The Glacier Express in Switzerland: The world’s slowest express train
While Swiss public transport has more than its fair share of railways in the mountains, some rail services in Switzerland need to be seen to be believed. A case in point is the Glacier Express - the special railway service that offers travellers stunning views, excellent food and much more. Here’s what you need to know about the route, trains, timetable and tickets.
The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express is a Swiss mountain railway that connects the alpine resorts of western Switzerland with Canton Graubünden. While it is called an “Express” train, the route itself is quite slow, taking up to seven hours and 45 minutes to go from its starting point in Zermatt to the end of the line at St. Moritz. This is because, unlike the high-speed services around Swiss cities, the train is designed to help passengers take in the stunning Swiss countryside in sumptuous comfort.
The line is a narrow gauge railway, and although regular public transport trains are used on the line, the Glacier Express itself is unique as it is a specially designed train with large windows, giving travellers a near-360-degree view of the scenery. It also isn't the train to take if you want to get places quickly, as the Glacier Express takes an hour longer than other services that go from Zermatt to St. Moritz.
Glacier Express route
The Glacier Express route runs from Zermatt, Canton Valais to St. Moritz in Canton Graubünden. It is around 291 kilometres long and features 291 bridges and 91 tunnels. With views of the Matterhorn and Piz Bernina, and beautiful rivers, lakes and viaducts, the Glacier Express is famous for running through some of the best scenery Switzerland has to offer.
Video: Glacier Express / YouTube
Zermatt to Brig
The Glacier Express starts in the famous ski resort of Zermatt on its first leg to the town of Brig. From underneath the Matterhorn mountain, the train descends into the large valley that connects Valais to the end of Lake Geneva and Canton Graubünden, dropping nearly 1.000 metres as it does so.
This first leg will give a real taste of what the Glacier Express has to offer, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. It also showcases the amazing feats of engineering required to make the route a reality, with a number of bridges and tunnels on the route.
Brig to Andermatt
Following the River Rhone, the train continues through the valley to Oberwald, where it enters the Furka Base Tunnel. Opened to rail traffic in 1982, the 15,4-kilometre-long tunnel connects the cantons of Uri and Valais, allowing for east-to-west traffic in southern Switzerland for the first time.
It exits around the town of Realp and continues onto Andermatt in Canton Uri - another beautiful ski resort.
Andermatt to Chur via Disentis / Mustér
From Andermatt, the Glacier Express climbs to the highest point on the journey at the Oberalp Pass. At 2.033 metres above sea level, the high point features a stunning lake and mountain landscape.
Then, the train travels to Disentis / Mustér - the source of the Rhine River. From there, the train continues to travel east through the Rhine River gorge, following the stream until it reaches Chur - the capital of Canton Graubünden.
Chur to St. Moritz via the Landwasser Viaduct
Between Chur and the final stop at St. Moritz, the Glacier Express plays host to a number of impressive feats of engineering - the railway line between Thusis and the final stop at St. Moritz has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site as a result of the stunning route.
After leaving the city, the train passes through the Landwasser Viaduct - a 65-metre-high limestone viaduct built in 1902. One of the most impressive aspects of the route is the large spirals that the train uses to gain altitude, which allow for spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. After going through the viaduct, the train uses a large number of spirals to gain 400 metres of altitude in just 5 kilometres, climbing a total of 1.000 metres on this section of the route.
Once it makes its way through the Albula Pass and Tunnel, the train enters the famous Engadine region. Once through Samedan and Bever, the train has its final stop at St. Moritz.
Glacier Express route map
From southwest to southeast, the route of the Glacier Express covers a large amount of Switzerland, despite only crossing through three cantons. To better visualise the route, here is a handy map:
Image credit: Borvan53, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Glacier express timetable (Fahrplan)
The Glacier Express timetable (Fahrplan) is highly dependent on the season, but generally speaking, more trains run during the summer season - May 13 to October 15 - than during the winter season - likely to be October 16 to May 12.
