The Glacier Express
A Story Through the Alps
By Alpenwil d
Photographs courtesy of Swiss Board of Tourism for Alpenwild; Video by Swiss Board of Tourism; edited by Matthew Dartnell
Produced by Alpenwild and Wallaroo Media

The Glacier Express is the most famous railway in the world. On its 7½-hour daily journey from St Moritz to Zermatt it travels through glamorous resorts, charming valleys, 91 tunnels, and across 291 bridges. But within the untouched mountain landscapes, and the stunning natural beauty of the Swiss Alps, there is also a story—many stories—ones that most passengers on the Glacier Express will never know.

St. Moritz

A Bet Made Good

New Year's Eve fireworks over Lake St. Moritz — Christof Sonderegger, Engadine St. Moritz

It all started with a bet and an empty hotel. Hotelier Johannes Badrutt—a name now legendary in these parts—grew impatient as he saw wealthy Brits vacate the healing mineral baths of St. Moritz at the end of each summer season. So, in 1864, he invited four summer guests to return at Christmas and stay as long as they liked. If they didn’t enjoy the beauty of St. Moritz in winter, Badrutt would refund their money and pay their travel expenses back to cold, foggy London.

St. Moritz viewed from across the lake on a winter's night with the illuminated Badrutt's Palace—Christof Sonderegger, Engadin St. Moritz

The skeptics returned to Badrutt’s hotel and basked on his balcony in one of the famously sunny winters of St. Moritz where it was possible to enjoy the outdoors in light clothing. They stayed until Easter and returned home tanned, telling everyone they knew about the wonders of St. Moritz during the glistening winter season.

St. Moritz still pins its reputation to fair weather with claims of “322 sunny days per year”—a motto made possible by the towering peaks that buffer the Upper Engadine Valley from the moist air flowing north from Italy.

Since the Middle Ages, the frail, feeble, and faithful had been coming to St. Moritz to “take the waters” of nearby mineral baths. In 1519, Pope Leo X was bestowing full absolution for every Christian who came to the spa of St. Moritz. But Badrutt’s bet marked the beginning of winter tourism in St. Moritz—and in Europe for that matter.

Soon, winter sports competitions such as ice skating, ski jumping, ice hockey, and bobsled racing became all the rage in St. Moritz. A steady stream of royals and regals, glams and glitterati, turned to St. Moritz as the winter destination of choice. Hosting the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948 further ensconced St. Moritz as the world’s premier winter playground.

Ice skaters towing skiers in a 1910 race on the frozen lake — Historic photo courtesy Dokumentationsbibliothek St. Moritz
With over 12,000 participants, the annual Engadine Ski Marathon is by far the largest cross country ski event in the Alps — Andy Mettler, Engadin/St. Moritz
1910 Bobsled race on the natural Cresta Run in St. Moritz. Today this track is used exclusively for skeleton — Historic photo courtesy Dokumentationsbibliothek St. Moritz
Winter tennis at the Kulm Hotel in 1890 — Historic photo courtesy Dokumentationsbibliothek St. Moritz
The Al Parc Curling Center has hosted matches and major tournaments for over a hundred years — Christian Perret, Engadin St. Moritz
Founded in 1907 the St Moritz White Turf draw international horse and harness racers over the first three Sundays in February — Andy Mettler, swiss-image.ch

Today, St. Moritz still draws serious skiers and winter sports enthusiasts. And there are still those who come for the healing waters and the sunny skies. But many more come for the spectacle that is St. Moritz. Its reputation precedes itself. What other town of just 5,000 residents has as many 5-star hotels, Rolls Royces, jewelers, and furriers? Rodeo Drive’s got nothing on Via Serlas, where glamour oozes from every storefront and where everyone seems to accessorize with Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada, Gucci, and Hermès.

But please do your shopping today. After all, you’ve got a train to catch at 9:02 on Track 1—the Glacier Express.

The Albula Line

An Impossible Problem

Soaring 200 feet above the river, the Glacier Express crosses the tightly curved Landwasser Viaduct near Filisur on the Albula stretch — Fransiska Pfenniger, Switzerland Tourism

"Absolutely impossible."

