Full Trip guide of the Bernina Express, Railway Tourism in Switzerland

The Bernina Express is a train connecting Chur (or Davos) in Switzerland to Poschiavo in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy by crossing the Swiss Engadin Alps. The Albula line and the Bernina line on the Bernina Express’s route were jointly declared a World Heritage Site in 2008. The trip on the Bernina Express through this World Heritage Site is a four-hour railway journey across 196 bridges, through 55 tunnels and across the Bernina Pass at 2,253 metres above sea.

Travelling around Switzerland by train is a great option, Switzerland has a fantastic transport system, swift and disturbingly punctual trains, clean buses, and half a dozen different kinds of mountain transport systems, all integrated into a coherent system. Bus and trains in Switzerland are complementary to each other. That way, almost all inhabited villages and towns in Switzerland can be reached by public transport. Even if there is no train or city transit available, the comprehensive PostBus Switzerland network gets you there.

The Bernina Express is operated by the Rhaetian Railway company for the purpose of sightseeing. The Bernina Express is popular with tourists and connects in Tirano with the Post Bus service via Lake Como in Italy to Lugano in Switzerland. For most of its journey, the train also runs along the World Heritage Site known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes.

The starting point is Chur, the capital of the canton of Graubünden and the oldest city in Switzerland. The train follows the rivers Rhine and Albula, passing steep precipices and deep gorges and over no fewer than 144 bridges. Each and every one of them are architectural masterpieces that are more than a century old. After passing the almost six kilometer long Albula tunnel, the train reaches the village of Bever in the Engadin valley.

Get off at the upscale resort of Saint-Moritz, discovers the oldest natural ice bobsleigh track in the world, before stopping off in the Vallée de Joux to meet a watchmaking specialist. Then head for the peak of the Jungfrau, where an incredible train climbs up to 3454 meters above sea level. The journey ends in Lausanne.

It is a mountain railway starting from a region with an alpine climate and serving at its end the town of Tirano located on the border between Switzerland and Italy at 429 meters above sea level with a Mediterranean climate. The journey, made up of 196 bridges and 55 tunnels1,2, takes about 4 hours. For this, he must overcome impressive ramps, especially in the Bernina Pass where they reach 7% without a cog. It also has helical loops, one of which, unique in the world, in the form of a helical viaduct near the village of Brusio.

Like the Glacier Express, this train is equipped with very modern tourist panoramic cars in 1st and 2nd class. It takes the form of an enhanced regional service between Tirano and Chur or Davos: panoramic coaches with enlarged windows and multi-lingual (English, Italian and German) audio guide on board.

The Bernina Express service, which operates all the year round between St. Moritz in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy, is one of the most spectacular railway journeys in the whole of Europe, and a popular ride for visitors of all nationalities. The route was opened between 1908-1910 by the privately owned Bernina Bahn, which was incorporated into the Rhaetian Railway in 1943, and is now part of the extensive network of metre gauge lines which run throughout Canton Graubünden in south-eastern Switzerland.

More than a hundred years ago, Switzerland accomplished a pioneering feat of railway construction: the railway Bernina line was built and thus opened up the Upper Engadine for tourism. Tight turns, breathtaking drops and magnificent views make the 61 kilometer rail link between St. Moritz and Tirano, originally opened in 1906, into one of the most impressive sections of the Rhaetian Railway.

Steep and narrow like no other railway in the world overcomes such steep sections (70 per thousand) and such tight curves (radius 45 m) without cogwheel assistance as the Rhaetian Railway between St. Moritz (1850 m), Bernina Pass (2260 m) and Tirano (420 m). Despite the steep terrain found in the region, the RhB operates entirely with adhesion working, the 1 in 14 gradients on the Bernina being the most taxing in the area.

The 60.69 km long line has always been worked by electric traction, one of the pioneer railways in Switzerland to use this method of propulsion. The original voltage of 750 DC was increased to 1,000 volts DC in the 1930s. However, this is a different system from the remainder of the RhB network and while through services are available between St Moritz and Tirano, Bernina Express trains passing over the Albula line have to pause at Pontresina where a change of locomotive takes place.

