Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Swiss Spectacular, Part 9: Bernina and beyond

Swiss Spectacular, Part 9: Bernina and beyond

By David Lassen | September 17, 2023

The Bernina Express is one of the world’s great train rides, with a route you have to see to believe

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Stone viaduct seen through train windows
As seen from onboard, the Bernina Express approaches the Brusio spiral on Sept. 16, 2023. David Lassen

ZERMATT, Switzerland — The last couple of days on the Trains/Special Interest Tours “Majestic Switzerland” tour have been long but memorable, so it’s going to take a bit of time to catch up. Today, let’s look back on our activity from Saturday, Sept. 16:

If you built a model railroad with track like the route of the Bernina Express, people would probably laugh at you for being ridiculously unprototypical. The full route between Tirano, Italy, and Chur features 55 tunnels and 196 bridges. (We rode that entire route, but not all on the Bernina Express; from St. Moritz to Chur, we were on a regular local train — which had the advantage of offering an open-window coach in place of the big curved-window panorama cars. Rest assured no one in our group complained.)

Within 15 minutes of leaving Tirano, the Bernina Express navigates the Brusio spiral, a 360-degree loop with a 7% grade and a ridiculous tight curvature, a radius of 160 to 230 feet. (By way of comparison, the Tehachapi loop has about a 605-foot radius.). That sets the tone for a trip for a route laid out by a mad genius, or committee of them, clearly holding beliefs that no curve is too tight, no grade is too steep, no bridge is too high … and no straight line should be trusted. (Yes, the mountain topography determines most of the spaghetti-bowl routing, but it does sometimes seem as if the line two or three curves had been placed where a single straight would have been possible.)

Several of our tour members compared the route to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic — and there’s a definite equivalence when you consider how the C&TS takes 64 track miles to cover the straight-line distance of 34 miles from Chama, N.M., to Antonio, Colo. Similarly, as the crow flies, it’s about 53 miles from Tirano to Chur. By train, it’s 89.5 miles and takes 4½ hours.

I could write at length about how spectacular this trip is (I am calling this series “Swiss Spectacular” for a reason, after all), but it’s far easier to just share some photos here … and remind you we’ll be doing the Swiss tour again next year.

Town in mountains as seen from train
Everywhere you point your camera onboard the Bernina Express, there’s another amazing vista. David Lassen
Two red trains meet
The Bernina Express (left) meets another Rhätische Bahn train at Alp Grüm, Switzerland, on Sept. 16, 2023. David Lassen
Climbing above the treeline changes but doesn’t diminish the scenery. David Lassen

Great as the ride was, the Rhätische Bahn does deserve to be chastised at least a bit for its handling of the two groups onboard, ours and one other. Both were crammed into a single coach, filling every seat while fully accommodating neither party. The Trains group was a couple of seats short; the other, larger group was substantially short of enough seats. The rest of that group was seated in another car — not the adjacent coach, but two cars away. This was all particularly baffling given that at least two other cars were probably less than one-third full. Our tour leaders, Rose and Sven, and I felt great sympathy for the woman leading the other group, trying to single-handedly take care of 32 people in two cars. Her stress was eased only slightly by the fact that their destination was St. Moritz, where the train terminated, rather than some intermediate stop. Organizationally, it all seemed so very un-Swiss.

Still, it hardly detracted from the ride. Between the Bernina Express itself and the subsequent train to Chur, we rode the Rhätische Bahn for about 4½  hours, after a three-hour bus ride from Lugano, where we’d stayed on Friday night. Yet the trip seemed to fly by — proof once again that no good train trip is ever long enough.

Red train on huge stone bridge
The continuation of our trip after leaving the Bernina Express in St. Moritz included crossing the famed Landwasser Viaduct. David Lassen
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