Day 11 – the highest railway passage in Europe

Tirano – Pontresina – Samedan – Chur – Basel – Strasbourg – Paris – Lille

Another bucket list day today, and another idea first put into my head when doing projects with Railtrail. The Bernina Express is part of the Rhaetian Railways network of metre gauge railways running in the south east of Switzerland. Some of the better known destinations include St Moritz and Klosters, but I wasn’t there to ski, this was about the journey.

The section of line between Tirano and Thusis is apparently one of only three UNESCO World Heritage Sites on a railway. I’d managed to bag a place in the panoramic carriage which made for some incredible views, but also some dreadful reflections off the windows, as many of the following photos will show. Hopefully it is not too distracting. Next time (there WILL be a next time) I’ll bag a place at the back where the windows can be slid down.

Travelling through the town centre in Tirano

The line begins running through the streets of the town, and immediately starts climbing at an almost unbelievable rate. The maximum gradient of this line is 7%. [Corrected from 1 in 7 – thanks Martin.] I’ve no idea how the trains don’t slide, given there is no rack or other mechanism, but it works.

In no time at all we were climbing the first of a series of spirals which characterise this line. There were stations at all the main settlements as we climbed – this is a commercial passenger service as well as a tourist attraction – the Interrail pass covers this route. I also saw lots of commercial traffic on this line, primarily related to logging, but also goods of various sorts.

The first of the crazy loops to climb towards the summit occurs after passing through the town of Poschiavo. The line zig-zags upwards, usually changing direction in a tunnel.

Bernina Railway above Poschiavo (original map here)

We continued to climbed above the snow line and eventually the summit at Bernina was reached. As the title of this page says, this is the highest railway passage in Europe. There are a handful of higher there-and-back lines but none that are connected on either side of a summit. At every stop, people quickly piled off the train to grab a quick photo and then back on – at one stop there was even a quick snowball fight between members of one very excited family.

At Pontresina, I left the train (which was bound for St Moritz) and took the short connecting line to Samedan. There I joined the surprisingly quiet train to Chur. For me, this was a highlight of the trip, the crazy drop down a seemingly endless run of tunnels, spirals and viaducts between Preda and Bergün. It was often difficult as you saw a section of line way below you how you might get to it, or indeed in which direction you were about to travel along it.

Crazy spirals in and out of tunnels (original map here)

There is a railway museum at Bergün which I will certainly go to on my next visit. This line really is quite an astonishing construction.

At Chur I left this wonderful railway behind, dashed between platforms – very happy to make my 3 minute connection – and headed for Basel. The first task now that I’d made this connection was to rebook my Eurostar to an earlier time, as I wanted to give myself a decent chance of getting home, given the upcoming rail strikes, and also to find a hotel in Lille. (If I’d missed the connection I could only have got to Strasbourg that night, and would very likely have had to spend Saturday night in London.)

Views over the Zürichsee near to Wollerau

As well as mountains, I associate Switzerland with lakes, and this section of the journey had plenty of those. I’ve not visited Switzerland at all before this. It seems very clean, uncluttered and has some lovely countryside. I didn’t see anything of the towns I passed through, though Basel station was lovely.

Dashing in and out of Switzerland in a day meant that there was no need to change currency – this journey would have been so much more complicated without the Euro, which was accepted in the other five countries I visited – though I did buy lunch in Basel using a card.

I was greatly amused by what felt like an ancient first class carriage for the journey to Strasbourg. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it. Yes it was a bit tatty but even new, who ever saw anything styled like this any time since the 40s? The one thing I will say is that the seats were by a distance the most comfortable of the whole journey. I wasn’t surprised to find that there were no power points or wi-fi, though.

Very odd carriage on the Basel – Strasbourg line

I’d bitten the bullet and forked out the €28 supplement to take the TGV for the rest of the trip. I’ve only used one once before, and then only for a relatively low speed journey. To effortlessly fly across France at 200mph was quite exhilarating. A quick change of stations in Paris (7 minute walk between Est & Nord) and I was in my hotel in Lille bang on time after 12 hours amazing travel.

I don’t know Lille well, but may become friends with it over the next month or so. The Eurostar is much cheaper to here than to Paris or Brussels, and it is well connected. It is also a very pleasant town by night.

Home tomorrow (strikes permitting.)

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1 Comment

  1. Celia Lyon

    You are making me so envious Steve. The Bernina railway is a definite bucket list trip for me. I really need to knuckle down to get my planning head on and sort out a Euro rail trip

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