by Rail, Bus, Ship, Trolley and Lift
by Erskine Havens - HHav
The Swiss Rail Pass is a good way to see Switzerland
and enjoy the well coordinated Swiss Transportation System. Some of the transportation vehicles covered by
the Swiss Pass include: all national railroads, international railroads within CH (German ICE, Italian Cisalpino
and French TGV), express trains (Glacier, Arosa, Golden Pass, Bernina, William Tell & others),
most private RR’s, lake ships, regional and post busses (which include areas not serviced by rail), s-bahns, city
busses & trolleys in most cities. It also includes discounts on popular attractions such as the train
from Wengen to Jungfraujoch. I reached Zurich on May 1, 2002 (May Day) and bought the 15 day rail pass at
the airport. There was about 5% savings paying with CHF as compared to dollar price in the USA. The
Euro price was 10% less than the CHF.
(Shown below are some of the vehicles covered by the pass)
The Brunig line serves the route from Interlaken
Ost to Luzern (photo on the shores of Brienzsee).
The Italian Cisalpino has three routes into Switzerland from Italy. One route starts at Florence and enters CH at Chiasso and continues through Lugano, Goschenen, Zug, Zurich, Schaffhausen and onto Stuttgart. The second route starts at Venice, enters CH at Brig and continues through Sion, Martigny, Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva. The third route also starts in Venice and goes to Brig but then to Basel rather than Geneva. Seat reservations are required, and the train is covered by the Swiss Pass within CH. I rode the train once, for a short distance. Every seat was filled, and luggage was in the racks, under the seats and in the aisle. I prefer the regional and local trains with fewer people and luggage.
The German ICE is a high speed train that operates extensively in CH. While the train is built for high speeds, the CH tracks are not yet capable of handling speeds that the ICE can reach on special tracks in Germany. I was on a non stop train that averaged 70 MPH (120 K’s). The ICE coaches tilt when entering a curve and adjust back to level when the curve is negotiated. This is a very quiet train. No reservations are required, and the train is covered by the Swiss Pass within CH.
The French TGV (Train à grande vitesse)
was the first high speed train service offered in Europe. It was a natural to implement a route from Paris
to Geneva taking just 3½ hours rather that the usual 9-10 hours with at least two train changes. TGV now
offers additional routes that include Bern, Brig and Zurich. Seat reservations are required, and the train
is covered by the Swiss Pass within CH. I have not used the TGV.
The best known Swiss train is the Glacier Express. There are three RR’s that make up this express line: The Rhatische covers the area from Ste. Moritz to Desentis (about 80 K’s west of Chur); the Furka Oberalp covers Desentis to Brig, and the Brig Visp Zermatt (BVZ) covers Brig to Zermatt. If you are taking the Express, then it is not necessary to change trains between Zermatt and Ste. Mortiz; however, the rail companies will change engines at the beginning of their lines. The Swiss Pass covers the Express, but you must make reservations. No reservations needed on the local trains. The Eurail pass covers only the Rhatische part of the GE Express. The Express runs one or two trains a day, but the non-express trains run every hour. I prefer the non-express trains which are not crowded and you can move around the train, lower windows and access postcard type photo ops. The GE negotiates the steepest inclines with the cog-rail system (like an extra low gear). My favorite part of the GE line is Brig to Desentis operated by Furka Oberalp.
Oberalp snow scene as seen from the Furka Oberalp
While in CH, there was lots of rain (snow in higher
elevations). The snow/rain was so heavy that a land/snow slide damaged the Furka tracks. I found out
about the damage when a rail agent said, “the forest has fallen onto the railroad”. Snow plows and track
repair vehicles were everywhere getting the rails ready to reopen. Since it took five days to repair, I had
to use plan B.
The Golden Pass covers the area from Montreux to Luzern. As soon as the train leaves Montreux it begins a steep climb and you can watch Montreux disappear into the distance. The train continues through Chateau-d’Oex, Gstaad, Spiez, Interlaken, Meiringen and Luzern. This train is also equipped with first class observation and lounge cars. Reservations are required for first class. Second class requires no reservations. My favorite part of the trip is from Interlaken to Luzern.
The Bernina Express (Rhatische Bahn) covers the
Engadine with routes to Tirano (Italy) from Chur and Ste. Moritz. All the routes are covered without cog-rail
but gradual inclining to the highest points. During the summer months the Bernina Express is extended from
Tirano to Lugano (by bus). The train leaves from Chur at 8:45, and the bus from Tirano arrives Lugano at 5:15.
This is a good trip which I thinks compares favorably to the GE. Swiss Pass covers the complete trip.
The Centro Valli line covers the area from Locarno
to Domodossola (Italy). The numerous lakes, bridges and mountains provide some real photo ops. On one
trip a group began to sing in the club car--great music for the duration of the trip. While this route is
not an organized “express” route, it is worth a journey. Swiss Pass covers the route and also covers rail or bus
from Domodosola to Brig.
