75 years’ Glacier Express

By Jay Brunhouse

by Jay Brunhouse

On June 26, 1930, the highly anticipated Glacier Express chugged for the first time over the 6,668-foot Oberalp Pass. Privileged passengers between Zermatt and St. Moritz praised the prime rolling stock deployed by the (then) three cooperating rail partners. A dining car, specially ordered by Mitropa in Neuhausen, completed the train. Travel time between St. Moritz and Zermatt was just under 11 hours.

One train a day was good enough until visitors discovered the excitement of traveling 169 miles across the top of the Alps over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels surrounded by dense forests, snowcapped mountain peaks, rushing streams and centuries-old villages.

Glacier Express train service has flowered since tourism officials realized, with surprise, that the glamorous trip could attract visitors without trampling the landscape or forcing taxpayers to invest additional Swiss francs. The route atop the Alps that carried 20,000 passengers during 1980 ballooned to 250,000 when the Furka Tunnel was opened in 1982. This year’s summer timetable shows four Glacier Expresses a day in each direction making the adventurous, 7½-hour ride.

Diners enjoy the ambiance of the walnut paneling, heavy brass fixtures and yellow-brown petit point upholstery of the belle époque Glacier Express dining carriages. The newest one seats 60. White-jacketed waiters serve lunch. The conversation piece is the Glacier Express wineglass (for sale) with a stem bent so that, in theory, you face it one way uphill and reverse it downhill. In fact, you worry more about your wine sloshing over when you are traveling horizontally.

Engage cogwheels

The driver of the powerful red locomotive of the Matterhorn Gotthard Railroad (MGB), which was formed as a result of a merger in 2003, engages cogwheels and coaxes your Glacier Express slowly out of Zermatt. You pass cataracts, rushing waters and tall, wooden Valais houses and storage barns, or Spychers, protected from rats by stones.

You follow your path on diagrams inserted in the utility table below your window showing altitude relative to distance to St. Moritz. St. Moritz (5,822 feet) and Zermatt (5,261 feet) surmount each end, but on the way you climb to 6,668 feet at the summit, Oberalp Passhohe.

When your train stops at the 2003 Täsch terminal, the point closest to Zermatt accessible by car, you look out on the parking lot. It is said that this is the largest parking lot in Europe.

At Randa, seven miles down the Glacier Express route, you see the Dom rising up one side and the Weisshorn up the other. These are the highest peaks in the Alps after Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa.

Descending another eight miles, you pass through Brattbach Tunnel, 428 feet long, and a series of concrete avalanche shelters. Officials realized these were necessary to maintain Zermatt as a winter sports center when the winter avalanche of 1931-32 buried the line.

Change for Italy/Bern

Your MGB train runs into the south side of an island platform in front of the federal railroad’s station in Brig with road traffic rushing past on both sides. You may cross into the main station to connect to or from north-south or east-west standard-gauge trains.

While you depart over MGB tracks through the scenic and broad upper Rhône Valley at 3,300 to 4,300 feet, you hear the first of the frequent, recorded descriptions in English, French and German that add so much to the enjoyment of your trip that you are scarcely tempted to doze.

Your train climbs steadily from Brig through loops, spirals or a rack, or even all three, to overcome the height. The valley supports farms and farmhouses on both sides of the line. You can always see one snowcapped peak at the end of your line of sight. Dense pine forests clothe the lower slopes of the mountains. Through the canted panes in the ceiling, you make out high Alpine pastures and still higher summits covered with snow the year around.

Leaving behind the Rhône Valley’s picturesque villages, you reach the reddish-brown Oberwald station (4,480 feet) where your train swings into the all-weather, 9.59-mile Furka Tunnel, the longest narrow-gauge train tunnel in the world, which permits the Glacier Express to operate year-round.

After 17 minutes, you emerge from the tunnel at Realp (5,045 feet). From here you serpentine downward through six U-turns with a view looking down on Andermatt (4,701 feet).

Past Andermatt, you again climb sharply to the Oberalp Pass, but you feel the cogwheels under the train chattering, so you know your climb is under total control. You trace out your train’s path ahead by the ribbon of rail zigzagging above you. These curves on the Glacier Express are nearly right-angle turns.

Beyond the Oberalp Pass, you have fine views over the Outer Rhine Valley as you descend to Sedrun on a ledge high above the river. It is said that Sedrun is where the Rhine spends its vacation.

Nineteen minutes later you come to a stop in Disentis (3,707 feet), but don’t look for inspiration in the eye-catching onion-shaped dome of the Baroque church on the valley floor. Look up to the left (north) to the imposing Benedictine Abbey on the mountainside, which is the place of prayer for the rich folks. The poorer folk attend the church on the valley floor. Disentis was formerly divided into two villages: one by the abbey, one by the river.

Join RhB

In Disentis, your Glacier Express train joins the Rhaetian Railroads (RhB) system. From Disentis to Ilanz (2,289 feet) you descend steadily high above the left bank of the Outer Rhine on a rock ledge, with good views of the thickly wooded valley. This was the link that connected the (now) MGB with the RhB.

Past Ilanz, you see spectacular limestone scenery. The major obstacle to construction was the deep gorge that the Outer Rhine had carved through prehistoric landslides of rubble more than 2,000 feet deep.

In Reichenau, where the Outer Rhine and the Inner Rhine converge next to the imposing railroad bridge, you meet the Albula line. From here, Glacier Express trains head south to St. Moritz through the Albula Tunnel and follow the path shared by the Bernina Express over the Landwasser Viaduct to the St. Moritz train station, which is also celebrating an anniversary, its hundredth.

The Glacier Express’ 75th anniversary marks the kickoff to a modernization program. Four new Panorama carriages, ordered in 2003 for 61 million Swiss francs, will enter service in mid-2006.

When you go

The MGB accepts Swiss Passes but not Eurail products. The RhB accepts both Swiss and Eurail products. Make reservations for the Glacier Express in advance unless you use only the segments east of Disentis carried by the RhB. Obligatory seat reservations cost about $7 second class and $11 first class. They may be made in most large train stations throughout Europe.

Dining reservations also are obligatory. There are seldom enough seats to accommodate all would-be diners.