There is a commotion around the little red train waiting in the station at Chur: people are chattering in different languages excitedly, as some passengers expectantly look for their carriage, while others photograph the so-called ‘Bernina Express’ before we set off.
I take my seat and watch from behind the huge convex windows that reach almost to the top of the carriage. This is one of the Rhaetian Railway’s (RhB) panoramic trains and its windows are designed for viewing the diverse landscapes that await us in the canton of Graubünden in eastern Switzerland.
For this is a journey about views. The Bernina Express route follows the Albula and Bernina Lines (inaugurated in 1904 and 1910 respectively,) and will take us 122 kilometres across the Alps, via 55 tunnels and 196 bridges and viaducts, to Tirano in northern Italy. Since 2008, the route has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
At last, the whistle blows and the train starts its four-hour journey westwards. We pass the pretty town of Reichenau/Tamins (where the two arms of the River Rhine meet) and several of the 13 castles in the Domleschg Valley, and cross the vertiginous, rocky Viamala Gorge at Thusis, where the Albula Line begins.
“The Rhaetian Railway is a completely different rail network,” says conductor Heidi Roos, who has worked for the company since 2008. “It’s about the mountains. It’s about Switzerland’s biggest canton having its own railway. And it’s about connecting different people and languages.”
A journey for everyman
“Coffee, Prosecco, snacks?” a jolly voice calls. By the time we have crossed the Solis Viaduct – 90 metres above the River Albula – I am sipping tea and eating a slice of the region’s renowned nut cake, while the party of Germans on the opposite table begins a round of white wine.
Today’s carriage is almost full. The 384-kilometre RhB network was established in 1889 by visionary hotelier Willem Jan Holsboer to open Graubünden up to tourism, and it has done the trick: the RhB welcomes 8.8 million passengers annually, with the Bernina Express making up around 120,000 of them.
“The brand is well-known worldwide, so major tour operators include the journey in their itineraries,” says RhB market specialist Pascal Rechsteiner of its popularity.
Independent travellers come along for the ride, too. One Australian lady I meet is touring Europe, and is using the Bernina Express as a “breathtaking” way to get to Italy for the next leg of her journey. There are some Swiss passengers as well, here to experience one of their country’s most famous attractions.
The latter are obviously not deterred by the strong Swiss franc, but what about other countries, I wonder. “The strong franc is a bit of a problem,” admits Rechsteiner. “We have created special deals in Eurozone countries to help ease the situation, and are also lucky that Asian countries are not so affected by the problem and are still willing to travel in Switzerland.”
Modern trains on a historical network
“Look now, or you will miss something amazing!” announces the steward, as he makes his way through the carriage again. We are about to cross the 130-metre long Landwasser Viaduct and its six sweeping 20-metre arches.
The viaduct was built in 1902 and is among the man-made historical masterpieces en route, which also include the Brusio circular viaduct used for dramatic height change.
For driver Gion Caprez, who joined the RhB in 1980, this is part of what he finds fascinating in his work. “Being able to drive along a railway of such technical and architectural quality in an Alpine landscape is special,” he says, “as is the possibility of taking a modern train along such a well-maintained line.”
Today, he is driving a ABe 8/12 Allegra multiple-unit dual-voltage engine, built in 2010, along the narrow-gauge (just one metre) tracks. But for the company’s 125th anniversary celebrations, including nostalgic and themed journeys throughout the year, the drivers have been getting to grips with the original 19th-century G4/5 129 steam engines and Ge 6/6 I Nr. 407 ‘crocodile’ locomotives.
“Working for the RhB has given me a chance to do something useful and fascinating,” Caprez says. “I feel proud to have been involved with the preservation of the railway’s historic rolling stock and the recognition of its cultural values.”
Into the wilderness
As we continue toward Bergün and then Pontresina, the train follows a helter-skelter route in-and-out of the mountains to overcome 416 metres’ altitude in 12 kilometres. It is mind-boggling – as is the change in scenery.
We exchange a landscape of agricultural meadows dotted with graffito-decorated houses for the untouched wilderness of the Upper Engadine region, with its craggy mountains laced with glaciers.
At the highest point of the track (Ospizio Bernina — 2,250 metres above sea level), the scene is almost foreboding. Although today the sun is shining upon the chilly turquoise lakes of Lago Bianco and Lej Nair, it is easy to imagine what extremes of weather there must be.
Caprez says this is one of the most memorable aspects of his job. He remembers one day when “the track wasn’t visible for snow, and driving the train was like flying on top of a cloud.” Trains are certainly the last mode of transport you would expect up here.
Closer to Italy, the terrain is friendlier and dotted with olive and palm trees and Italianate farm houses. And we get up close and personal as we drive through the middle of the street in Tirano to our final destination.
The little red train is quiet now, at rest for two hours before the return journey. Its staff must be exhausted, too. But as I thank Heidi and she recommends a good restaurant for lunch, she beams and, with no sign of tiredness, says: “This is the most wonderful and brilliant job you can do.”
On its 125th anniversary, this venerable rail network is doing more than making its passengers happy.
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The Bernina Express costs 120 francs for a second class return. The SBB half-price card is valid for the route. For further information and timetables, visit www.rhb.ch
For a list of special journeys and events for the 125th anniversary, check here.