Monday, 2 July 2018

The Bernina and Glacier expresses, St Moritz, Zermatt, and The Matterhorn

Many holiday companies offer 'Glacier Express' experiences, but few include in their Swiss holidays a trip along the entire route, from St Moritz to Zermatt. Great Rail Journeys however do offer such a holiday, which also includes the entire length of the Bernina Express, several mountain railways, and an excursion to Lake Maggiore for lunch on one of the Borrowmean islands. So late last year I booked us onto it.

It's as well that I booked early, as the 'Glacier Express & St Moritz' holiday is the second most popular holiday in Great Rail's extensive brochure and soon sells out (strangely, the most popular of their holidays is a  UK tour of Yorkshire and Northumberland).

Our holiday started at London's magnificent St Pancras Eurostar station, surely one of the finest railway stations in the world, so we travelled down to London the day before and stayed overnight, to be sure we would be there in time to join our tour manager and the the rest of the group

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

Arriving in London by early afternoon we checked into our hotel near St Pancras station and caught the Tube to Temple station for a look at Temple church

It was a lovely day so we walked around the 'legal eagle' area of Temple and enjoyed a little wine in the sunshine at this bar, before catching a Thameslink train from Blackfriers back to St Pancras

At St Pancras we had an evening meal in the Betjeman Arms, where one can watch the coming and going of the Eurostar trains while enjoying a meal and a drink. Tomorrow morning, we'd be on one of those trains bound for Brussels.

The magnificent St Pancras Hotel, saved from BR's vandalistic plans to demolish it, by John Betjeman

This is where we're off to. After our initial night in London we spend a night in Cologne in Germany on the way to Switzerland where we have seven nights; three in St Moritz and four in Zermatt. On the way home, we have one night in Colmar, France, arriving back in London ten days after we left.

having met our tour manager and the rest of our holiday group we checked in for our journey to Brussels. I was pleased to discover we were travelling in one of the refurbished original Eurostar units which I prefer to the new trains which now dominate the route. As on the entire holiday, all travel was first class and this picture shows the sumptuous seating in these excellent fast, smooth, and quiet trains. Lunch and a some nice wine was enjoyed as we sped though Kent, under the Channel, and across Northern France and Belgium at 186 mph.

From Brussels a Thalys high speed train took us to Cologne where we spent one night in the superb 'Hotel Maritim'. Next morning we left Cologne station for Basle, here following the Rhine Gorge south of Koblenz, an area I knew from last year's 'Narrow Gauge Steam in Eastern Germany' holiday also reported in this blog

Comfortable and fast - our train from Cologne to Basle

From Basle we took a Swiss Railways Inter City double deck train to Chur (pronounced 'coor'). Our reserved seating was upstairs, which gave a great view of the passing countryside, as the picture below shows.

By now we were entering the Alpine region of Europe, and the scenery was just getting better and better

At Chur our train pulled into a platform adjacent to the metre gauge Swiss Railway line that would take us to St Moritz, our first 'base' on this holiday, where we would spend three nights

This might be technically a 'narrow gauge' railway, but our Swiss metre-gauge train picked up her skirts and hurried us at some pace along the twisty Alpine route and on board it was as spacious and as smooth as any inter city train

Chur to St Moritz is part of the Glacier Express route, so we'd be re-visiting this railway in a few days time. Here is the famous Langwieser Viaduct, on which the line curves through almost ninety degrees to the right before disappearing into a tunnel in the cliff face. I photographed this from our coach, the last in the train.

This is the other end of that tunnel, photographed from the window in the back of the last coach, as we left the tunnel

Another view of our metre-gauge train
Magnificent alpine scenery....

The Albula tunnel, the oldest on the line and showing its age. Water ingress is destroying the structure, and on the right of the picture can be seen the partly-constructed new Albula tunnel which will replace the original.

We'd paid extra to have a lake-view balcony room in St Moritz's 4-star Schweizerhof Hotel. It was money well spent! Chris enjoying a drink on our balcony shortly after arrival.

A view of the lake from our balcony the next morning

This was a 'free' day in our itinerary, but the hotel had issued us with travel passes which gave free access to local buses, cable cars, and the funicular railway up to Muottas Muragl, 2,456 metres above sea level, which we took, getting there by bus

Passing the down-going car as we ascend

St Moritz far below us now....

