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The Railway Series

Crossing the Alps on the Bernina Express

By far the greatest train ride in Switzerland is the Bernina Express, which connects Chur to Tirano via the Albula & Bernina Railways. On its ½-day journey, the train negotiates 55 tunnels, 196 bridges & inclines of up to 7% with ease, while traversing the spectacular Alpine landscape. The Albula line is best known for the landmark Landwasser Viaduct in Filisur, a 65-m-high viaduct with a highly pronounced curve & one abutment cut into the sheer face of a cliff, where the tracks lead directly into a tunnel. However, the section between Bergün & Preda is quite impressive too, thanks to the intricate route it follows, which provides a striking view of the landscape from a constantly changing angle. A distance of 6⅘ km by road, the railway is 12½ km long, with two curved & three spiral tunnels built to overcome a height difference of 417 m.

The Bernina Express tackles the Montebello Curve
The Bernina Express passes the Morteratsch Glacier

Highlights of the Bernina line are the section over the Bernina Pass & alongside the Lago Bianco reservoir, and the well-known Brusio Circular Viaduct, an elegant spiral viaduct built to reduce the railway’s gradient. You don’t have to actually ride the train to enjoy it: the Albula Railway Adventure Trail, a three-stage hike from Preda via Bergün to Filisur, is a great way to experience the railway, and from Ospizio Bernina (2,253 m) you can take a lovely 7¾-km-long walk around the lake to Alp Grüm (2,091 m), and catch the train from there. The touristic Bernina Express, with its comfortable panoramic carriages, is not the only train on the line: regional trains, for which you don’t have to make a reservation & pay a supplement, run on the hour, and they have windows you can hang your head out of.

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The single fare for the Bernina Express between Chur & Tirano is CHF 63 for an adult or CHF 31½ for a child aged 6–15. You might be better off with a 2-day Graubünden Pass for CHF 113 for an adult & up to two children under 16. (There is also a family ticket for CHF 29, but it’s only valid on the first Sunday of the month, and you cannot have more than two kids.) Reservation is compulsory, at a supplement of CHF 16 per person for a one-way trip, so for a return trip a family of six pays a whopping CHF 192 extra just to ride this train.


The Graubünden Pass is valid for 2 days within a week for the entire canton (CHF 113) or just for the north or south (CHF 75), or for 5 days within a fortnight for both zones (CHF 165) or just one (CHF 110). The Swiss Travel Pass is valid all over Switzerland for 3, 4, 8 or 15 days within a month and costs CHF 89, 80¾, 58⅜ or 37½ per day respectively, or CHF 77⅓, 70¼, 52¼ or 34¼ per day for 3, 4, 8 or 15 consecutive days; children under 16 travel for free when accompanied by at least one parent.


On the list of highest railways in Europe, the Bernina Railway is out-topped by the Jungfrau Railway (3,454 m), the Gornergrat Railway (3,090 m), the Bavarian Zugspitze Railway (2,650 m), and the Mont-Blanc Tramway (2,372 m), but these are all dead-end cogwheel railways, whereas the Bernina Railway (2,253 m) is a proper adhesion railway running from A to B.


If you travel from Davos to Tirano or vice versa, please note that you will not cross over the Landwasser Viaduct, unless you make a detour from Filisur to Tiefencastel & back.


The first Rhaetian Railway (RhB) line was the one from Landquart via Klosters to Davos, built between 1888 & 1890 by the Dutchman Willem Jan Holsboer, one of the founders of the health resort in Davos. He originally envisioned a standard-gauge rack railway, but in the end it became a narrow-gauge railway with a spiral tunnel instead. In 1896, the network was further expanded from Landquart via Chur to Thusis. The Albula Railway was completed in 1904, the connection between Davos & Filisur following five years later. The Bernina Railway was fully operational in 1910, but it was only in 1943 that the line became part of the RhB network, after the initial operator gave up its 33-year struggle to make the railway economically viable.


From June to October, the Nostalgiezug travels from Davos to Filisur & back twice a day, pulled by an iconic Ge 6/6ᴵ crocodile (1929) or, if you are unlucky, a rather dull Ge 4/4ᴵ locomotive (1947). The train’s open-topped carriages, which have neither glazing nor heating, are not very nostalgic, but it’s all jolly good fun anyway. (There are classic carriages with roofs & windows, too.)

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