During the summer season, four trains run in each direction, typically leaving St. Moritz and Zermatt between 7am and 10am, and arriving at their final destinations between 4pm and 9pm. During the winter, the service is reduced to two trains in either direction each day.
Tickets for the Glacier Express
Unlike regular public transport tickets, tickets for the Glacier Express can only be bought and reserved on the official website - regular transport tickets from Zermatt to St. Moritz are not valid on the Glacier Express.
Bookings open two months before the date of departure. Be sure to get in early, however, as tickets are known to sell out well in advance, especially for services during the school holidays. Tickets themselves are split into three classes: second class, first class and Excellence class.
First and second-class
Glacier Express cars are constructed with large windows, to make sure that everyone is able to catch a glimpse of the view. In second class, the train is arranged in groups of four - perfect for families.
There is more space in first class, where seats are arranged in a four-two or two-two formation. However, for the ultimate sense of luxury, travellers can book Excellence class.
Excellence class on the Glacier Express can only be described as a private plane on rails. Each traveller is guaranteed a window seat, allowing for uninterrupted views, luxury and privacy.
Along with the upgraded seat and lower capacity, a concierge is on board to provide advice about the menu, answers to personal questions and exciting anecdotes about the journey. Speaking of the menu, each passenger in Excellence class is served a six-course menu of local foods and delicacies.
As well as a fine wine list, passengers in Excellence class can go to the private Alpine Bar for a cocktail or apéritif. Of course, all of this luxury is reflected in the price.
Video: Glacier Express / YouTube
Reservations on the Glacier Express
All Glacier Express bookings need a reservation, which can be purchased two months before the train departs. Seat reservations are also mandatory, to make it easier for families and large groups to sit together.
Are Swiss travel passes valid on the Glacier Express?
The SBB half-fare travel card (Halbtax) and general-abonnements (GA) are valid on the Glacier Express and can be used to make the journey half-price or free - although obligatory reservation fees and food costs will still apply.
Food on the train
The luxurious dinner experience isn’t limited to Excellence class on the Glacier Express. In fact, all classes are able to order a three, four, five or six-course meal, along with an extensive à la carte menu.
The food on the train is designed to be as local as possible, with each set menu decided on the day it is served. Some of the most common specialities include Capuns, Geschnetzeltes, Älplermagronen and much more!
Note that, due to staff shortages, only a select number of Glacier Express trains are currently serving food. Please check whether your train will serve food during the booking process.
3 cool facts about the Glacier Express
Along with being one of the most beautiful railways in the world, there are many fun facts about the Glacier Express that are well worth sharing. Some of our favourites are:
It is the slowest express train in the world
When you think of express trains like the Shinkansen in Japan or the Frecciarossa in Italy, you think of trains running at extremely high speeds. Not so in Switzerland. While TGVs in France and Bullet trains are able to reach average speeds of 320 kilometres an hour on a journey, the Glacier Express averages a paltry 39 kilometres per hour on its meandering trip through the Alps.
That being said, the slow speeds are not very surprising given the track’s age. Also, the relaxed pace will make it easier to take in that perfect picture of the mountains, or easier to bring your cocktail back to your seat without spilling it.
The train climbs higher than the highest mountain in Switzerland
On its journey from Zermatt to St. Moritz, the train climbs 4.937 metres. This means that the Glacier Express has to climb 300 metres higher than the highest peak in Switzerland - the 4.634-metre Dufourspitze - in just one journey.
The service is over 90 years old
While it may seem like a modern tourist attraction, the Glacier Express service first launched in June 1930. At the time, the rail route was designed by local public transport operators to bring more tourists to the less popular resorts in Valais and Graubünden.
This means, with the exception of a three-year hiatus during the Second World War, the Glacier Express is nearing 100 years old!
Take the Glacier Express train through the Swiss mountains this winter
Whether it be in winter or summer, the Glacier Express is an excellent way to see the Swiss mountains in comfort. For more information about the service, and to book your own magical trip through the mountains, check out the Glacier Express website.
Video: Glacier Express / YouTube