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

The world famous Glacier Express (GEX) is a direct train connecting railway stations of the two major mountain resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz via Andermatt in the central Swiss Alps via Chur, Disentis, Andermatt and Brig. The train is also referred to as the ‘slowest express train in the world’: the journey takes about 8 hours. The train winds its way up to over 2,000m high at the Oberalp Pass, through the unspoilt natural beauty of a landscape of glaciers, ancient forests, rushing mountain streams and valleys, travelling through 91 tunnels and across 291 impressive bridges. The historic section between Thusis and St. Moritz is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Line.

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 “Glacier Express” had grown into Perhaps the most ultimate, impressive and romantic train journey in the world. For nearly 90 years, traveling on the “world’s slowest express train” has been one of the most thrilling – and comfortable – ways to discover the Alps, many tens of thousands from across the world make the journey. The route takes you through the three cantons of Valais, Uri and Graubünden, and offers breathtaking and varied panoramic views. Eight hours of sheer pleasure for your eyes and your palate, too.

The journey begins in chic St. Moritz, birthplace of the Alpine winter vacation. After pulling out of St. Moritz, the train travels through the Albula Tunnel. On the other side, the train rumbles down to Thusis on the Albula Line, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Harmoniously embedded in the landscape, the route is considered the showpiece of the railway era. Several spiral tunnels help the train manage the 1,000-meter hike in altitude. After that, the train passes the “most beautiful place in Switzerland”, the Lai de Palpuogna mountain lake. The Glacier Express then makes its way slowly towards the spa town Chur, via Switzerland’s most famous railway bridge, the Landwasser Viaduct.

The mountain resort Zermatt dominated by the distinctive peak of the Matterhorn. Admire the spectacular panoramic views from the top of the Gornergrat before joining the train for the ride along the scenic BVZ line to the Rhone valley. Take the opportunity to visit the Stockalper palace at Brig, before journeying along the spectacular FO line through the lush countryside of the Goms region. Visit the magnificent Aletsch Glacier, and the picturesque village of Ernen.

With the Gornergrat Bahn and Glacier Paradise, get close to the global mountain icon par excellence, the Toblerone mountain, the Matterhorn near Zermatt. I’ll show you the most beautiful part of the original route of the Glacier Express, namely the journey over the Furka Pass. There, past the Rhone Glacier. But it would be one of the most beautiful moments on the track. The area of the Albula route, where the Rhaetian Railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is particularly fascinating because of the spectacular route, which rattles over dizzying viaducts almost every minute, or disappears into mysterious spiral tunnels.

Further along the route through the Furka Tunnel to emerge into the wild Urseren valley. diversion along the formidable Schöllenen Gorge at Andermatt as the track snakes up the mountainside. Continue the expedition at the Oberalp pass, the summit of the line.

The first Glacier Express started on 30 June 1930 07:30 in Zermatt. Initially, it was operated by three railway companies: the Visp-Zermatt-Bahn (VZ), the Furka Oberalp Bahn (FO), and the RhB. Since 2003, the train has been operated by RhB and the MGB, which arose from a merger between the BVZ and the FO. Since 2017 the Glacier Express AG, owned by the two former operators, runs the train of the same name. Today, many tens of thousands from across the world make the journey annually, proof that the “Glacier Express” had grown into ‘Perhaps the Ultimate Train Experience’.

Over a century ago lovers of travel and the wild “discovered” the Alps, and quiet mountain villages such as Zermatt and St Moritz changed into mondaine centres of health and mountain adventure. Especially after they had been made accessible by the construction of amazing rail links.

The completion of the final portion of the FO in 1926 opened up the Cantons of Valais and Graubünden to further tourist development. In particular, a pathway was laid for the introduction of Kurswagen (through coaches) between Brig and Chur, and between Brig and St. Moritz. The Visp–Zermatt Bahn, later the Brig–Visp–Zermatt Bahn, Furka Oberalp Bahn and the Rhätische Bahn created a direct connection between Wallis and Graubünden. The “Glacier Express” became reality.

