Amtrak fans claim several trains as scenic, most notably the Adirondack, California Zephyr, and the Coast Starlight; and the Canadians tout their Canadian routes, at least the part between Edmonton and Vancouver. The European Rail timetable lists more than 100 routes as “scenic.” But those are ordinary trains, running along regular routes through mostly attractive scenery.
If you want trains specifically designed for sightseeing—that offer longer routes rather than brief excursions—head for Switzerland. Although many ordinary Swiss trains travel through some of the world’s most scenic areas, the Swiss operate four routes that not only run through top scenic areas but also feature panoramic cars specifically designed for maximum visibility.
These routes are also traveled by ordinary workaday trains; most run over private railways; all operate year-round but with expanded summer schedules. All are covered by the Swiss Travel Pass, too, but you can also ride with ordinary tickets. All provide both first and standard class service; all require reservations. And you can do each route on less-expensive ordinary trains if you want to sacrifice the panoramic stuff.
Probably the best known of the Swiss scenic trains, the Glacier Express, sometimes called the world’s slowest express train, runs over two narrow-gauge private railways between St. Moritz and Zermatt, via Chur, Andermatt, and Brig. It’s an all-day trip, but many travelers do it in sections or only a part of the through journey. The western part of the trip, on the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, is partially a rack railway on several extra steep sections. The eastern part of the trip, on the Rhaetian Railway, is strictly adhesion, but it includes some of the world’s steepest adhesion grades. It operates at least once daily except for eight weeks between mid-October to mid-December, with up to four daily trips in summer. The most scenic part of the trip is probably the section between Chur and St. Moritz, where you travel over the often-photographed Landwasser viaduct that ends in a tunnel.
This one is my personal favorite. On the run between Chur and Tirano, in northern Italy, it covers the same Chur-St. Moritz segment as the Glacier Express, but the Bernina line extends from St. Moritz to Tirano, a segment that includes the famous circular viaduct and the spectacular descent from the Bernina Pass to Tirano. The full trip from Chur takes about four hours; the St. Moritz-Tirano trip takes about two hours. You can either do it as a round-trip day excursion, or you can connect at Chur with much of the rest of the Swiss rail system and at Torino to get an express bus to or from Lugano or an Italian train to or from Lugano or Milan. The train operates over the full route at least once a day, with extra trains in the summer season.
Gotthard Panorama Express
You’ve read about that record-breaking 35-mile tunnel under the Gotthard Pass, haven’t you? It’s great for speed. Not so much for sightseeing. For spectacular views, the Gotthard Panorama runs over the old line through the old Gotthard Tunnel, a mere nine-miles long, plus several spiral tunnels on both sides of the pass. At points along the line, you can see where you’ve been below and where you’re headed above. It’s a standard gauge train run on the Swiss national railway tracks, but it includes panorama cars in first class and second class coaches with windows that open. The train operates one daily round-trip from Lugano to Fluelen, on Lake Lucerne, year round. The Swiss travel folks favor taking a boat between Fluelen and Lucerne, but you can also catch an ordinary train to/from Lucerne or other Swiss cities. If the Express schedules don’t suit you, other trains do the trip throughout the day. And you can also connect with the Glacier Express line by taking a shuttle between Andermatt on the Glacier line and Goschenen on the Gotthard line.
Golden Pass is a route rather than a single train. It includes three segments: Lucerne to Interlaken, operated with panoramic cars on narrow-gauge tracks; Interlaken to Zweisimmen, operated with standard gauge regional trains, and Zweisimmen to Montreux again on a narrow gauge with panoramic coaches. For now, you have to change trains at Interlaken and Zweisimmen, but gauge-changing through coaches are planned for sometime in the next few years. Trains operate several times of the day with scheduled connections at the exchange points.
Other Swiss Routes
It’s hard to find a famous mountain in Switzerland without a rack railway or cable car to the top. Some are primarily for sightseeing, some serve ordinary residents and commuters, and some are mainly ski trips that also operate in summer. Many are covered by Swiss Travel Pass, and those that aren’t fully covered offer discounts to passholders. But even some ordinary routes, especially in the Geneva area, offer a great mix of lake and mountain vistas.
Arranging the Trip
A Swiss Travel Pass takes most of the hassle out of riding these and other top trains. The passes fully cover the fares, so all you need to do is make usually-mandatory seat reservations. Prices in second class start at $244 for a continuous three-day pass or $280 for a pass covering three days of travel over a 30-day period. Passes are expensive, and the various multi-country Eurail passes don’t fully cover the Glacier Express. If you want to travel fewer miles over more days than you can practically do with a pass, you can buy a 30-day half-price card for $130 that lets you buy as many tickets as you want for 50 percent off the usual fare. You can also buy individual trip tickets with substantial advance-purchase discounts on many routes. The official Swiss rail website does a great job with schedules and fares, although you have to keep in mind that the initial display shows prices for half-fare cardholders. You can buy passes directly from the Swiss website or from Rail Europe.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.