through the steep ravines and cliffs of the Reuss Valley and passes through the 15km-long Gotthard Tunnel. On the other side, as it descends, the train passes over a number of high bridges and past several charming villages.
The Golden Pass links Lucerne in central Switzerland with Montreux on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). The route is actually three speciality trains: the Brünig Panoramic Express between Lucerne and Interlaken; the Salon Bleu, Interlaken to Zweisimmen; and the Crystal Panoramic Express from Zweisimmen to Montreux. If you wish, you can plan a stopover for a day or so in Interlaken and take the train to the Jungfrau Joch, at 11,333 feet the highest rail station in Europe (roundtrip 159 Sfr./$95, discounted 25% with rail pass).
A Suggested Itinerary
Some may enjoy these trains more in winter. The snow-covered scenery is spectacular and the trains will be uncrowded.
All trains include both first and second class cars. Swiss Passes and Swiss Flexipasses are honored on all trains. Reservations are required on all except the Golden Pass. Eurail and Europasses are honored, except for the Disentis-Zermatt segment of the Glacier Express.
Seats on all four trains can be reserved in the U.S. at Gemut.com, though if you can wait to book in Europe, you might save a few dollars.
The Glacier Express is by far the most popular of these trains. Make reservations as early as two months in advance of your travel date. Second class cars are not air-conditioned but the windows do open. The panorama cars in first class are air-conditioned but windows don't open. If you want your window to open, reserve a seat in the conventional first class cars.