That’s what you might have heard if you had asked someone to create a railway through the gaping ravines and high passes that separate the pleasure palaces of St. Moritz from the tucked-away village of Thusis.

Successfully completing such an immense undertaking seemed improbable—even impossible—but the turn of the 20th century was the golden age of railway construction, and no self-respecting railway titan was going to let a mountain pass stand in the way of connecting Switzerland’s bucolic easternmost canton with Zurich and the prosperous commercial centers to the north.

The proposed route would require some innovative and unflinching approaches, slicing through almost 40 miles of alpine terrain with a gentle grade of no more than 3.5% to accommodate the steam locomotive they planned to use. But engineering requirements seemed insurmountable as they studied the plunging canyons and treacherous mountain passes along the proposed route. Switzerland’s brightest rail engineers were facing what appeared to be “absolutely impossible.”

This is where Swiss genius kicks in.

Begun in September 1898, and completed in less than six years, the Rhaetian Railway’s Albula Line is a 38-mile section of narrow gauge track from St. Moritz to Thusis that daringly cuts through mountains, across ravines, and along rocky hillsides with no fewer than 39 tunnels and 55 bridges. Boldly curving iron rails and soaring viaducts erected in locally quarried limestone would replace cowpaths and footbridges. Steam engines would now trundle through hamlets where bicycles were still a novelty.

The entire Rhaetian Railway is a marvel, but there are segments which are astounding, even today.

Construction of the Solis Viaduct in 1902. It rises 292 feet above the gorge with a span of 538 feet — Photo courtesy Rhätische Bahn AG
Workers on the Albula Line construction circa 1901 — Photo courtesy Rhätische Bahn AG
The Landwasser Viaduct under construction in 1901 — Photo courtesy Rhätische Bahn AG

The Albula Tunnel—A task as tough as nails

The Albula Pass—the watershed between the Rhine and the Danube—would be undercut by a 3.6 mile tunnel with 3,000 feet of solid mountain hovering above the tunnel. The construction was grueling for the crew of over 1,300 with unbearable summer temperatures, poor ventilation, intense humidity, crude tools, and constant danger. This life-threatening labor resulted in 16 fatal accidents. Near-freezing groundwater poured into the tunnel stopping work and requiring diversion through pipes. This unforeseen delay ultimately forced the construction company into bankruptcy.

Helical Tunnels

Unlike a traditional tunnel, which just burrows from one side of the mountain to the other, helical tunnels swallow the train whole, twist it around like the thread of a screw, and spit it out the other end. The objective of a helical tunnel is to gain elevation by making a complete loop on a gentle gradient, one within the limitations of a railway locomotive. The Rhaetian Railway has three complete spirals and two curves, each one changing both your view and your elevation as you exit the tunnel.

Work for those who enjoy heights

Video | 0:31
Experience the majesty of the Swiss Alps aboard the Glacier Express.

Rounding the bend, even a quick glimpse of the Solis Viaduct still has the power to take your breath away. It is hard to imagine the mettle of men that were willing to work on this experimental project. Soaring 292 feet above the Albula River, it exquisitely spans 538 feet across the dramatic gorge with 11 parabolic arches in a masterpiece of engineering, beauty, and functionality. But only the bravest and most meticulous construction crew could have built this iconic bridge.

The Albula Line is a triumph of man over mountain. It came at a high price, but remains an engineering marvel still today. It is no wonder that UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site recognized “as an outstanding technical, architectural and environmental ensemble [ . . . ] in harmony with the landscapes through which they pass.” As you glide through the arch-covered slopes you can almost hear the voices of those who helped to create this work of art.

Chur

Time Travel in the Alps

Overlooking Chur from the south in Winter
Overlooking Chur from the south in Summer

The Glacier Express quickly picks up speed as you descend into the lush upper Rhine Valley and approach the captivating city of Chur. The mountains, so close they practically scrape red paint from the side of the train back in Tiefencastel, now recede into the horizon.

Rolling hills with a patchwork of verdant vineyards create the setting as majestic limestone monoliths stand guard at the gateway to the city. Chur is nestled on the east bank of the Rhine, and at an elevation of 1968 ft is the lowest point on the route of the Glacier Express.

