Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Swiss Spectacular, the final chapter: Homeward bound

Swiss Spectacular, the final chapter: Homeward bound

By David Lassen | September 25, 2023

Three weeks in Switzerland exhausts our senior editor's stock of superlatives, but not his desire to see more.

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Copper-colored EMU trainset at large station
The adventure begins: A Treno Gottardo trainset arrives in Zurich on Sept. 5, 2023. Less than 2 hours after landing at Zurich’s airport, I boarded this train to reach Goschenen and spend the first of two days on Gotthard Pass. David Lassen

ABOARD SWISS AIR FLIGHT 6 — Well, those were three remarkable weeks.

But how could they be otherwise? When it comes to railroading, Switzerland is one remarkable place.

I spent those three weeks meandering around the country by rail — solo at first, then as part of a small tour organized by Swiss Tourism built around some of its rail features, and finally as the Trains representative on our “Majestic Switzerland” tour organized by our partners at Special Interest Tours. The first segment focused on the short-term rebirth of the historic Gotthard Pass rail line as a vital link in the Swiss rail system; the second centered around the technological and opulent exceptionalism of the GoldenPass Express, along with a look at its operator, the Montreux Oberland Bernois Railway Co.; and the last sought to include as many highlights of the diverse, extraordinary Swiss system as possible in 10 days of travel.

Passenger train with electric locomotive rounds curve after exiting tunnel
One of the many rerouted passenger trains using Gotthard Pass makes its way along the spiraling route through Wassen, Switzerland, on Sept. 5, 2023. David Lassen

Visiting Gotthard Pass was a blast. When I first put together this trip, I planned to spend one day on the pass, even though traffic was limited to one passenger train each way per hour, plus the two daily Gotthard Panorama Express tourist specials. Then came the Aug. 10 derailment that closed the Gotthard Base Tunnel, rerouting its freight and passenger traffic over the historic route, with its 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) tunnel dating to 1882. By the time I reached Switzerland, one of the base tunnel’s two tubes had reopened, so much of the freight traffic had been rerouted off the mountain. Still, the historic route, with its multiple spiral tunnels, is still seeing better than 100 passenger and freight trains a day.

So I revised my plans and spent two nights in Goschenen, the small town near the summit of the historic route, and by bus or train explored nearby photo locations in Wassen or Airolo. I also ended up riding the Panoroma Express twice — once by myself, once with our Trains tour — and spent a lot of time on the Treno Gottardo service that provides the regular service to the communities on the historic route. You’ll hear more about this in the future.

Blue passenger train with modern streamline design at station
The gauge-changing GoldenPass Express awaits departure from Interlaken on Sept. 12, 2023. David Lassen

After that came the Swiss Tourism tour, which more or less fell into my lap when I contacted the Tourism office for some help in arranging interviews regarding the GoldenPass Express, the gauge-changing train between Interlaken and Montreux. Instead, I found myself on the first several days of a week-long tour that also included the Rigi cog railway, some one-of-a-kind experiences — for example, being served fondue at an outdoor table in the middle of the Alps, prepared by a former world champion skier who now works for Gstaad tourism — and a ride on the GoldenPass Express in its Prestige Class, the better-than-First Class experience with heated, elevated, fully adjustable seats limited to two nine-person compartments per train. Oh, and I did get my interviews, too, over lunch in Montreux. You’ll also read more about this in the future.

I did those interviews while the rest of the tour group — a group of travel writers, one of them also an Emmy-winning Hollywood scriptwriter — were visiting a glacier, then rejoined them as they made their way to Zermatt. We had one final dinner together, then I had to leave to join the Trains tour, assembling in Zurich. I was a little sorry to leave them a couple of days early — they were good traveling companions, and Fabio, our Swiss Tourism guide, was lots of fun — but duty called.

As for that tour, I have to admit I always approach these events — this was my fourth with Trains, two in Colorado and two in Europe — with some trepidation, even though the agendas are always outstanding. For one thing, I’m much more inclined toward solo than group travel. For another, the previous tours have featured terrific people, but there’s always that one person, couple, or small group who doesn’t get along with the others, seems to live to complain, or otherwise strains the group dynamics. Not this time. Our 19 guests were understanding when the inevitable small issues cropped up, good-natured at moments of stress, and vocally appreciative of the exceptional sights and activities that unfolded between our welcome dinner in a Zurich restaurant on Sept. 14 and our farewell meal in that same restaurant 11 nights later. I would welcome the chance to travel with them again — and given my preference for solo travel, that’s saying a lot.

Green steam locomotive with upright boiler
An operating upright-boiler cogwheel locomotive from 1873? It could probably only happen in Switzerland. David Lassen

Of course, there was much to be appreciative about. Every day, it seemed we were seeing something that would have seemed outlandish on a model railroad, and yet not only existed but actually was a part of big-time rail operations in real life — be it the 360-degree spiral with stone viaduct of the Bernina Express; the 4.7-mile rack-railway tunnel to the top of the Jungfrau; or the not one, but two cog rail lines to the top of Mount Rigi that concluded our tour. (One of our tour members made that last lap even more memorable by talking his way onto a steam excursion featuring an upright-boiler steam locomotive built in 1873 that happened to be operating on Sunday — one of only a handful of days the locomotive makes an appearance, and one that was a total surprise to us. You can read more about locomotive No. 7 and see video of it in action here. What’s more, partway down the mountain, the engineer and fireman invited our tour member into the operating area — this locomotive’s design is so old it only nominally has something you could call a “cab” — for the rest of the trip. He made it to Zurich later than the rest of us, but he didn’t mind, and I was thrilled for him.)

As mentioned above, my trip was extended to allow me to pursue some feature articles, so you’ll be be reading more about Switzerland soon in the pages of Trains. And I already have an idea for a story I want pursue next year if I get to go back and take part in our tour next year. And that’s the thing — most of our tour-group members described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip. But at least some of them also said they’d do it again tomorrow if they could. I’m certainly in that camp.

And that opportunity most definitely exists. Special Interest Tours already is offering the 2024 version of the Majestic Switzerland tour on its website. And I know, based on my other experiences, I’ll be making suggestions for additions to make it even better for 2025 and beyond.

Because a place as remarkable as Switzerland will never get old.

Train passes station next to lake as seen from altitude
Little trains and big vistas: that’s Switzerland in a nutshell, as typified here by a Jungfrau Railways train, as photographed from the Eiger Express gondola. David Lassen
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