Switzerland has an amazing rail system. Rail lines seem to cover every place, large and small, from valleys to mountain tops. The trains are generally clean and well maintained, and they run on time.
The Swiss trains ply routes that boggle even the minds of railroad engineers.
Few other comparable examples of extreme railroad engineering exist anywhere in the world.
The Swiss rail system provides access to some of the world’s most beautiful alpine scenery.
The Swiss Travel System publishes a list of eight suggested rail itineraries. And, now I’m delighted to say, I’ve done all eight (plus a few more). It seems, based on my most recent trip, I inadvertently saved one of the best for last.
Here is some information that I learned about each of them, and perhaps a worthwhile tip or two about each. One overall observation: Check out the trains you get on, to see what the best cars might be for viewing the terrain you will be traveling through. There’s an odd mix of double-decker coaches, old line rail cars, and dining cars mixed in with the occasional true panorama carriages (single-level, with large windows that wrap up over much of the top of the car). Sometimes 2nd class coaches (green trim) provide better viewing than 1st class (yellow trim) cars.
Glacier Express – This starts in either Davos or St. Moritz and ends up in Zermatt, the home of the Matterhorn. To do the whole route takes pretty much a whole day. According to the guide books, it requires an extra-cost reservation and a seat assignment. You can also dine and drink in your seat, with an elegant catered meal. Swiss rail pass holders pay a CHF 13 surcharge in winter and a CHF 33 surcharge in summer. (Winter is more scenic, imho, but there’s also an increased risk of zero visibility due to snowstorms.) The meal add-on is CHF 30-43. Somehow, I managed to get on at Chur and ride to Visp without paying extra. (www.glacierexpress.ch)
Golden Pass Line – This runs between Lucerne, Interlaken, Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva. You can do all or just sections of this route, like Lucerne-Interlaken and change to Bern-Lucerne; or Geneva-Montreux-Zweisimmen-Interlaken. I’ve never had a reservation on this route, but one is recommended. A VIP seating option (CHF 20) is available for part of the route; this puts you in a front seat virtually next to the train operator. The scenic sections along Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and the Brienzersee are personal favorites. (From Interlaken, there’s a side trip possible on the spectacular Jungfrau Railway – see below.) (www.goldenpass.ch)
Bernina Express – Although various starting points are possible for this train, the Chur-to-Tirano portion is the best, in my experience. Although a reservation is “required” – according to the guide book – we didn’t have one. We also did not have to pay the CHF 9-12 surcharge.
In fact, we started in Zurich without a reservation or seat assignment, changed in Chur, rode the UNESCO World Heritage part of it to St. Moritz (196 bridges, 55 tunnels, etc.), then hopped on another train that took us all the way to Tirano, Italy. We stayed in Tirano, which is in the lovely Valtellina region of Italy – for a lot less than it would have cost us to stay in tony St. Moritz. The highlight of the trip is supposed to be an up-close-and-personal sighting of Piz Bernina. But in three tries, Bernina has been socked in the clouds each time I’ve gone. (www.berninaexpress.ch)
A note here about the “Bernina Express Bus” that is advertised that you can take from Tirano to Lugano, to re-connect with the Swiss rail system: Good luck finding it. After you come out of the customs building at the rail terminus in Tirano, there is an inconspicuous sign that points you to the “Lugano” bus (it doesn’t say Bernina Express Bus).
You go through a tunnel, and emerge at a bus stop on the other side of the rail station. There, a bunch of local Tirano buses come and go – but there’s no more information about the Lugano bus. The local bus ticket office clerk professed to have never heard of the Bernina Express Bus. The best we can figure is the bus runs once a day in summer, at a cost of CHF 12 for a ticket, but god knows how to find out more about a Swiss bus service in Italy. Better idea: Take the local Italian train ride down through Valtellina to Lecco or Como, and get on a Lugano-bound train there; it’s probably less than 15 euro; we took it only to Varenna, then took a ferry boat to Menaggio, then a bus to Lugano. Very fun (in good weather).