As the train pulls into the modern and bustling railway station, there is a fleeting sense of a brush with urban life complete with high-rise buildings, shopping avenues, and expected conveniences. But these elements belie the city’s astonishing prehistoric roots only a few steps from the station. Settled by Celts over 3,000 years ago, Chur is the oldest city in Switzerland.

Endowed with an amphitheatric setting at the head the Rhine Valley, Chur is also the natural junction of historic trade routes connecting Italy with northern Europe and, as a result, absorbed Rhaetian and Italian influences. It may have been along the route used by the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his elephants during the Punic Wars 2,200 years ago. Even today, its history is more Roman than Germanic.

Rome conquered the region in 15 BC and the settlement became Curia Raetorum. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Chur became the setting of the first Christian bishop north of the Alps, who wielded broad powers over all aspects of local life until the Reformation in 1526.

As you walk up Bahnhofstrasse, which constitutes the modern commercial center of Chur—passing McDonalds, Lacoste, and Benetton—you might as well be in any European city. Then suddenly, just three blocks east of the train station, you pass through the 14th century walls that mark the entrance to the Old Town. This is where the magic of time travel begins.

Overlooking the valley from above Chur with the Weisshorn looming behind
Alpine Beard Winners
Chur City Center

Meandering along cobblestone lanes no wider than they were 700 years ago conjures a euphoric spell of being lost in time. You’ll be lured into shops, taverns, and cafes, all housed in within medieval structures, but don’t miss a chance to relax on an unoccupied bench on a tiny platz to capture the sensory pleasures of trickling fountains, swaying lanterns, and the clatter of footfalls on cobblestone—all within view of the 12th century Katedrale of Chur and the nearby baroque Bishop’s Palace.

Take a moment or two to breathe it all in—the colors, sounds, textures—and you will find yourself drifting through time to what it was like to live in the Middle Ages in Chur.

The Rhine Gorge

The Grand Canyon of Switzerland

The Glacier Express in the Rhine Gorge — Tibert Keller, Rhätische Bahn

Did you just roll your eyes as you read that title smacking of shameless self-promotion? That’s totally understandable. But let’s get a few things straight. First, the Swiss are too subtle for that kind of hyperbole. And secondly, there really isn’t much of a comparison to be made.

But once you’ve passed through the nine-mile long Rhine Gorge, you’ll find enough jaw-dropping features and astounding scenery to admit that the Rhine Gorge is certainly a grand canyon.

The locals call it Ruinaulta, a Romansch word meaning “a heap of rubble” which is apt since the canyon was formed by a massive rockslide of slate—the largest ever in the Alps. Three million cubic meters of rock thundered into the valley at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The Rhine has further sculpted its 650 foot high rock walls into what you see today.

The beauty of this grand canyon is found not in its vastness, depth, or colorful sedimentary strata, but in its raw vitality, with up-sweeping white cliffs, knife-edged ridges, and boldly-cut spires. It’s the kind of stark beauty that sends a travel writer running for a thesaurus.

And on the Glacier Express you’re not crossing the ravine on a bridge or lofty trestle—the train glides right through the heart of the gorge following the sinuous course of a rambunctious Rhine.

The Glacier Express in the Rhine Gorge — Christof Sonderegger, swiss-image.ch

As you steady your camera on the windowsill of your comfy seat on the Glacier Express you experience something increasingly rare for European Travelers—virtually untouched Alpine wilderness. This natural treasure is accessible only by foot, whitewater raft, or serious mountain biking.

In the gorge’s narrows you’ll find rare orchids, endangered bird species, and other unexpected wonders. But of all the surprises you’ll find in the depths of the Rhine Gorge, the greatest might be discovering that this is your favorite leg of the journey.

Disentis

Romance of a Romansch Village

The Glacier Express passing through Disentis with the Benedictine monastery as backdrop — Tilbert Keller, Rhätische Bahn

In baseball, there is a Relief Pitcher. On the Glacier Express, it’s the Relief Engine. The setting may be different, but the reasoning is quite similar. At the critical point in the game, you’ve got to bring in a powerhouse to get the job done.

As you sit in the Disentis rail station, your entire mode of transportation changes. And you probably won’t even realize it as you sip your Rivella and enjoy the alpine scenery.

