Climb Aboard Switzerland’s Legendary Transalpine Railway
Winding their way through bucolic valleys and dramatic mountain passes via dozens of tunnels and spiraling viaducts, the Rhaetian Railway’s Albula and Bernina lines are an engineering marvel and one of the best ways to experience the awe-inspiring beauty of the Swiss Alps.
The 80-mile (128-kilometer) World Heritage-designated stretch of transalpine railroad is comprised of two historic railway lines running between Switzerland and Italy. The Albula and Bernina lines, both built by Rhaetian Railway company in the early 20th century, were key to the economic development of the region, serving as a link between the previously isolated settlements of the Central Alps. The trains facilitated a burgeoning tourism industry. Today they pass through dozens of charming alpine villages and carry visitors to world-famous ski destinations such as St. Moritz and Davos.
The Albula line from Thusis to St. Moritz, completed in 1903, is a pristine example of the classical period of railway construction, featuring a series of tunnels and picturesque viaducts that allow it to climb more than 3,281 feet (1,000 meters) without rack-and-pinion technology. Initially the tracks carried classic steam-powered locomotives. The fleet was later converted to electricity, but visitors who want the old-style experience can still tour the Swiss canton of Graubünden on special vintage steam trains. Rail history enthusiasts can also visit the Albula Railway Museum next to the Bergün railway station to see artifacts of more than a century of railway history.
The second leg of the rail system, the Bernina line running from St. Moritz to Tirano, was completed in 1910. It is the highest transalpine railway and one of the steepest adhesion railways in the world. Trains climb and descend at a punishing seven-percent incline, winding their way past some of the most striking vistas in the region, including breathtaking views of the Morteratsch Glacier from the 180-degree turn known as the Montebello Curve. Riders can also stop off for refreshments with panoramic views at the Alp Grüm, a restaurant and hotel that can only be reached by train.
Travelers can book tickets between any points on the line. The railway also offers special packages such as the two-day UNESCO World Heritage Pass, good for two days of travel anywhere on Albula and Bernina lines.
Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist based in Beirut covering politics, travel, and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @sewella.
- Nat Geo Expeditions