After exploring St. Moritz on Boxing Day we stayed in Zouz so we could get up early and catch the Glacier Express – it departed St. Moritz at 9.02am on Saturday the 27th December. There was a high level of excited anticipation. Karin & Elvis had never done the Glacier Express either so it was cool to be sharing this experience with them.
It was lightly snowing to start with and due to earlier snow the landscapes were very picturesque. It was certainly living up to expectation and we were committing the scenery to memory as it was very hard to capture it in pictures. The panoramic carriages are very comfortable and our carriage wasn’t that full to start with so we spread out a bit. They provide headphones for intermittent commentary about the different places you are passing through which is really interesting.
The first section from St.Moritz to Chur passes through the Landwasser Viaduct and the train descends from 1,775 metres above sea level to Chur which is the lowest point on the Glacier Express at 585 metres. We passed through the Domleschg Valley which is strategically positioned on the route to three main Alpine passes: the Splügen Pass, the San Bernardino Pass and the Julier Pass. To control this route, castles were built, making the Domleschg one of the Swiss regions richest in castles. It was an important trading route in the middle ages and we saw a few castle remains as we passed through.
After leaving Chur where a few more people joined the train we started the climb up the Rhine Valley to the Oberalp Pass which is the highest point on the Glacier Express at 2.033 metres. The landscape looks very dramatic in the Rhine gorge between Reichenau and Ilanz, where the river is carved deep into the white rocks. This region is also referred to as the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’. It was snowing as we climbed up the Rhine Valley and it was completely white outside – we saw a few hardy souls out skiing. We then descended down to Andermatt where we got off the train.
Andermatt serves as a crossroads between southern Switzerland and the North as well as between eastern Switzerland i.e. Graubünden/Grisons and Western Switzerland, i.e. Valais, Bern and the Swiss Romande. The town is thus connected by four Alpine passes: the Oberalp Pass (6,706 ft; 2,044 m.) to the East, the St. Gotthard Pass (6,909 ft; 2,106 m.) to the South, the Furka Pass (7,992 ft; 2,436 m.) to the West, as well as the Göschenertal Pass (4,652 ft; 1,418 m.) to the North. The Schöllenen Gorge in the Reuss Valley between Andermatt and Göschenen is the location of the infamous Devil’s Bridge.
By the turn of the 21st century, as an alternative to the expensive skiing resorts in the Grisons (Graubünden) at St Moritz and Gstaad, Andermatt’s fortunes again revived and the town has seen considerable expansion and is currently undergoing much speculative building. We decided to have a drink at one of the newest hotels in Andermatt – The Chedi. It was very nice and had an indoor pool that people were lying around which seemed strange given it was snowing outside.
After our little taste of luxury we walked back to the train station to catch another train back to Buochs. We arrived home about 6pm to snow – our white Christmas had finally arrived : )
The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express is an express train connecting railway stations of the two major mountain resorts of St. Moritz and Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. The train is operated jointly by the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) and Rhaetian Railway (RhB). For much of its journey, it also passes along and through the World Heritage Site known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes.
The train is not an “express” in the sense of being a high-speed train, but rather, in the sense that it provides a one-seat ride for a long duration travel. In fact it has the reputation of being the slowest express train in the world. As St. Moritz and Zermatt are home to two well-known mountains, the Glacier Express is also said to travel from Piz Bernina to Matterhorn.
The Glacier Express first ran in 1930. Initially, it was operated by three railway companies: the Brig–Visp–Zermatt Bahn (BVZ), the Furka Oberalp Bahn, and the RhB. Since 2003, the train has been operated by RhB and a newly established company, the MGB, which arose from a merger between the BVZ and the FO.
The trip on the Glacier Express is a 7½ hour railway journey across 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and across the Oberalp Pass on the highest point at 2,033 m (6,670 ft) in altitude. The entire line is metre gauge (narrow gauge railway), and large portions of it use a rack-and-pinion system both for ascending steep grades and to control the descent of the train on the back side of those grades.
The completion of the final portion of the FO in 1926 opened up the Cantons of Valais and Graubünden to further tourist development. In particular, a pathway was laid for the introduction of Kurswagen (through coaches) between Brig and Chur, and between Brig and St. Moritz.
In early June 1930, the then Visp–Zermatt Bahn was extended to Brig by the opening of a metre gauge line along the Rhone Valley between Visp and Brig. For the first time, it was feasible to operate through coaches all the way from Zermatt to St. Moritz and return. On 25 June 1930, the first train of such coaches set out from Zermatt to St. Moritz, under the name Glacier Express. The new train’s name honoured the Rhone Glacier, which is near Gletsch, on the Furka Pass.
Until 1982, the Glacier Express operated only in the summer months, because the Furka Pass and the Oberalp Pass were both snowed over in winter. Initially, the train was made up of first to third class salon and passenger coaches, supplied by all three of the participating railway companies. Between Chur and Disentis/Mustér, passengers could enjoy a hot lunch in a Mitropa dining car. From 1933, the Glacier Express through coaches were attached to normal passenger trains between Brig and Zermatt.
In the earliest years of the Glacier Express, electric locomotives were used to haul the Glacier Express on the BVZ and the RhB, but steam locomotives were used on the FO. That changed in 1941-1942, when overhead catenary was installed on the FO, enabling completely electric operation for the full length of the route. However, no through trains were operated between 1943 and 1946, due to World War II.
Upon the resumption of daily through trains in 1948, the dining car service was extended from Disentis/Mustér to the top of the Oberalp Pass. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, both the BVZ and the RhB introduced new locomotive classes that, when attached to the Glacier Express, enabled reductions in schedule times. Meanwhile, the dining car service was extended further, to Andermatt.
In 1981 a Glacier Express era came to an end, with the final closure for the winter of the FO line over the Furka Pass and through the Furka Summit Tunnel, between Oberwald and Gletsch. In June 1982, that FO line was replaced by the newly opened Furka Base Tunnel. As a consequence, the Glacier Express not only became disconnected from its namesake Rhone Glacier, but also could now, for the first time, be operated on a year round basis.
At that time, the BVZ, FO and RhB took the opportunity to relaunch the Glacier Express as a tourist attraction. Promotional material focused on the train’s status as “the slowest express train in the world”, covering 291 km or 181 mi, 91 tunnels, and over 291 bridges. A special promotional wine glass on a sloping base emphasised the steepness of some parts of the route. Passenger numbers rose from 20,000 in 1982 to over 53000 in 1983, and to just over 80,000 in 1984.
In 1985 the Glacier Express timetable was completely revised. Between 1986 and 1993, the BVZ and the FO invested nearly 40 million Swiss Francs in constructing 18 new first class panorama cars for the train. By 2005 more than 250,000 passengers were travelling on the Glacier Express each year.
In 2006 a few scenes of the documentary film The Alps were shot inside the train, and further new panorama cars were added to the Glacier Express passenger car fleet. On 7 July 2008, the Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway were jointly recorded in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, under the name Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes. Currently, the Glacier Express is especially popular with tourists from Germany, Japan, and, increasingly, India.
On 23 July 2010 a Glacier Express train derailed near Fiesch on the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn line. One passenger was killed and 42 were injured. The accident was blamed on human error.
On the 13th August 2014 a landslide hit the Glacier Express in a deep wooded valley between Tiefencastel and Solis. Five people were seriously injured and another six sustained slight injuries.
Despite these two incidences accidents are rare on the Swiss rail network.