This is Swiss engineering at its peak. Literally. In order to get you to the top of Oberalp Pass you will need a different crew, different engine, and different technology. And a different railway.

But it’s more than just a name change as you transfer from the Rhaetian Railway to the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn.

Disentis, where this magical transformation takes place, has had political importance and international prominence since the Middle Ages, due to its strategic location.

Yet, its isolation has helped the residents cling tenaciously to their Rhaeto-Romance heritage and Romansch language, which is spoken by over three-fourths of the people there.

Along the route of the Glacier Express — Rhätische Bahn
Along the route of the Glacier Express — Rhätische Bahn

While in Disentis, there is plenty of reason to visit this sparkling gem in Graubünden. The Benedictine monastery there dates back to the 8th century and claims a rich spiritual heritage. Historical records indicate the abbey was visited by Charlemagne in the 9th century.

Subject to fire, vandalism, and plundering over the centuries, its continuing influence is significant. The most substantial restoration in the late 1600s provides a stunning baroque-style edifice that will leave you spiritually refreshed as well as astonished at what was accomplished in this small mountain village.

Oberalp Pass

Cog-wheeling the Pass

The Glacier Express ascending the Oberalp Pass — Robert Boesch, Switzerland Tourism

With the new engine attached, the Glacier Express is about to face the most challenging part of its journey—The Oberalp Pass. With a steep climb of almost a thousand meters followed by an immediate descent of 2000 feet you will experience the most intense elevation change the Glacier Express will have to conquer.

Thankfully, you’re in the care of engineers who understand engineering.

The uphill surge requires totally different technology than what has been used up to this point. But it’s not rocket science. It’s train science. And because it was done right, little has changed in the last 150 years.

You may feel a shift in the train’s movement. The train will slow down, but that’s to be expected—no train can maintain speed while climbing at this steep of an angle. In fact, most trains wouldn’t make this climb at all.

The Glacier Express is specially equipped with a rack-and-pinion wheel system that carries the train up and down the mountain with the brilliance of Swiss engineering. Yes, the same minds that make tiny gears in ultra-precise watches make the cogs and teeth that take your train safely up and down a steep mountainside.

The majority of the world’s railways rely on friction between the train wheels and the rails to propel the train forward. Friction is a powerful ally, but it’s no match for gravity. Downhill is as tough a challenge as uphill. And demands even more exacting expertise.

As you begin your dramatic descent, you can relax knowing that a set of sturdy cogwheels that lock into the jagged teeth along the entire length of track assure your safe arrival in the village of Andermatt.

Andermatt

Crossroads of the Swiss

The Glacier Express passing through Andermatt along the banks of the nascent Unteralpreuss River.

You know that quirky neighbor who seems to host the most interesting guests every night? For Switzerland prior to 1881, that was Andermatt.

Strategically positioned at the crossroads of four different alpine passes and dramatically situated at the foot of Gotthard Pass, travelers journeying through Switzerland stopped here for meals, lodging, respite, and probably directions. Archaeological research has dug up evidence of human habitation since 4000 BC so visitors have been welcome for millennia.

North to South. East to West. Allies and enemies. Unknown and well known. A steady stream of travelers drifted through the inviting village of Andermatt. After a 1779 visit, German philosopher, Goethe, observed, “Of all the places I know, this is the dearest and most interesting to me.”

What did Goethe see that captivated him? That’s hard to say. The dramatic natural beauty of the snow-capped Gotthard Massif rising almost 12,000 feet is breathtaking.

But it could also have been the Altkirch (“old church”), the parish church of St. Columban, at the heart of Andermatt since the 11th century. The preserved stone building, nestled snugly into the hillside, dates to the 13th century.

In the mid-19th century, Andermatt was the last stop before the Gotthard Pass. Adventurers knew they could acquire supplies, sustenance, and perhaps some liquid courage. During this period, Andermatt became its own resort destination with many finding exactly what they were seeking without traveling any further.

Toward the end of the 19th century, an unexpected transformation of this charming village was on the horizon. In 1871, labor began on the construction of the Gotthard rail tunnel with many residents working on the project. The decade-long undertaking offered risky but steady employment. Unforeseen events, especially gushing floods of the tunnel, tragically led to over 200 workers losing their lives.

