Glacial speed, stupendous scenery
Glacial speed, stupendous scenery

If it were ever to be investigated under a trade descriptions act, the Glacier Express would be hung out to dry.

More train travel:
ELEGANCE MEETS INTRIGUE IN RUSSIA
GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS OF THE WORLD
EUROPE BY ROAD, RAIL AND RIVER
COMO-MILAN BY TRAIN
EUROPE'S RAIL TRAIL

For a start, Europe's most famous scenic rail journey was named after the great Rhone glacier it once cruised past. Now the train takes a different route and you don't even get so much as a glimpse of that famous slab of ice.

Then there is the "express" bit. Well, this is not exactly a bullet train we're talking about here, taking, as it does, more than seven hours to cover 290km at an average speed of 40km/h.

But to be fair, it does also bill itself as the world's slowest express, and why hurry anyway when you have some of the world's most stupendous alpine scenery to savour?

Now in its 81st year, this sublime rail journey runs daily between the famous Swiss mountain resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz. En route it cuts through snow-capped mountain landscapes, deep gorges and lush green valleys - not to mention the 91 tunnels and 291 impressive bridges.

My train pulls out of Zermatt at exactly 10am on a brilliantly sunny October morning. As we begin our journey along the Mattervispa River we get our final glimpse of the mighty Matterhorn, shooting skywards like a huge jagged dog's tooth.

As the delightful train attendants fuss about us serving tea and coffee, the Express descends swiftly to the Mattertal Valley. So steeply, in fact, that sections of the line here are what's called rack and pinion, meaning they have a toothed rack between the rails, to which a cogwheel beneath the train latches on for a surer grip.

In 2005, to celebrate its 75th anniversary, the Glacier Express was given a considerable makeover and new custom-designed panoramic carriages introduced. The windows are the biggest I have ever seen on a train and, together with the glass skylights, provide uninterrupted views of the outrageously beautiful scenery.

There is also a continuous commentary, in umpteen languages, via personal headsets which plug into a socket on every seat. A "bing-bong" tone sounds when our man is about to pipe up, and initially it's all good stuff: the history of the train, the geology of the region, interesting facts and figures.

But as we get further into the journey Mr Commentator Man seems to be struggling for things to say. For example, crossing one of the many spectacular viaducts I find myself listening to a history of the Swiss flag. To be fair, you are not forced to listen and in any case this journey is a feast for the visual, rather than the auditory, senses.

We arrive at Andermatt and there's a rare chance to stretch the legs before lunch is served. The menu is surprisingly extensive, and also pretty expensive, but then is there a restaurant in the world with a more spectacular view, I wonder? The set three-course lunch can be booked and paid for in advance as part of your ticket. Otherwise it costs about $50, while a 500ml bottle of very decent Swiss red wine will set you back an additional $30. It's unmissable, however, and it's hard not to feel very happy with one's lot - tucking into delicious pork in mushroom sauce with mixed veg and cracked wheat - as we begin our ascent to the dramatic Oberalp Pass, 2033m above sea level.

This is the highest point on the route and, until the opening of the Furka base tunnel in the early 1980s, trains had to climb over the top of the exposed pass. It was impossible to keep this section of the line open in mid-winter and it wasn't until 1982 that the route was finally operational year-round. On special occasions during the summer months, steam trains still cover the old route, now bypassed by the tunnel.

More Switzerland:
SWISS ALPS
LAKE GENEVA
MONTREAUX WILL ROCK YOU

The Glacier Express winds through the Swiss countryside. Picture: Jim Gill
After the cheese and biscuits have been cleared away the Express follows the Albula Valley all the way to St Moritz. Quaint alpine villages pepper the vast rounded glacial valleys, corralled by the jagged snowy peaks. The carriage windows are sealed, making photography a bit of a lottery. More often than not, a potentially award-winning landscape is ruined by the glaring reflection of the photographer.

Just before reaching the small town of Filisur there is a buzz of excitement when a train attendant - a live one, mind you, not just our recorded friend - announces that we are just minutes away from crossing the Landwasser viaduct, one of the world's most spectacular and famous railway bridges. The Express hugs the cliff-edge on one mountain, before leaping across the viaduct and diving straight into a tunnel. It's an engineering marvel ... and a photographic impossibility.

We are now in UNESCO World Heritage territory. This part of the track, known as the Rhaetian Railway, became only the third railway in the world to be afforded such status when it was added to the register in 2008.

There's another familiar "bing-bong" and what do you know, our man is giving us the history of the alpine horn, though he does save face a minute or so later by explaining about the incredible route we are now taking. We literally start going round in circles as the Express winds through a series of amazing spiral tunnels somehow cut into the mountains, enabling us to make a rapid ascent as we head up to St Moritz.

Exactly seven-and-a-half hours after leaving Zermatt we finally pull into the world-famous ski resort, my emotions a mix of sadness and elation. But one thing is certain - the Glacier Express has more than lived up to its reputation as one of the world's truly great railway journeys.

Jim Gill is associated with Travel Directors. The Glacier Express is featured in the company's new Rail Across Europe small-group escorted tour. For details call 9242 4200 or visit traveldirectors.com.au.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West