Rhaetian Railway

Rhaetian Railway – for a scenic trip in Switzerland

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. Today with the greatest power of technology and creation, mankind is able to leave its remarkable impression in the unreachable limits of nature. One such marvel of human engineering is the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes. One of the most thrilling and beautiful rail journeys in the world, it is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. The World Heritage site describes it in these words, “The Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes constitutes an outstanding technical, architectural and environmental ensemble and embodies architectural and civil engineering achievements, in harmony with the landscapes through which they pass.”

The Rhaetian Alps stretches over parts of eastern Switzerland, northern Italy and western Austria. It is after this mountain chain that the Rhaetian Railway is named. This famous journey runs along the Albula and Bernina lines of the railway. It combines under it two historic railway lines crossing through two passes in the Swiss Alps. The most famous trains under the Albula Railway are the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express. St Moritz is the terminus of both the railways.

Short History

In 1888, a Dutchman named Willem Jan Holsboer wanted a rail line from Landquart to Davos and founded the Landquart-Davos AG to start construction of a railway line. Later the plan underwent some changes and in 1895, Holsboer re-named his company as Rhaetian Railway in keeping with his altered vision. Between 1907 and 1922, the Rhätischen Bahn (RhB) saw a lot of expansion work. Slowly the RhB emerged as one of the leading private railway operators in Switzerland.

Almost the entire RhB rail network lies within the Graubünden Canton. The network having evolved at different times and stages uses different electrification systems across the different trains. The entire RhB is 1000 mm gauge and entire network has 84 tunnels and 383 bridges. The maximum gradient is 7 per cent. The other important lines of the network include Landquart-Thusis line, the Reichenau–Disentis/Mustér line and the Engadin line.

The Albula Railway, forming part of the core network of Rhaetian Railway (RhB), in the Canton of Graubünden Switzerland, is one of the most splendid narrow gauge railways in the world. Opened in 1903, it connects Thusis on the Hinterrhein with the famous resort town of St. Moritz in Engadin. This 61.67 km long line with its 39 tunnels and 55 bridges are the examples of engineering excellence at its peak. The 5866 m long Albula Tunnel passing under the Rhine-Danube watershed is the Switzerland’s second largest Alpine tunnel. One of the iconic landmarks of this route is the 65m high and 136 m long Landwasser Viaduct. It has been immortalised in countless pictures which feature its famous curve as it enters into the opposite rock face through a tunnel. The Bernina Railway, a 1000 mm single track metre gauge railway line, is the other part of the Rhaetian Railway. It links Chur (Davos) in Switzerland with Tirano in Italy crossing the Bernina Pass. Gaining an elevation of 2,253 metres above sea level at Ospizio Bernina, it is the highest railway crossing in Europe.

The Trains:

Bernina Express The Bernina Express

This is one of those journeys which provide memories for a lifetime. The Bernina Express links Chur (Davos) in Switzerland with Tirano in Italy travelling through the UNESCO World Heritage enlisted RhB. It provides stunning views of glacial scenery, lovely villages, alpine meadows, orchards and vineyards. Linking the North and South of Europe as it does, the train weaves together different languages and cultures. Travelling on the Bernina Express, you cover no less than 55 tunnels and 196 bridges. The 689 m long Charnadüra Tunnel II is the longest tunnel on this route. Another iconic landmark is the much-photographed 180 degree Montebello curve which affords staggering views of the Morteratsch glacier. The Brusio Circular Viaduct, another lovely image of the railway, is a testimony to the ingenuity of the engineers who designed it to overcome problems of steep differences in elevation. The entire magical journey lasts for four hours.

Glacier Express

Glacier Express A train journey linking the world famous resort of St Moritz to Zermatt – home to the legendary Matterhorn can be nothing short of extraordinary. The Glacier Express, described as the slowest express train in the world, provides an 8-hour journey of sheer visual magic. Covering 291 bridges and 91 tunnels, it offers spectacular views of the Albula Valley and the Rhine Gorge. There are many highlight moments to watch out for.  As the train sweeps headlong into the ramp in a vertical cliff face after crossing a 136-high bridge, you will agree that the Landwasser viaduct lives up to all the hype surrounding it. The rugged scenery of the Rhine Gorge (Switzerland’s own Grand Canyon), flower-covered meadows, a view of the Benedictine Abbey and the majestic Matterhorn are some of the sights you can see on this journey. While your eyes are busy, your palate is also pampered with Swiss delicacies from the on-board kitchen.

[box]Some fun facts:

The Albula Railway along with the Bernina Railway (part of the RhB), were jointly recorded in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008.

The Bernina Express climbs 2253 m up the Bernina Pass without the aid of a rack and pinion mechanism.

The Bernina rail trip has audio narration throughout the trip.

The Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexipass cover the entire journey on the Bernina and Glacier Express with compulsory seat reservations.

The railway lines have been designed to blend beautifully into the surrounding landscape.

Visit the Albula Railway Museum in Bergun for amazing insights into the railway history of the region.

Two other railways on the UNESCO World Heritage List includes the Semmering Railway (Austria) and the Mountain Railways of India (Darjeeling, Nilgiri and Kalka-Shimla Railways).

Switzerland has the densest rail network in Europe with around 122 km of rail per 1,000 sq. km.[/box]

The magnificent Rhaetian Railway takes you across the amazing and phenomenal labyrinth of rugged wide valleys and mountains passes of romantic Switzerland. For those who delight in nature this is an unforgettable journey with lifetime memories to cherish. For the engineering enthusiasts, the incredible architecture will draw whistles of appreciation. Undoubtedly the Rhaetian Railway journey is a fantastic way to see Switzerland and of course an enchanting experience in its own right.

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