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Bernina Express : 50 years of panoramic trains

Tuesday 27 June 2023 | Swiss trains | Panoramic train

Happy Birthday, dear Bernina Express! The most Alpine of Swiss panoramic trains is celebrating its jubilee. Find out why we love it so much

The first Bernina Express left Chur station 50 years ago, on 3 June 1973. This panoramic train is not the oldest in Switzerland - the Glacier Express began operating in 1930 - nor the most recent - the Gotthard Panorama has only been called the Gotthard Panorama since 2017. But it is undoubtedly the most impressive. Fifty years after its launch, here are four reasons to celebrate the red train that crosses the Alps from Chur to Tirano.

Bernina Express SBB

1 - The red train of the peaks: the highest railway in Europe

This is the real glacier train! The Bernina Express crosses the Alps on Europe's highest rail route. For those who love travelling around Switzerland by train, it offers incredible views of Switzerland's highest peaks, such as the Morteratsch glacier, the third largest glacier in the eastern Alps, and the summit of Piz Bernina (4,093 m).

Altitude Bernina Express RhB

The highest point on the route is the Ospizio Bernina station, at 2253 m altitude. From here you can enjoy an uninterrupted view of the most splendid of Alpine panoramas. At the next stop, at Alp Grüm (2091m), the Bernina Express makes a stop to give its passengers time to observe the imposing Vadret da Palü glacier, which rises proudly to the west. It's an incredible feeling to be so high up, while travelling on a train!

Of course, there are even higher trains in the world, such as the one that runs on the Qung-Zang line in China (5061 m), whose carriages are pressurised to prevent altitude sickness, or other high-altitude trains in Latin America. But the Bernina Express, often referred to as the "red train of the peaks", is very high on the list.

In Switzerland itself, there are only two trains that climb higher than him. The Jungfrau train reaches an altitude of 3454 m (earning it the nickname "Top of Europe") and the Gornergrat Bahn reaches 3089 m. But these two competitors have an unfair advantage: they are both cogwheel trains, so you have to rely solely on your own strength to overcome the differences in altitude.

2 - A UNESCO-listed railway route

The Bernina runs on the Rhaetian Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. This rail route is made up of several historic lines brought together into a single line by the private company Rhaetian Railway (Rhb). Two sections of this route are particularly exceptional: the Albula line between Thusis (25 km from Chur) and St. Moritz, and the Bernina line between St. Moritz and Tirano.

Itinéraire Bernina Express STS


Each of these two lines, opened in the early 20th century, runs for around sixty kilometres and features an impressive number of tunnels, galleries, viaducts and bridges. Between them, they make up a 122 km route classified by UNESCO.

The UNESCO criteria for this classification are twofold: on the one hand, the organisation salutes the technical prowess: "the Rhaetian Railway offers a wide variety of technical solutions for establishing the railway in often severe mountain conditions". The spectacular Landwasser viaduct, which has become the emblem of the Rhaetian Railway, springs to mind. But UNESCO also rewards the beauty of these structures, in harmony with the splendid natural setting in which they are set: "their stylistic and architectural homogeneity is remarkable. The railway complex blends in particularly harmoniously with the Alpine landscapes through which it passes".


3 - The incredible spiral tunnels of the Bernina Express

The Bernina Express route has a very impressive vertical drop. Between Alp Grüm and Poschiavo, it drops almost 1,000 metres in just five kilometres as the crow flies. Its gradient is one of the steepest in the world for an adhesion railway (i.e. without the support of a rack), reaching up to 70 per thousand (7%).

To achieve this feat, the Rhaetian Railway uses impressive engineering structures known as "spiral loops". These spiralling devices enable the train to climb steep gradients over very short distances: at the end, the 360° loop passes over itself and the train rises to new heights. The loop is like an alternative to the zig-zag, a "rounded zig-zag", on the understanding that trains cannot technically make hairpin bends.

Lago Bianco Bernina Express RhB

Most of the spiral loops are tunnels. There are four on the Albula line. When the train emerges from a spiral tunnel, it ends up just above the entrance it entered! This is the case after Bergün/Bravuogn. The Bernina Express travels along the foot of the pillars of a large viaduct. It runs along the foundations. Then it enters a tunnel. Inside the mountain, it climbs in a circular pattern, and emerges into the open air on the very viaduct that had towered over it just a few minutes before!

Viaduc de Brusio Rhaetische Bahn Christoph Benz

Yet the most impressive spiral loop on the route is not a tunnel. Even though some of the descriptions mention an "open-air spiral tunnel" (!). In reality, it's a viaduct. The magnificent Brusio loop viaduct. Particularly photogenic, this work of art, unique in the world, allows the train to climb 10 metres high even though it is only 110 m long.

4 - The Bernina Express: the train from Switzerland to Italy

The change in altitude is so sudden that passengers on board the train feel a real tingling in their ears, similar to what you feel on board an aeroplane during take-off or landing. While Ospizio Bernina lies at an altitude of 2,253 metres, the train's terminus in Tirano is just 429 metres above sea level. In just two hours on the train, you've lost 1,800 metres in altitude. The change in climate and landscape go hand in hand.

The train is a link between two worlds. It departs early in the morning from Chur, Switzerland's oldest city at the foot of the mountains, and climbs to the dizzy heights of the Alpine climate. Even before the border, at the village of Poschiavo, the air is filled with the scent of Italy. And four hours after its departure, the red train from the peaks arrives in the heart of Tirano, a small medieval Italian town where the temperatures are already Mediterranean. It's no coincidence that our tour with the Bernina Express is called "From glaciers to palm trees"!

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