Sadly, after the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel in 1881, which connected central Switzerland with Airolo, Italy, the fortunes of Andermatt quickly deteriorated. Drilling through the mountain made passage quick and easy, diminishing the town to a footnote rather than a stopover.

Overlooking the Andermatt Valley with the Mariahilf Chapel in the foreground — Andermatt Tourismus
Salbit Suspension Bridge near Andermatt — Andermatt Tourismus
View from the pass entering Andermatt — Andermatt Tourismus
Andermatt in winter — Andermatt Tourismus
A train making its descent into Andermatt — Andermatt Tourismus
A steam engine making its descent into Andermatt. Today Andermatt is only slightly larger than it was in 1920.

No longer the hub of international travel, Andermatt, has been re-deployed as a military installation. Its central location and cultural “welcome mat” makes it the natural choice to host the Swiss Army’s Training Center as well as be a garrison town if armed conflicts arise.

With treeless snow-covered terrain surrounding the town in winter, recent recreation investment has brought back some of the glory days of the past with skiers and hoteliers leading the charge and a new 5-star resort hotel recently opened.

Summer reveals a hiking paradise with miles of mountain trails, challenging via ferrata, and dozens of sparkling alpine lakes awaiting discovery. Andermatt’s role of hosting a world of adventurous travelers is reappearing.

The Furka Region

Avoiding an Avalanche

The Furka Pass in canton Valais — Markus Buehler, swiss-image.ch

Winter 1970. Without warning, another ferocious avalanche capable of swallowing a train rages down the mountainside and slams into the train tracks precariously situated on the Furka Pass.

Electric lines are ripped out. Observers cringe. Journalists record. Engineers wince.

It reaffirms why the Glacier Express Railway closes every winter. It simply is not safe. Not for trains, cargo, or passengers.

Due to the immense and unmanageable risk from avalanche, the Glacier Express ran only in summer months.

But many wondered, “What if you could somehow circumvent the Furka Pass…and the danger?

The thought of year-round use of the Glacier Express was too delicious to disregard. In 1972, the Swiss Parliament made the decision to drill through the mountain. This would eliminate the risks from traveling over the mountain.

Swiss rail engineers, with more than a century of tunnel-building to their credit, saw the challenge as immense but attainable.

Construction on the Furka Tunnel began shortly thereafter with a clear goal and a budget of 79 million Swiss Francs. But as contractors encountered extremely hard rock and unexpected groundwater problems, the project quickly unraveled into a 300 million Franc debacle. Massive cost overruns and construction problems grew into a public scandal which nearly terminated the project.

Cool heads prevail and the ten-year tunnel project was finally complete in 1982—then the longest narrow gauge railway tunnel in the world. Safe winter travel was suddenly possible as the snow-laden Furka Pass was undercut by traveling through the Furka Tunnel.

The Glacier Express passing through fields of globeflowers between the Furka and the Oberalp near Hospental in Canton Uri — Christof Sonderegger, Switzerland Tourism

This 9.5 mile-long tunnel has helped shape the destiny of the Glacier Express and the entire Furka Region. And while it now promises easy navigation through the mountain, it wasn’t an easy undertaking to complete. Not even close.

And you’re part of the happy ending. Both summer and winter travelers are shuttled through the mountain aboard the Glacier Express.

The tunnel is routinely at maximum capacity during the winter months, with much of the traffic dedicated to shuttling cars, trucks, and busses in addition to tourists through the mountain. Without this tunnel, several Swiss cities would grind to a halt during the winter months.

So as you slice briskly through the mountain aboard one of the many trains that rely on this benevolent tunnel, it may be worth it to shout a quick “thank you” out the nearest window. You are riding along on a piece of railway history.

Brig

A Bunk for Napoleon

The Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps, with the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks in the background — Thomas Andenmatten, swiss-image.ch

Really? Well, at least we know that Napoleon built a road here. A significant one. So, one has to assume that Napoleon spent at least one night in Brig. And then bragged.

And who wouldn’t boast about such an accomplishment? The road Napoleon constructed over the Simplon Pass made Brig an even more powerful player in the Alps.

