The Glacier Express is a train running between St. Moritz and Zermatt, two mountain resorts in the Swiss Alps. It is not an express in the sense that it’s high-speed; it is just called express because you can go all the way from St. Moritz to Zermatt without changing trains.
The whole journey takes approximately 7 hours and 30 minutes, and will take you across 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. You will also get to experience the Oberalp Pass at 2 033 meters above sea level. During an extensive part of the journey, you will be travelling on and through a World Heritage Site – the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernia Landscapes. The Glacier Express got 18 new first class panorama cars in the 1980s and 1990s, and in the mid-2000s further new panorama cars were added.
The train runs on metre gauge (narrow gauge). A large portion of the railway uses a rack-and-pinion system to ascend steep grades and to make controlled descents.
The Glacier Express is operated jointly by the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) and the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB). MGB resulted from a merger between Brig-Visp-Zermatt Bahn (BVZ) and the Furka Oberalp Bahn (FO).
Short facts about the Glacier Express
Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn
|Track gauge||1,000 mm|
11 kV AC 16 2⁄3 Hz
|Service frequency||Several times daily|
|Catering facilities||Restaurant car|
|Observation facilities||Panorama cars|
The Glacier Express commenced operations in 1930, as soon as the metre gauge line along the Rohone Valley between Visp and Brig was ready. This new piece of railway extended the Visp-Zermatt Bahn all the way to Brig. For the first time ever, it became possible to run through coaches the entire distance from Zermatt to St. Moritz. The Glacier Express premier took place on 25 June, 1930. The name was inspired by the Rhone Glacier near Gletsch.
Originally, the Glacier Express involved three different railway companies that each operated their own portion of the route. It was the Brig-Visp-Zermatt Bahn (BVZ), the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) and the Furka Oberalp Bahn. The train consisted of first, second and third class salon and passenger coaches, supplied by all three companies. A hot lunch was served in a Mitropa dining car during the trip from Chur to Disentis/Mustér. Back then, the Glacier Express only ran during the summer season, due to the heavy snow in the Furka Pass and the Oberalp Pass. (Year-round operations didn’t start until the early 1980s.)
From 1933 and onwards, the Glacier Express through coaches were attached to normal passenger trains from Brig to Zermatt and vice versa.
World War II
In 1941-1942, overhead catenary was finally installed on the FO stretch of the Glacier Express. Until then, FO had been using steam locomotives while BVZ and RhB used electric ones. The joy was short-lived however, as World War II forced the Glacier Express to stop running from 1943 to 1946, and it would take until 1948 before the service with daily through trains was resumed.
After the war
In 1948, the dining car service on the Glacier Express was extended – passengers could now enjoy something to eat and drink all the way from Chur to the Oberalp Pass. Eventually, the dining service would be extended even farther to Andermatt.
The Year-round Glacier Express
In June 1982, the FO line over the Furka Pass and through the Furka Summit Tunnel was replaced by the newly built Furka Base Tunnel. This meant that the Glacier Express could run year round and didn’t have to cease operations during the snowy season. It also meant that the line no longer had a close connection to the Rhone Glacier from which it derived its name.
As the Glacier Express commenced year-round service, BVZ, FO and RhB started promoting it much more towards tourists, hailing their train as “the slowest express train in the world”. Special wine glasses with a sloping base was produced to highlight the steepness of the route.
Between 1982 and 1983, the number of passengers rose from 20,000 to over 53,000. In 1984, the number exceeded 80,000. By the mid-2000s, over 250,000 people travelled on the Glacier Express each year.
The train leaves St. Moritz in Graubünden, passing through Samedan and Bever on the high Engadin plateu, before reaching the Val Bever and the Albula Tunnel. The Albula Tunnel will take you under the Albula Pass and into the Albula Valley.
The first station in the Albula Valley is Preda. Once you have left Preda behind, get ready for some great spirals because the train needs to increase its elevation by some 400 meters in a mere 5 km. Eventually, you will reach the Filisur station at the end of the valley, at an elevation of more than 1,000 meters above sea level.
After Filisur, the Glacier Express goes through the Landwasser Viaduct on its way to Thusis. It will then follow the Posterior Rhine to Chur.
From Chur, the Glacier Express goes through the gorge of Ruinaulta before climbing at a comfortable inclination up to Ilanz, Disentis/Mustér and Sedrun. Sedrun is located more than 1400 metres above sea level. From Sedun, the climbing becomes more dramatic. Eventually, the Glacier Express reaches its summit at 2033 metres above sea level in the Oberalp Pass. From there its downwards; you will journey to the Canton of Uri and down all the way to Andermatt (altitude 1447 m).
The Furka section of the Glacier Express starts in Andermatt. You will be travelling through the Urserental valley, passing quint little villages such as Hospental and Realp. After Realp, the Glacier Express leaves the old railway line (which goes through the Furka Pass) and uses instead the Furka Base Tunnel. You will exit the tunnel in the Goms Valley and reach Oberwald in the Canton of Valais. The Glacier Express will then follow the course of the river Rhone through the villages Ulrichen, Münster-Geschinen and Fiesch, before Brig marks the end of the Furka section.
Brig and Visp are both located at a comparatively low elevations, but once you enter the valley of Mattertal you are on you way up again. You will pass Stalden at nearly 800 metres above sea level, St Niklaus at 1127 m and Randal at 1408 m. In 1991, the railway at Randal was completely disconnected by an unusually forceful avalanche. After Randal comes Täsch, which – at an elevation of 1450 m – marks the end of the open road. The railway continues higher however, climbing bravely up to Zermatt at 1 616 metres.