In early June 1930, the then Visp–Zermatt Bahn was extended to Brig by the opening of a metre gauge line along the Rhone Valley between Visp and Brig. For the first time, it was feasible to operate through coaches all the way from Zermatt to St. Moritz and return. On 25 June 1930, the first train of such coaches set out from Zermatt to St. Moritz, under the name Glacier Express. The new train’s name honoured the Rhone Glacier, which is near Gletsch, on the Furka Pass. While the BVZ and RhB used electric locomotives, until the 40s the FO used nostalgic steam engines. Because of snow and avalanche dangers the journey over the Furka Bergstrecke below the Rhone glacier, was not possible in winter and thus only used in summer.

In 1981 a Glacier Express era came to an end, with the final closure for the winter of the FO line over the Furka Pass and through the Furka Summit Tunnel, between Oberwald and Gletsch. In June 1982, that FO line was replaced by the newly opened Furka Base Tunnel. As a consequence, the Glacier Express not only became disconnected from its namesake Rhone Glacier, but also could now, for the first time, be operated on a year-round basis.

In 1985 the Glacier Express timetable was completely revised. Between 1986 and 1993, the BVZ and the FO invested nearly 40 million Swiss francs in constructing 18 new first class panorama cars for the train. On 1 January 2003 the BVZ and FO merged under the name Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn or MGB. But the “Glacier Express” remained true to the tradition of luxury and top quality and so remained appealing to the most demanding of passengers. By 2005 more than 250000 passengers were travelling on the Glacier Express each year.

In 2006 a few scenes of the documentary film The Alps were shot inside the train, and further new panorama cars were added to the Glacier Express passenger car fleet. On 7 July 2008, the Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway were jointly recorded in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, under the name Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes. Currently, the Glacier Express is especially popular with tourists from Germany, Japan, and, increasingly, India.

Since 2017 the train is operated by the Glacier Express AG, a cooperation jointly owned by the former operators Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) and Rhaetian Railway (RhB). For much of its journey, it also passes along and through the World Heritage Site known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes.

In 2018, two additional summer services were introduced. Each morning one service departs from Zermatt to Chur, and one service departs from St. Moritz to Brig. These services then travel back in the afternoon. Just in time for the 90th anniversary of the Glacier Express, all panoramic cars are being renovated to ensure passengers have a more comfortable and pleasant journey.

One of the most spectacular railway lines in the world crosses southern Switzerland from Zermatt to St. Moritz over a length of 243 kilometers. No other railway route opens up the magnificent high mountain landscape of the Swiss Alps in such a unique way as the Glacier Express. The scenically breathtaking route, which is also considered a masterpiece of railway construction, runs over 291 bridges and viaducts, through 91 tunnels and over the 2,033-meter-high Oberalp Pass during the almost 8-hour journey.

The journey from Zermatt starts at the dead end of an Alpine valley, the Mattertal, just below the world-renowned Matterhorn at an elevation of 1,606 m (5,269 ft) before it descends to the huge valley of the Valais in Brig. The journey makes an intermediate stop at Andermatt on a secluded high Alpine valley, just to traverse its highest point on the Oberalp Pass at 2,033 m (6,670 ft) in order to descend to its lowest point at Chur at 585 m (1,919 ft). From Chur, the capital of the canton of Graubünden, the GEX backtracks to higher altitudes again in order to reach the resort St. Moritz in a further valley to the south.

The entire line is metre gauge (narrow gauge railway), with 23.9 kilometres using the rack-and-pinion system both for ascending steep grades and to control descent. It traverses the 291-kilometre-long journey through the center of the Swiss Alps, over 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels, such as the 15.4 km-long Furka Tunnel at an elevation of 1,500 m to circumvent the Furka Pass. Previously, before traversing the Albula Range by a tunnel at 1,800 metres, in Filisur travelers can change to a connecting train to reach Davos to the east.

Albula line
Shortly after leaving St. Moritz station (1,775 m or 5,823 ft) in Graubünden, the train passes Samedan and Bever on the high Engadin plateau. There it continues in the Val Bever before entering the Albula Tunnel at 1,815 m (5,955 ft) under the Albula Pass. After the tunnel, the train passes through Preda, the first station in the Albula Valley and continues toward Bergün/Bravuogn. Between these two villages the train has to go through many spirals because of the high difference of altitude within a short distance (400 m or 1,300 ft for 5 km or 3.1 mi).