After the success of a through coach connection from Chur to Tirano set up in 1969, the Rhaetian Railway introduced the Bernina Express in 1973 as a separate train. In the first few years, the change of locomotives, which was necessary due to the system change between the main network and the Bernina Railway, took place in Samedan, where at the same time any wagons carried to St. Moritz were separated. In Samedan, the two Gem 4/4 dual-powered locomotives took over the train and initially ran under the main network catenary in diesel operation.

Since 1975, the Bernina Express has also been operating south of Pontresina as an express train, so diesel operation had to be maintained as far as Bernina Diavolezza. During the renovation of the Pontresina station in 1981, track 3 was equipped with a reversible switch, so that the locomotive changeover took place there from 1982 and the use of dual-powered locomotives was no longer necessary. The increased demand prompted the Rhaetian Railway to run a second train pair between Chur and Tirano under the name Bernina Express in 1985, which was followed in 1993 by an express train connection between St. Moritz and Tirano.

This train has also been called the Bernina Express since 2006. Finally, in 2007, the Trenino rosso was introduced from Tirano to St. Moritz and back in the afternoon to enable passengers from northern Italy to take a day trip in the panorama car via the Bernina Railway. Since 2008, this pair of trains has also been called the Bernina Express. There is a surcharge for the panorama cars, but the railcars can be used without a surcharge. In Tirano, the onward journey can be made with the Trenord trains in the direction of Sondrio, Lecco and Milan or, since 1994, with a direct bus line to Lugano.

The Albula line was constructed between 1898 and 1904; it has been operated by the Rhaetian Railway since its inauguration. The entire line is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3+3⁄8 in) (metre gauge) and electrified. This train travels on meter gauge track fully adhering to the Rhaetian Railway network, passing through the valley and the Albula tunnel, then over the Bernina Pass (2,253 meters above sea level) offering panoramic exceptional on the Bernina range, the highest peak of 4,000 m in the Eastern Alps.

The railway is unique, blending ideally with the alpine landscapes around the Albula and Bernina Passes. Visitors can delight in the cultural and natural surroundings and enjoy the Alps at their most impressive. The railway line from Thusis – Valposchiavo – Tirano has UNESCO World Heritage status. Thanks to the modern panoramic cars, you will enjoy unrestricted views of the unspoilt Alpine panorama. The most spectacular way to cross the Alps: the Bernina Express from Chur / St. Moritz – Valposchiavo – Tirano links up regions with different languages and cultures.

On the highest railway across the Alps, the Bernina Express climbs up to the glistening glaciers before descending to the palms of Italy far below. This rail link between Northern and Southern Europe builds bridges between regions with different languages and cultures. The train negotiates the 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and inclines of up to 70 per mille with ease. At the highest point on the RhB, 2,253 metres above sea level, you will find the Ospizio Bernina.

Albula line
The train leaves the city of Chur (585 m) in Graubünden and follows the course of the Rhine to Bonaduz (655 m). From there it enters the Domleschg Valley and follows the Posterior Rhine from Rhäzüns (658 m) to Thusis (697 m). The train continues toward Tiefencastel (851 m) following the Albula and then crosses the Landwasser Viaduct before arriving at Filisur (1032 m). Shortly after Filisur the train passes its first spiral tunnel and continues to Bergün/Bravuogn. Between Bergün/Bravuogn (1373 m) and Preda (1789 m), at the end of the valley, the train has to achieve a difference in height of about 400 meters with an horizontal distance of 5 km without using rack-and-pinion, but with many spirals. Then the train enters the Albula Tunnel at 1,815 m under the Albula Pass. It emerges in the Val Bever, where it reaches Bever (1,708 m) on the Engadin plain. The train continues toward Samedan (1,721 m) and arrives at the Pontresina station (1,774 m) in the Val Bernina (Bernina Valley).

