We begin Day 14’s Alpine adventure at 08:30 under the magnificent rainbow arches of Milano Centrale Stazione. The route takes us north to Lecco, and then hugs the entire eastern side of the beautiful Lake Como. At Colica, at the northern end of the lake, we head directly east up the the Adda River valley to Tirano and the Swiss border, arriving at 10:50. The ride will have been quite exquisite, but it’s just the hors d’ oeuvres.
We now begin what is, undoubtedly one of the greatest railway rides there is to be had, anywhere, full stop, end of. We wont actually be catching the Bernina Express proper. That train has these so called observation cars with totally self defeating arched windows, useless for taking photographs and even worse for letting the Alpine air in. Instead we catch the 11:27 service to St Moritz, which at this time of year has these open top carriages added on (not bookable fyi, but if there’s a large posse of us we’ll make sure that it’s pulling more than one of these).
The train climbs up the Val Poschiavo to the town of that name, circumnavigating the famous circular Brusio viaduct featured on the banner of this blog, and passing along the west bank of Lago di Poschiavo. It is at this point that the fun really starts. Between Poschiavo and Cavaglia, barely 2.5 km apart, we will climb 700m, and do so on an adhesion railway (i.e no cogs or pulleys, just smooth wheels on smooth track). This is achieved via a series of 180° switch backs, although using very little tunnel (they come in part II). The photo above was taken looking back down the valley you’ve just come up. The line continues to climb up to Lago Blanco and onto the the pass itself at 2,253 metres. You are now simultaneously on the highest adhesion railway in Europe, the highest railway mountain pass of any kind in Europe and the highest point of the Danube river basin. And the highest point of this trip obviously.
And here’s a photo taken by yours truly a few years ago, from the train, of the Morteratsch Glacier valley. There are jaw dropping views all around you at this point. The click through takes you to my photos of the pass
Dropping down the other side, after 2 and a half hours of this spectacular railway, we will arrive at St Moritz at 14:08, on the dot. Not a bad spot for a coffee.
Had enough of mind boggling railways for the day ?. Well hard luck, ‘cos there’s another coming up straight away. At 15:03, at the very moment the second hand of the station clock hits the minute, we will pull out on our journey along the Albula railway to Chur. While the Bernina Pass was all about spectacular glacial views, and a touch of altitude effect, the Albula will redefine any notions you may have previously held about what it’s possible to do with an adhesion railway. After following the valley down north east for a few miles, past Samedan, the line then turns north west up a valley and into a three and a half mile long tunnel. In the process we will have left the Danube river basin for the last time now, and re-entered the Rhine. It is now that this railway beggars belief. Between Preda just on the other side of the Albula tunnel, and Thusis about 13 km down the valley, we will drop over 1,200 metres, or 4,000 feet. In the process we will complete four 360° corkscrews, and what I will call an “omega” where the line loops and kinks back under itself, as it squirrels it’s way through the Alps. The line dives across a series viaducts over ravines, of which the Landwasser viaduct is the most famous. But there are several others that just fly straight into cliff walls, then follow a 180° tunnel, and then fly right back out again into the ravine.
(The Zurich Barcelona sleeper is no more, so we are going to spend the night in Zurich now, and as a result get to do the Oberalp and the Gotthardbahn, more about that in a later post)
We arrive at Chur, a mile or so from the Rhine proper, at 17:02, and by 17:09 we are off again on the train to Zurich. This is the tightest connection of the whole trip, but it is also probably the most reliable, such is the precision that the Swiss run their railways. We set off north down the Rhine valley then swing west along the south shores of the Walensee and then Lake Zurich, arriving at Switzerland’s principal city (but not it’s capital of course) at 18:23.
By 18:32 we are on the train to Geneva, travelling south west. We stop at Bern, the only capital on the entire trip that we don’t at least change trains and have an hour or more to say “we’ve been there”, though you do have 6 minutes just to jump on and off the platform, just for the heck of it. We continue south west, following the Aar and Saarne rivers till we eventually roll out of the Rhine river basin and into the Rhone valley and Lake Geneva at Lausanne, finishing the journey at a quarter past nine, right on sunset.
The World’s Highest/Greatest Railway Rides
The world’s highest railway is of course the Qinghai–Tibet railway, topping 5,072 metres.
The Rio Mulatos-Potosí line in Bolivia, built to bring all that silver out of that mountain, used to be top of the tree, clocking 4,786 m at Cóndor station. You can still do this line I found out, here’s a picture of the rolling stock.
Click through to read about how you can catch The Truss. And I found another blog here with even more pics http://bolivia.for91days.com/2011/06/05/from-sucre-to-potosi-by-train/
The Ferrocarril Central Andino, which runs from Lima to Huancayo manages an astonishing 4,782 metres, which considering it’s 104 years old is pretty damn impressive. There’s some argument as to whether this, or the Bolivia line, was top train before the Tibet Railway came into existence. You can get a “proper” scheduled train up this one though. It will have required a truly supernatural effort on behalf of the guys stoking the steam engines that ran this line to get them up the Andean mountains, a feat that continued into at least the 1980s (the line had a gauge change in 2008/9, thus ending any further chance of the last steam engine they had, a Hunslet 2-8-0 built in Leeds. But it’s possible there could have been steam up it even this century, my research team are currently investigating the issue).
The Jungfraubahn which runs up the inside of the north face of the Eiger, climbs to a mind numbing 3,454 metres, and is easily Europe’s highest. Having done that and felt the effect, I can only wonder at how it feels to get up to Huancayo. By comparison, North America’s best effort is The Pike’s Peak Cog Railway in the USA at a puny 2,002 metres. And apparently the softies in the U.S. only allow you up there for 40 minutes cos they are worried about people passing out.
Ghum in India, near Darjeeling, is India’s top stop at 2,225 m. It’s often claimed to be the highest station in the world, I really don’t know why. Galera station in Peru is at 4,777 m, and Cóndor on the Bolivia line claims to be 9m higher still (though you could argue that to be a station you need to have something approximating a train stopping at it). Top station is now Tanggula on the Tibet line at 5,068m. It usually takes so long to get up to Ghum that you are unlikely to feel much altitude sickness there.
Another incredible Andean railway is the Guayaquil to Quito line, or Empresa de Ferrocarriles Ecuatorianos in Ecuador. This one manages a modest 3,609 m and is currently not fully operational, but they’ve managed to re-open quite a bit of it just for our benefit, including the section to Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) where the train shunts back and forth Darjeeling style. You can actually do this on another of these “Truss” creations. The lines south from Quito and east from Guayaquil have been restored and there is alleged to be a public service out of Quito down to Latacunga.
The Bernina is a mere 2,328 metres. Both the Tibetan and Andean railways, and for that mater the Jungfraubahn, are on a totally different level clearly. The Jungfraujoch train climbs so steeply that I strongly recommend you don’t imitate the hoards of Japanese and Indian tourists up there and instead take things very easy else you will regret it later.
Tibet, and Peru and Bolivia, are still sitting in my in-tray. But size isn’t absolutely everything. The views over the Bernina are in my opinion the best in Switzerland from a train, and the Swiss have an awful lot to offer in the “view out of the window” department. But it is the second stage, the Albula line with it’s spiralling tunnels and viaducts, in conjunction with the Bernina Pass, that gets it my Gold Medal.