After another spiral, the train reaches Filisur at the end of the valley at (1,032 m or 3,386 ft). From there, the train passes on the Landwasser Viaduct, the most emblematic landmark of the railway line and continues toward Thusis (720 m or 2,360 ft) where it reaches the Posterior Rhine and follows it to the city of Chur (585 m or 1,919 ft).

Oberalp section
From Chur the train follows back the course of the Rhine through the gorge of Ruinaulta and climbs slowly the valley toward Ilanz (698 m or 2,290 ft), Disentis/Mustér (1,142 m or 3,747 ft) and Sedrun (1,404 m or 4,606 ft). From Sedrun the line becomes steeper to finally reach its summit, the Oberalp Pass at 2,033 m (6,670 ft). From there the train enters the Canton of Uri in Central Switzerland and continues down to Andermatt (1,447 m or 4,747 ft).

Furka section
From Andermatt the train goes forward in the valley called Urseren passing the villages of Hospental (1,452 m or 4,764 ft) and Realp (1,538 m or 5,046 ft). From there the train enters the Furka Base Tunnel, leaving the old railway line which climbs the Furka Pass (operated today by the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway), to emerge in Oberwald (1,368 m or 4,488 ft) in the Goms Valley, in the Canton of Valais. The train then continues toward Brig, following the course of the Rhone, and passes along the villages of Ulrichen (1,346 m or 4,416 ft), Münster-Geschinen (1,359 m or 4,459 ft) and Fiesch (1,049 m or 3,442 ft), before going through another spiral.

Mattertal line
From Brig (678 m or 2,224 ft) the train continues to Visp (651 m or 2,136 ft), then enters the valley of Mattertal and goes up, passing the villages of Stalden (799 m or 2,621 ft), St. Niklaus (1,127 m or 3,698 ft) and Randa (1,408 m or 4,619 ft), where a spectacular debris avalanche completely disconnected the railway and road in 1991. Täsch (1,450 m or 4,760 ft) is an important station as it is the end of the open road, and therefore a terminal for motorists. After a steeper section the train finally arrives in Zermatt at 1,616 m (5,302 ft), after nearly 8 hours of travel.

On board services
Traveling on board the Glacier Express is comfortable. Both 1st and 2nd class coaches have panoramic sealed windows all the way to the roof. The train is air conditioned. Free power sockets and wifi are available and you’ll have access to the infotainment system using your smartphone or tablet. It provides information about the route. The 1st class seats are more spacious as there are only three seats across, versus four in 2nd class.

All panoramic viewing cars in both 1st and 2nd class are air conditioned and offer oversized windows which extend into the roof cove providing all round panoramic views. Along the route, the most important features are described via headphones in English. First class carriages have 36 places: four-seats or two-seats, with tables either side of a central aisle. Second class carriages have 48 places: four-seats with tables either side of a central aisle.

Service staff will take your orders for drinks and lunch, which will all be served to you at your seat. There is also a small bistro with standing tables offering drinks and light snacks. As you gaze out at the stunning alpine panorama, you can choose from a range of culinary specialities and traditional dishes. All meals are freshly prepared on board and served at your seat.

Whether you opt for the dish of the day or a 3-course meal: all dishes are lovingly and freshly prepared every day using carefully selected regional produce. Regional and seasonal, specialities and traditional dishes are a perfect match for the scenery that is passing before your eyes.

The Glacier Express offer the perfect wines from the cantons of Graubünden and Valais to round off your culinary experience. After your meal, a further highlight awaits you: serving staff will pour you one of our range of fine digestifs, including Grappa and Williams, from a height of over 60 cm, while the train is still in motion. You will find a selection of souvenirs available to buy and you can even send a postcard from the train.

Excellence Class
You can now enjoy the premium “Excellence Class” from Glacier Express. With comfortable, guaranteed window seats for the passengers, a dedicated check in desk and a VIP in-carriage bar, this is a fabulous way to enjoy the alpine journey during a special anniversary or birthday celebration. There are no more than 20 passengers in Excellence Class, and they all have window seats. There is a bar area, personal travel guidance, and a premium 7-course lunch. The exclusive carriage has its own concierge, as well as tablets loaded with the Glacier Express “Bordinfotainment”.