Bernina line
The train leaves Pontresina and ascends progressively through the valley to the Bernina Pass over the Morteratsch station (1,896 m), where the glacier and the highest summit of the Eastern Alps, Piz Bernina (4,093 m) are visible. Before arriving at the Bernina Pass, the train stops at Bernina Diavolezza (2,093 m) for cable-car connections to Diavolezza (2,921 m). The Bernina Express reaches the summit at the Ospizio Bernina station at 2,253 meters above Lago Bianco.

Alp Grüm (2,091 m) is the first station south of the Alps, situated above Lago Palü and right below Piz Palü (3,900+ m) and its glacier. After many hairpin turns the train reaches Cavaglia (1,693 m) above the Val Poschiavo, then the Swiss Italian-speaking town of Poschiavo (1,014 meters). The train then follows the course of the Poschiavino and stops at Le Prese (964 m) and Miralago (965 m), both on Lake Poschiavo’s shore. After Miralago it continues its descent toward Brusio (780 m), where it passes the spiral Brusio Viaduct. Shortly after the Italian border at Campocologno (553 m), the Bernina Express ends its journey at Tirano station (430 m).

Helical Viaduct of Brusio
The viaduct in the shape of a helix, with a radius of 70 m and entirely visible throughout its development, makes it possible to gain, in a very small space with a constant slope of 70‰, the thirty meters of altitude necessary to access Brusio station;

Coming from Tirano, once you arrive at Miralago station, the railway line runs along Lake Poschiavo and offers a spectacular panoramic view of the lake and the valley, which opens completely at this point;

Le Prese
For about 1 km, the railway runs on the roadway and vehicles are forced to stop to pass the train in transit; in some places (particularly in the locality of Sant’Antonio), cars brush against the walls of houses facing the street;

After Poschiavo station, the track begins to climb along a very picturesque wooded ridge. This section of the railway line is characterized by a series of narrow hairpin bends having to cross a direct slope which would be on average 70%;

Alp Grüm
From the Alp Grüm station on the side of a steep mountain pasture, it is possible to admire the panorama of the Poschiavo valley and the glaciers that are in front of the station itself;

This station is located at the bottom of the valley of the Morteratsch glacier; from here it is possible to admire the summit of Piz Bernina and the ridge that descends from Piz Bianco.

Seasonal route
During the summer, the Bernina Express comprises a special separate train that travels from Chur to Pontresina with very few stops. In Pontresina, the locomotive is changed (because of the Bernina line’s different electricity current) and the train continues with few stops to Tirano.

During autumn, winter and spring, the Bernina Express comprises several cars that are attached to regional services. From Chur to Samedan, they are part of a RegioExpress train Chur – St. Moritz; from Samedan to Pontresina, they are part of a Regio train Scuol-Tarasp – Pontresina; from Pontresina to Tirano, they are part of a Regio train from St. Moritz – Tirano. Each of these Bernina Express trains includes designated carriages for passengers with only regional train tickets.

Bernina Panorama Winter
In winter, the panoramic cars operate hourly in combination with the regional trains from St. Moritz and Tirano. The panoramic cars offer unobstructed views out over a fairytale winter landscape with snow-capped peaks, glaciers and frozen brooks. The famous stretch of track between St. Moritz and Tirano has UNESCO World Heritage status.

The Bernina Panorama Winter offer promises great prospects: admire the white winter landscape through the extra-large windows of the observation-car trains. Now you can discover the Engadin, the Bernina range and Valposchiavo with nothing in your way. Unimpeded views of the Morteratsch Glacier, Lago Bianco or Valposchiavo: the highest railway line through the Alps snakes its way –without the aid of a rack-and-pinion system – up to the top of the RhB, Ospizio Bernina at 2,253 metres above sea level. Alp Grüm, a unique restaurant that can only be reached by railway, is the perfect place for a midday break.