The weather could not have been better. Sunny with excellent visibility, as it was for the entire holiday 

Me atop Muottas Muragl....

.....And Chris

The Bernina Pass, which we'll travel through tomorrow, seen from Muottas Muragl

On the descent, looking back to the summit hotel

The next morning we set off for Tirano in Italy on the famous 'Bernina Express'. You need three currencies on this holiday; Sterling, Euros, and Swiss Francs.

BIG picture windows in the Bernina Express train. As with all the trains on this holiday, we're in first class.

At the top of the pass is the Lago Bianco (the White Lake), dammed to form a power source for a hydro power station in Brusio which provides electrical power for, among other things, this railway

The Palu glacier. This is the third time I've seen it; the first was on a motorcycle tour about 14 years ago, then when Chris and I were staying in Bellagio on Lake Como and came on a day excursion, and this visit. It certainly looks a lot smaller and less impressive than it did 14 years ago. Don't tell Donald Trump! 

At Alp Grum, just after passing over the highest point on the line, the train stopped so we could get out and view the Palu Glacier

The entire Bernina line is worked by adhesion (i.e. there are no rack railway sections). The ruling gradient is 1 in 14.3, astonishingly steep for an adhesion-worked line. You can see here how the tracks dive away from Alp Grum station.

Our train was double headed; this is the leading one of the two locomotives

The Palu Glacier from Alp Grum station

Looking back up hill as our train continues its descent of the southern end of the Bernina Pass

Poschiavo Lake. In a few minutes, our train will be down at that level, all achieved through loops and spirals to enable the great height difference to be accomplished without exceeding the ruling gradient

Complimentary Prosecco! Cheers!

The final height change is achieved by this spiral viaduct down to the valley floor at Brusio. Our train will cross the viaduct descending from left to right, travel around the loop behind the trees in the right foreground, then pass under the arch as seen on the left of the picture

Our tour manager, Peter, arranges a meeting time and place with our rather large group for the return journey before we disperse to find lunch in Tirano

A canalised section of Alpine river through Tirano

Since we were now in Italy we had decided to have a pizza for lunch, and sat down at an al fresco restaurant in a Tirano square. It transpired they did not serve pizzas, but the waiter led us up the street to little restaurant that did. A police man and a couple of local families were having lunch there, and we took this as a good sign! It was; the pizzas and the wine were superb, and did not break the bank, either.

On returning to Tirano station to re-join the group I photographed this standard gauge steam locomotive on the Italian Railways side of the station. It obviously has not run for a very long time.

Special transport for those with fastidious dietary preferences? At least they'll get plenty of fresh air!

Our train back to St Moritz was not the Bernina Express as that dosn't run in this direction in the afternmoons. Instead it was a service train, but our first class carriage was on the rear so I could photograph this view out of the back window as we pass under the Brusio spiral viaduct again, this time northbound, to shortly pass over the viaduct itself to gain height above the valley floor.

Leaving the Brusio spiral, some tens of metres higher than we entered it

Although not a panoramic Bernina Express coach, our coach did offer opening windows which was great for photography (internal reflections in the panoramic windows of the Bernina Express coaches are a problem for photography).

Climbing back up towards the Palu Glacier

The steep climb into Alp Grum station. The Bernina Railway overcomes, by adhesion alone, a greater difference in height than even any Swiss rack railway; in a horizontal distance of 22km from Tirano to the summit level it rises 1,827m. 

Between Alp Grum and Poschiavo the railway overcomes a height difference of 1,230m in a horizontal difference of 7.5km. In order to maintain the ruling gradient of 1 in 14.3 the length of the line was increased to 17.5km using several switch-back loops. Thus views of Poschiavo Lake alternate between the left and right hand sides of the train during this amazingly steep ascent or descent.

For anyone who wishes to know more about these fascinating metre gauge lines, how and why they were built etc, this is the book to read. Published in 1974 it is long out of print but well worth searching out.

Near the northern end of the Bernina Pass our train turned left for St Moritz. Those wishing to travel to the right, towards Davos and Chur, changed here for this train at Pontresina station.

At the head of the pass we catch a view of yesterday's destination - Muottas Muragl

Four days into the holiday and it's time to move on to our second hotel, in Zermatt. On Sunday morning we boarded the world-famous Glacier Express at St Moritz station for a nearly eight hour journey of luxury and spectacular scenery in our first class carriage. Publisher's agent Tim and his wife Lee, from Sydney, share our table for four.