Brig has been around for a long time. Although populated since the Bronze Age, Brig was most likely established by the Bishop of Sion, gaining recognition as a town in the 1300s. Before long it had a district court, tax collection duties, and a growing merchant class.

The wealthiest and most powerful merchant, Baron Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper, known as the “King of Simplon,” turned the Simplon Pass into a river of salt, silk, and precious metals. Among other investments, he owned a gold mine and had a monopoly on salt.

Through speculation, trading, investing, and customs fees from other merchants heading over the Pass he amassed a fortune. Stockalper spoke six languages and hobnobbed with royalty on both sides of the Pass insuring the growth of his personal empire. He left his mark on Brig with an opulent onion-domed Italianate palace known as Stockalper Castle, with towers, courtyard, and exquisite gardens. It is considered by many to be the most important secular baroque building in Switzerland.

Sheep descend from the Alps near Belalp above Brig — Roland Gerth, Switzerland Tourism
Set in the mountains above Brig, Blausee offers unmatched views and outdoor enjoyment in winter and summer — photo courtesy Riederalp Tourismus

In spite of Brig’s wealth, power, and status it was not immune to periods of devastating misfortune. It was damaged by numerous floods of the Rhône and the Saltina rivers. In the 15th century, Brig was hit by at least three bouts of the plague. Later came the pillaging and burning of the city by French troops in 1799.

It was shortly after this French military assault, that Napoleon began the construction of the highway over the Simplon Pass. The purpose of his four-year project was to expedite the movement of artillery during his invasion. In the end, the road outlived the conflict. The creation of this mountain highway assured that not only Napoleon, but other powerful leaders would also sleep here.

Zermatt

Ascent to Fame

The Matterhorn — Anders Gerth

The mid-19th century was the Golden Age of Mountaineering. Nearly every major peak in the Alps had been summited. Some of them numerous times. Yet, one obstinate peak remained: The Matterhorn. The iconic peak defines the Swiss-Italian border and its squared summit lies both in Switzerland and Italy.

The slope, surface and summit seemed more than formidable; the Matterhorn appeared to be unattainable. But there were those who were making plans to conquer this final massive monolith.

All interested parties—British, Swiss, and Italian climbers—knew that the first to reach this spectacular peak would be showered with glory, fame, maybe even fortune. But not the climbers only, there would also be international recognition and valuable tourism revenue to the alpine village below that supported the expedition. Would that be Zermatt in Switzerland or Breuil in Italy?

Like today, planning a mountaineering expedition is an expensive undertaking. Gear, supplies, research, support, and time away from other pursuits. The price would be steep. Little did they know of the price that would be paid.

Car-free Zermatt in the early autumn — Christof Sonderegger, Switzerland Tourism
Zermatt and the Matterhorn under a blanket of snow — Christof Sonderegger, Switzerland Tourism
Still an alpine agricultural village at heart, Valais Blackneck goats graze in high meadows above Zermatt — Zermatt Tourism
The Matterhorn from Stellisee — photo courtesy Zermatt Tourism

Edward Whymper, a British artist and engraver, fell in love with the Alps in 1861 at age 21 and began building his skills, knowledge, and temperament to become a respected mountaineer. Between the years 1861 and 1865 Whymper made nine failed attempts to climb the Matterhorn from Breuil on the Italian side. But he does not give up.

With an Italian team mounting an expedition on the Italian side and Edward Whymper and his cohorts beginning an ascent on the Swiss side, the struggle for the summit begins to unfold. Most believe the climb from the Italian side will prove to be easier and ultimately successful. The Swiss ascent up the Hörnli Ridge appears to be impossible.

But this is where Whymper’s well trained eye as an artist comes in handy. He is convinced that the apparently unclimbable route is merely an optical illusion.

And he is right.

Whymper and his team ascend to the top of the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865, bringing fame to themselves and glory to the tiny alpine village of Zermatt. Oh, the other team eventually makes it to the summit three days later. But no one quite remembers them or their village.

So when the Glacier Express pulls into its final station, it does not arrive in Breuil Italy, but in Zermatt Switzerland. Home of the legendary Matterhorn.