The train ride with the Bernina Express in winter along the Albula railway line is known as one of the most spectacular train experiences. No wonder that this railway line is, with only three others, on the list of the UNESCO-world heritage.
The railway line has been built and opened in sections between 1906 and 1910. The official opening of the entire line was on July 5th in 1910. Right from the beginning, the railway line operated on electric direct current.
It’s the highest railway line over the Alps and a masterpiece of engineering work. To ride through valleys, over tunnels and over deep chasms is a real adventure and a very impressive way to explore the Swiss Alps.
The Bernina Line has to cover a lot of vertical difference on a short horizontal distance but operates without a cogwheel on adhesion only. To artificially extend the railway line, the engineers introduced the spiral viaduct in Brusio. This is one of the highlights along the Bernina line and is a masterpiece of engineering skills.
The Bernina Line was initially planned to operate during the summertime only. But three years after the official opening, the railway commenced winter operations as well. To protect the railway line against the harsh winter conditions and avalanches, a lot of investments were necessary.
The costs of construction and for all the infrastructure extensions have been huge and the operator was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1943 the railway line was taken over by the Rhaetian Railway.
Highlights of the Bernina Express in winter
Chur: In Chur the Rhaetian Railway runs right through the city and it feels more like a tramway than a railway.
Domleschg: The area Domleschg is known for its castles and offers many cultural treasures. The well-known Ortenstein castle is perched high above the valley.
Landwasser Viaduct: The viaduct has a total length of 142 metres and has six arch spans resting on 50 metres high pillars. It’s a masterpiece of historic engineering skills.
Track section between Bergün and Preda: On this section, the Bernina Express has to cover a difference in altitude of 416 metres. The railway line had to be artificially extended and passes through several helical tunnels, viaducts, bridges and protection galleries.
Samedan: Samedan is the main railway junction in the Engadin and the highest airport of Europe is located here as well.
St. Moritz: It’s one of the most famous ski resorts with a lot of luxury and lifestyle
Pontresina: Great, legendary hotels like the Saratz dominate the villages character.
Lago Bianco and Lej Nair: The water of these two lakes flows along the Danube into the Black Sea.
Morteratsch Glacier: In clear weather you can admire the Morteratsch Glacier.
Ospizio Bernina: The train station and restaurant at Ospizio Bernina is the highest of the Rhaetian Railway. It’s located at 2’253 meters above sea and was built around 1925.
Alp Grüm: At Alp Grüm you can enjoy beautiful views of the mountain landscape with the Palü Glacier, Lake Palü and the plain of Cavaglia. The only thing you need is good weather. The railway station and restaurant has been built in the characteristic style in 1923.
Cavaglia station and the powerhouse of Palü: Glacier Garden with stone mills, which where grinded into the rocks by rotating stones over thousands of years. The powerhouse is a centrepiece of the use of water power to produce electricity.
Poschiavo: Poschiavo is the main town of Val Poschiavo and impresses with its stately buildings and palazzi in Renaissance style.
Brusio: The spiral viaduct in Brusio is a masterpiece of engineering skills. The spiral viaduct serves to adjust the altitude of the line within the smallest possible area. Maximum grade combined with maximum radius allows the Bernina Express to fulfil a full 360 degree circle and adjust the altitude with minimal space.
Lago di Poschiavo: The Bernina railway leads directly along the western bank of Lake Poschiavo. The two towns of Le Prese and Miralago are situated right on the lake and are very idyllic. The lake is a result of a prehistoric landslide that blocked the valley.
Tirano: Tirano has some cultural treasures to offer. Historic city walls with gates, towers, castelli and narrow alleys illustrate the rich mediaeval history. Today Tirano is the perfect place for a stopover. Culinary delights await visitors at the many restaurants and bars.
Once more we have been very surprised how huge the price difference for a coffee can be. In Tirano we had a really good espresso for EUR 1.00 and only a few kilometres to the north across the border we have to pay at least EUR 3.30.
Restaurant tip in Tirano
There are many good restaurants and bars you can choose from. We had a great pizza at the Foglio d’Oro in the middle of the old town. The pizza from the wood-fired oven was delicious with a thin crispy base. The house wine was very good and the espresso strong like you can expect it in Italy. You can find Foglio d’Oro at via XX Settembre, 23, 23037 Tirano (SO).
Trip information for the Bernina Express
- Distance (Chur – Tirano): 122 kilometres
- Highest point: 2253 metres above sea level (Ospizio Bernina)
- Lowest point: 429 metres above sea level (Tirano)
- Incline: up to 7%
- Number of tunnels: 55
- Number of viaducts: 196
Travel information for the Bernina Express
The journey from Zurich to Chur takes about 1.5 hours and there is a direct connection.
The Regional train runs once per hour in both directions throughout the whole year. The Bernina Express is fully equipped with panoramic coaches and runs, depending on the season, one to four times a day between St. Moritz or Pontresina and Tirano.
A single journey (1 way) in 2nd class costs CHF 62 or CHF 109 in 1st class. There is an additional seat reservation fee for the observation coaches of CHF 5.
The journey from Chur to Tirano is about 4 to 4.5 hours depending on the connections. You might have to change trains in Pontresina and Samedan depending on the connection. On the ride on the Bernina Express from Tirano to Chur we did not have to change trains and so it was a very relaxed ride. It’s worth to take the side trip from Chur to Arosa and enjoy the lovely landscape.
In summer 2016 we did the Bernina Express again. Check this and see how different the landscape looks like.
You can buy tickets online directly from the Rhaetian Railway website: Rhaetian Railway
For international visitors, the Swiss Travel Pass is a great option if you plan on travelling through Switzerland by local transport. The Swiss Travel Pass is an all-in-one ticket for trains, buses and ships and is valid throughout Switzerland. The Swiss Travel Pass is available online at Swiss Travel System
There are many outlets around the world where you can buy the Swiss Travel Pass. Information on individual countries and sales offices can be found on Swiss Travel System – Where to buy
We really enjoyed the fantastic train ride on the Bernina Express in winter.
The route is spectacular and the landscape extremely varied. The Bernina Express is very comfortable and the service excellent. On the way from Tirano to Chur we had the 1th class panoramic coach for part of the journey to ourselves and the attendant explained us a lot about the Bernina Express and the history of the region.
We have used our Swiss Travel Pass for the trip on the Bernina Express in winter. Many thanks to Swiss Travel System for supporting us.
We assure our readers that we write about our personal experiences and opinion.