The first section of the Glacier Express route, as far as Chur, was a repeat (but in reverse) of our outward journey of two days ago, Chur to St Moritz. Like the Bernina line, this railway gains height by use of switchback loops rather than cog and rack, and here we can see from our train a viaduct carrying the line we have yet to traverse.

Here's the world famous UNESCO designated Langweiser Viaduct again, with the rear of our train having left the tunnel. As on the Bernina express, the large picture windows give excellent panoramic views, but internal reflections are a problem for photography.

Langweiser Viaduct from below

At Chur our train reversed, heading out of this terminal station the same way it went in. Here our locomotive runs around the train to couple up to the other end.

Ear phones are provided so one can listen to the occasional commentary on points of interest the train is passing. A gong sounds on the trains intercom to let passenger know when to don the ear phones.

This is the second Rhine Gorge of the holiday. Here the river is much younger than it was when we passed the other Rhine Gorge a few days ago, south of Koblenz.

An excellent lunch was served on the train

The Glacier Express route comprises two main sections; St Moritz to Disentis, and Disentis to Zermatt. Like the Bernina line, the section from St Moritz is an adhesion railway, using switchback loops for change of height. From Disentis onward, a mixture of adhesion and rack railway are used since the valley here (that of the Rhone) is too narrow for switchback loops, and the height changes are in 'steps' typical of a glaciated valley. The railway uses rack and cog in climbing these steep 'step' sections, and adhesion in between (using the rack and cog slows the train considerably so it is only used where required).

All these Swiss metre gauge railways are single track with passing loops. Here we wait for an opposite direction train to pass up in one such loop, before we can proceed. The points and signals at these loops are automatic, operated by the trains themselves, thus as soon as one train enters the loop, the other can leave with no delay.

The opposite direction train approaches the passing loop we are stopped in, awaiting onward clearance.

Superb Alpine scenery

Wild flower meadows abound in this part of the world

Fiesch down in the valley. We'll need our cog system to make that descent!

At Andermatt the train stopped for a few minutes and we were able to stretch our legs

Each passenger gets a booklet which describes the route, complete with maps

A typically grey-blue glacial run-off river

Once past Visp the line leaves the Rhone valley to commence the climb to Zermatt. Most of this uses the rack and cog, the rack being shown here along with criss-cross steel sleepers, a feature I last saw on the Harz mountain system in Germany.

Members of our group dashed from one side of the train to other to photograph the scenic views 

No wonder they call this the Glacier Express; here's another!

Zermatt, and the view from the balcony of our room in the absolutely superb Parkhotel Beau Site. The Matterhorn should be right in the centre of this view but it's obscured by cloud.

But next morning.... there it was!

Back to Zermatt station for a trip on the Gornergrat rack railway

Matterhorn partly obscured by cloud as we climb the Gornergrat

The summit buildings of Gornergrat

Gornergrat summit station. The 1,469m ascent to the 3,089m summit station from Zermatt takes 35 minutes. This was the first electric cog railway in the world. At the summit station is Europe’s highest-altitude hotel: the 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat. Facilities include a restaurant, astronomical observatory and shops.

The panorama is said to be among the finest in the world. The views take in the Monte Rosa massif with Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4,634 m); the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier (above, with Chris and I) and a total of 29 mountains above 4,000 m, including the Matterhorn.
The Matterhorn was in shy mood, mostly obscured by cloud. Note the 'smoking mountain' effect caused by the airflow over the summit drawing air up the leeward slope, cooling it and causing water vapor to condense out as cloud, which disperses downwind of the mountain.

Summit station and glacier

The absolutely stunning Gorner Glacier

On the descent back to Zermatt we saw this work train going up, loaded with cement bags

Cloud starting to clear from the Matterhorn

But more cloud was forming on the lee face of the mountain as we watched

The back of our hotel, from the cog railway

Zermatt station square. Only electric vehicles are allowed in Zermatt, and horse-drawn ones!

Our Zermat hotel - highly recommended

The view from our balcony was somewhat improved over that of our first evening here

Sunset catches the top of the mountain

The next day we took the train back down the Zermatt Valley to Brig where we changed to a standard gauge Swiss train for the journey through the Simplon Tunnel to Domodossola. From there a coach took us to Stresa on lake Maggiore. The picture shows us in our coach - rough, cramped, and uncomfortable after days of luxurious rail travel. Some folk go on holiday in these.... How do they stand it?

