The Glacier Express: Panoramas in motion

The Glacier Express is not only the best known train trip in Switzerland, it is also the most popular.

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ZERMATT, Switzerland, Nov. 7, 2015 – They say the Glacier Express is the slowest express train in the world.

At seven-and-a-half hours from beginning to end, it’s also the longest rail journey in Switzerland.

The Glacier Express plies its way through the clouds near St Moritz (wikipedia)
The Glacier Express plies its way through the clouds near St Moritz (wikipedia)

Today, after more than eight decades of service, the Glacier Express is not only the best known train trip in Switzerland, it is also the most popular.

Begin or end at the Matterhorn (wikipedia)
Begin or end at the Matterhorn (wikipedia)

It began in June of 1930 when three rail companies combined routes to operate trains between Zermatt and St. Moritz. At that time, there were three classes of service in converted passenger cars that had been redesigned into salon-style coaches.


Until 1982, the Glacier Express was only a summertime route because of the hazards of traveling through the Furka Pass in winter. With the opening of a tunnel between Oberwald and Realp, a project that took nine years to complete, the train was finally able to provide year-round travel.

The route, which links Zermatt and the Matterhorn with Chur and then Davos or St. Moritz, is a narrow-gauge railway featuring 291 bridges and 91 tunnels. Several places along the line incorporate rack rails, which allow the train to ascend and descend uncommonly steep grades in the track with comparatively minimal reductions in speed. The company even gives passengers a souvenir wine glass with a tilted base to emphasize the steepness of some of the places along the line.

A tunnel through the Oberalp Pass made the Glacier Express a year-round excursion (wikipedia)
A tunnel through the Oberalp Pass made the Glacier Express a year-round excursion (Wikipedia)

The Glacier Express has always maintained a high level of service with constant upgrades that reflect advances in technology and improvements in rolling stock equipment. All of this translates to magnificent panoramic coaches plus an elegant three-course meal, which are standard components of every Glacier Express itinerary.

Olberalp Pass is the highest point (wikipedia)
Olberalp Pass is the highest point (Wikipedia)

The highest point of the journey is the Oberalp Pass, which reaches an altitude of nearly 6,700 feet. From towering Alpine walls of rock to spectacular countryside with rushing mountain streams and infinite valleys, the Glacier Express is a visual feast that creates a lifetime of memories.

The Landwasser Viaduct is a highlight and a masterpiece of architectural design. Six arches rest on five pillars that tower 213 feet to span the Landwasser River. The viaduct is a signature structure of the Rhaetian Railway, which still owns and operates it.

The 446-foot curved track disappears into or spills out of the 709-foot Landwasser Tunnel to the delight of everyone aboard. Thanks to the circular path of the track, passengers get a clear view of this stunning structural achievement of the combination viaduct/tunnel with its mind-boggling vistas below.

Chur is another popular starting point for the Glacier Express (wikipedia)
Chur is another popular starting point for the Glacier Express (Wikipedia)

Along the Glacier Express route, the train regularly tunnels through passes and passes through tunnels.

Another popular sight comes in the canton of Graubunden where the Rhine Canyon, better known as the “Swiss Grand Canyon,” is a remote haven for wildlife due to the difficulty of access. In fact, the rail line is the only way to access this forested region with its steep cliffs and roaring streams.

Switzerland has a Grand Canyon of its own (wikipedia)
Switzerland has a Grand Canyon of its own (Wikipedia)

The route is equally spectacular in either direction; however, the preferable choice might be from St. Moritz or Davos through Chur to Zermatt. The reason is that Zermatt, though somewhat touristy with its pedestrian-only streets, looks more like the Switzerland that most travelers come to see. Add the beauty of the Matterhorn and it’s a pleasant way to end the journey.

Popular souvenir: Tilting wine glass (wikipedia)
Popular souvenir: Tilting wine glass (Wikipedia)

Going in the other direction, Chur has a lovely old town that is well worth exploring. It is also the gateway to another lovely hour-long train trip which goes high into the Alps to the ski resort of Arosa.

St. Moritz has been a playground for the rich and famous for decades, and it lies in a beautiful setting with three lakes that dot the route into the village.

Finally, here’s a tip: The Glacier Express route consists of several different rail lines. If the fee for the Glacier Express itself is too steep, you can still do the same route with your Swiss Rail Pass for no additional charge, although you will have to stop and change trains along the way. And, of course, you will not have the advantage of the panoramic cars, the earphone explanations or the meal. For travelers on a budget however, it’s a great way to savor the experience without the additional cost.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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