Palm Express – Another bus ride to Lugano – this one from St. Moritz. A reservation is required, and a surcharge of CHF 15 is assessed. The yellow and black post buses are used. While these are generally nice buses that go just about anywhere a mountain goat could go, in any type of weather, this routing only runs in the late spring, summer and early fall. A pretty route, through the Majolapass and the Bregaglia Valley, it is still a bus ride – not a train. Plan accordingly. (www.postauto.ch/en/pag-freizeitlick)
William Tell Express – You can accidentally take this, and not even know you did. Basically, it’s the ride from Lugano or Locarno up over the Gotthard Pass to Lucerne. Or vice versa. It’s a fabulous train ride; unlike some on this list – worth doing in both directions. You see different things each way. Breath-taking scenery, amazing railroad engineering (including multiple 360-degree loops inside of mountain tunnels) and a ride through the 9-mile Gotthard Tunnel are among the highlights. You can just get on and ride without a reservation, either way. But if you book it as a William Tell Express ticket, you get a three-course lunch, a boat ride on the Lucerne to Fluelen portion (the rest of the route is on the train), and you pay a CHF 39-79 surcharge. I decided I could do without the boat ride (the Golden Tour ride in Lucerne is a better boat ride, I think, and includes a ride up the Pilatusbahn – the world’s steepest railway). Who knows the fate of this route after the 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel bypass opens in 2016? (www.williamtellexpress.ch)
BLS Lotschberger – Speaking of the fate of old rail routes, the Lotschberg Base Tunnel between Brig and Bern has eliminated the need for the old Lotschberg grade route that goes up the side of the Rhone Valley. But the route is still used for sightseeing, and an auto/train ride.
The Simplon pass tunnel is another fun auto-train route; both leave from Brig. The old Lotschberg grade route takes 30 minutes longer than the new tunnel, but it’s a real white-knuckle ride up the side of the Lotschental mountains. If you put your car on one of the open rail cars for transport too, it’s about CHF 20 for this route, or the Simplon tunnel to Iselle di Trasquera, Italy. (www.bls.ch/loetschberger)
Jungfrau Railway – This is quite a mind-blowing train ride. It’s only a few miles, but it goes through the villages of Grindelwald and/or Lauterbrunnen up through the Kleine Scheidigg ski village, then inside of the Jungfrau mountain to the 11,332-foot-high station near the summit; it’s advertised as Europe’s highest rail station. I’ve had the same problem with this train as I’ve had with the Bernina Express – the mountain is usually obscured in clouds. At CHF 100-212 a ticket, it’s a costly disappointment to see nothing. Even more disappointing, a Swiss rail pass only gives you a 25 percent discount off the full prices; a different company owns the route. (www.jungfrau.ch)
Centovalli Express – This is the sleeper of this group. It runs between Locarno and Domodossola, Italy. (To get to/from Domodossola, take the Simplon pass route). This is a little scenic train that chugs up through Italy’s Valle Vigezza and Switzerland’s Centovalli (100 valleys) regions, across mountain passes, over precipitous ravines, along rivers and lakes, through forests and past abandoned villages of stone huts. There’s even a massive basilica at the summit. The line is operated by the Ferrovia Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi company – better known by its acronym: FART. The FART station in Locarno is downstairs from the regular SBB train station; a surcharge of CHF 2 is assessed. A real bargain, and Swiss tickets or passes were all that were needed! (www.centovalli.ch)
Remember, a passport is required – but probably not asked for – on routes that cross back and forth between Switzerland and Italy. Try to coordinate travel days with good weather, to avoid clouds spoiling your view.
The Swiss Rail Pass that I’ve mentioned several times here is a good value, available in any combination of days, and you can generally ride all over Switzerland without a reservation, seat assignment or a surcharge (Italy rail pass holders, by comparison, get nicked for all three, plus some mysterious taxes, on just about every route these days).
A Half Fare Card is also a surprisingly handy alternative, if you aren’t going to be riding the rails all day, every day, in every direction.
But that is really what I did for a week. What an experience!