The Glacier Express

A Legendary Experience

Text Daniel Bauchervez / Photo Glacier Express
Date of publication Winter 2018-2019

It’s the most famous of all the Alpine trains. Cherished by international visitors, the Glacier Express runs between St. Moritz and Zermatt, two of Switzerland’s most emblematic ski stations. The journey crosses three cantons over 7 hours and 50 minutes, taking travelers through the breathtaking countryside on an authentically Swiss odyssey.

It’s “the slowest express train in the world” according to its slogan, a cherished fact among riders. The journey goes through the local valleys in a series of wide banking turns, climbing the valley walls amid great pine trees, continuing up the hillsides through the Alpine pastures, plunging into the valley’s gorges, and crossing icy glacial waters via a series of small, sleepy villages (many of which seem frozen in time). The route includes 91 tunnels and 291 bridges of all sizes (averaging one bridge per kilometer). There’s no doubt about it: the Glacier Express is not your average commuter train.
St. Moritz, 9:15 am. The train station faces the steel-blue St. Moritz Lake, which spreads out along the base of the Upper Engadin mountains. To the right, the larch forests and the naked summit of Muottas Muragl (2,453 meters) complete the panoramic view of the station through the train’s large bay windows. The train moves slowly forward, out of the Inn River’s valley and into the Albula River’s valley. This leg of the journey takes riders across 55 bridges, through 39 tunnels (some which spiral around themselves) and up a slope of 7°, a true tribute to the Golden Era of train travel. Further along, past Filisur, the steep cliffs eventually give way to reveal Landwasser and its railway viaduct, which carries travelers across the water over six arch spans that are 65 meters high. The viaduct is a signature structure that helped classify the Albula Railway (which operates the Glacier Express) as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The rest of the journey is no less exceptional. The train winds through northern Grisons through Ruinaulta, known for its white cliffs that shoot 350 meters up into the air and which give the area its (appropriate) nickname: the “Grand Canyon” of Switzerland. Only the train, hikers and bikers can pass through here, before reaching the Oberlap Pass at 2,033 meters, the highest point on this railway journey. The passage feels almost airy, then one hits Andermatt, the Furka Base Tunnel, and then the Goms region (where many Eastern Valais specialties hail from), before coming up under the Great Aletsch Glacier that clings to mountains above.
In Visp, the Glacier Express branches one last time, leaving the Rhône Valley as it makes its gentle ascent towards ­Zermatt. From a distance, the valley’s straight “V” shape is hidden behind snow-covered mountain tops. But no matter how hard one looks, the elusive Matterhorn will remain out of view until one has actually arrived in the station and exited the train.
To take full advantage of the itinerary, one can split it into a two-day journey (with an overnight in Andermatt) aboard the Glacier Pullman Express. This adventure is almost like traveling through time, as one rides in authentic vintage Pullman wagons (pulled by an actual Crocodile locomotive) that date from the 1930s, complete with a piano bar and a vintage restaurant car with large, gold embossed booths… very à la Orient Express.