We boarded our boat from Stresa to Isola dei Pescatori (the fisherman's isle), one of the Borrowmean islands I visited many years ago on a motorcycle tour of Northern Italy

Arrival at the Isola

The shores of this small island are fringed with al fresco restaurants. My lunch (in the foreground) is of 'unspecified' lake fish - but it was delicious.

Heading back to Stresa on our boat

After a walk around the town we returned by coach to Domodossola where this loco-hauled train, with much frantic whistling, whisked us through the Simplon Tunnels back to Brig for our connection to Zermatt

At about 05:30 the next morning I caught this picture from our hotel room of sunrise on the Matterhorn. It looks 'photoshopped' but it isn't - it's just as I snapped it.

The scenic highlight of the holiday was to ascend by cable car 3,883m (nearly 13,000 feet) to the summit of the Klein Matterhorn. The small 6-seat gondola cable cars traverse three cable systems, and the final climb across the glacier is in a 100-person cable car.

The 100-person cable car arriving at its base station

The view back from the big cable car to its base station, high above Zermatt

The glacier, with its medial moraine, seen from the big cable car

Chris on the quite crowded summit platform, above the summit restaurant. The air is thin at 13,000 feet and one feels the breathlessness as one walks around, especially climbing up to this platform. 

Looking across to the Gornergrat (on the horizon), where we were a couple of days ago

The view towards the Zermatt valley

It wasn't too cold up here (maybe about 8 degrees C) and with little wind, but I'd brought my 'big coat' so thought I may as well wear it! The Matterhorn, just to my right, looks insignificant from up here.

Mountains for as far as one can see; the visibility was excellent

Just can't stop photographing the Matterhorn!

A massive snow cornice overhung this peak....

....A closer view shows their are people on it. I wonder if they realise that whole thing could just shear off at any moment and go crashing to the glacier below?

As someone once said, "you can photograph it but you can't capture it". The views were, quite simply, stunning.

Looking like a space vehicle returning to the mother ship, our cable car climbs up to the summit station where we will take it to begin our return journey down to Zermatt ("open the pod bay doors, Hal")

A glance back before we leave on our return to Zermatt

Lower down the mountain; our 'pod' cable car at an intermediate station

Another view of the Gornergrat, this time from lower down, in our 'pod' cable car

Back in Zermatt in time for an al fresco lunch, with an amazing backdrop

Zermatt Beer and the Matterhorn

Zermatt is like a theater auditorium, with the star of the show on centre stage

We never did see any Marmots (Marmites?), but we did come across these on the walk back to our hotel

A final view from our balcony on our last night in Zermatt

Next day we were on our way home, initially back down the metre gauge valley railway from Zermatt, to Visp, for a train to Basle. Our train from Zermatt can be seen (above) as we wait on platform 4 for our standard gauge train to Basle via Bern. 

Whizzing along in our high speed train to Basle... Lunch time!

These trains are fast, smooth, and extremely comfortable

Our final night of the holiday was spent in Colmar, France. A problem on the line near Basle meant we had to travel a few miles on an absolutely packed local train before changing to our scheduled inter-city train for a fast run to Colmar (above)

Our hotel at Colmar was directly opposite the railway station - not far to walk

That evening we enjoyed our final meal of the holiday together in our Colmar hotel

We had a few hours free the next morning, so went for a walk to the 'Old Town' of Colmar. Above is 'Little Venice'

A high speed TGV train whisked us at 200mph across France to Paris. Not a ripple in my beer. The on board WiFi has a real-time display of our progress and our speed, displaying on my tablet.

The comfortable TGV interior

A coach should have picked us up at the Gare de L'Est to take us to the Gare du Nord for our Eurostar to London St Pancras but it was delayed in traffic, so we walked it (only about 15 minutes). One of the new Eurostar trains (above) sped us under the Channel to London. We enjoyed a light meal served at our seats, and arrived on time at St Pancras.

We walked to Euston aiming for the 19:40 Virgin Pendelino to Wilmslow, but the hot weather had caused lineside fires and the timetable was in chaos. We eventually caught a Pendelino Via Stockport and arrived in Wilmslow only slightly later than we would have done on the 19:40.

What a Great Railway Journey indeed. Where to next year?


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