The St. Bernard route is a train from Martigny to Orsieres. The route continues from Orsieres to Grand-St.Bernard by bus. Both vehicles have large St. Bernard images on the sides. The route is included in the Swiss Pass. I don’t recommend this trip unless you have seen all the other sites. The St. Bernard images on the train/bus looked so good I thought that there must be something atop that mountain just inside the French border. I was disappointed.
An interesting train ride is from Martigny to Chamonix
(France) where you can view Mont Blanc. The train begins a steep climb using the cog rail system immediately after
leaving Martigny station. In a few minutes you will have reached Le Chatelard on the French border where it may
be necessary to change trains to Chamonix. The distance from Le Chatelard to Chamonix is not covered by the Swiss
Pass. This is a nice route that doesn’t take long. Once I saw Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn on the same day.
Engleberg is a resort area about 50 K’s south of
Luzern. The Luzern Stans Engleberg (LSE) rail road serves more than winter sports enthusiasts. It provides transportation
to many people living in the suburbs to their jobs in Luzern. The train runs every hour during the day and
adds a few trains early morning and late afternoon. This train stops at Dallenwil where you can take a lift
that accommodates four persons and two large milk cans up the mountain to the dairy farms. From Dallenwil
you may opt to take the large lift accommodating about two dozen people with no milk cans. On this lift songs and
yodels may break the mountain silence. The train is covered by the Swiss Rail Pass, but the lifts are not covered.
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The Palm Express is a delightful experience starting
in Ste. Mortiz on a modern Postal bus. The bus takes you to Locarno where you board the Centro Valli line to Domodossala
then onto a regional train to Brig which connects to the Glacier Express to Zermatt. This is a long
trip, and I’ve always broken it into two or more parts. The express covers the upper Engadine, Maloja pass,
Ticino, the lakes of Lugano and Maggiore, Centrovalli, Simplon pass and Zermatt (where you can view the Matterhorn).
The postal bus takes a 30 minute rest stop in Menaggio where you can have cappuccino under an umbrella on the lake
shore. Locarno is about mid point of the route. Reservations are required for the Bus--5 CHF. The
entire trip is covered by the Swiss Pass.
The Arosa Express is a short route taking one hour
each way from Chur to Arosa. The Arosa makes several Chur urban stops before heading for the mountains. The
route is scenic, with many bridges spanning deep gorges and streams before reaching Arosa. Arosa is a resort
location with hotels surrounding a mountain lake--reminds me of a miniature Ste. Moritz. This is a good trip
for those with limited time who want to see the scenery from a train rather than the car--give the driver a break.
The Arosa Express is covered by the Swiss Pass and runs every hour.
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The Appenzell Bahn covers the region of Appenzell including St. Gallen south to Appenzell, west to Gossau and east to Altstatten. The Appenzeller is equipped with cog-rail to negotiate some very big grades especially between Gais and Atstatten. This little red mountain train speeds along at 15 K’s per hour. It makes whistle stops which are designated stations where the passenger must signal the train to stop. A person at the station lowers the signal so the engineer will stop. If you have driven in Appenzell you have likely seen the little red train moving along side of the road. I remember the first time I passed the train and thought--wow--I want to ride that train. The village of Appenzell retains the old Swiss culture, with Saturday meetings in the town square, cattle auctions and fresh cheese sold from the farmers truck. Appenzell was the last Swiss canton to allow women to vote (about 1995). Appenzell’s own brewery, Karl Locher, brews helles and dunkel as good as the beers made in Munich. Also unique in eastern CH is the .58 liter bottle used by the brewery. Wow, this is a big bottle--about a half meter tall. I love the Appenzell beer but the cheese is hard and very strong. I asked a store owner for some Emmentaler cheese and was told there was none in Appenzell. The Swiss Rail Pass covers the little red train and no reservations are required. Appenzell is a good place to visit by train or car.
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The Berner Overland Bahn (BOB) has routes from
Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. Coaches for the two villages are combined into one train when
departing Interlaken Ost and then separated at Zweilutschinen. From Grindelwald there is a lift to Kl. Scheidegg
and a train onto Jungfraujoch. From Lauterbrunnen there is a train (Wengernalpbahn) to Wengen, Kl. Scheidegg
and Jungfraujoch and lifts to Mürren and Stechelberg. I stayed in Lauterbrunnen and sat on the hotel
terrace sipping a beer and looking at the majestic Jungfrau. It was a rare evening with a blue sky and no clouds.
I could see the little yellow train ascend the mountain to Wengen. On the return from Mürren I
waited for a bus at Stechelberg on Sunday afternoon. There were about three dozen people eating in a park area.
The food and beverages were prepared by a mobile unit, and the cook was preparing several kinds of meats including
bratwurst--first I’d seem in CH. There were two accordion players that led the group in songs and yodels.
What a fun Sunday afternoon. Swiss Pass holders get a discount on the trip to Jungfraujoch from Kl.
Scheidegg and Wengen. Yodeling not guaranteed.
A service award is deserved by the Bodensee kasse
pictured above. When I boarded the ship he asked for my destination. He then got his timetables out
and routed me by bus and train numbers with departure and arrival times at each city for the rest of the day. I
have included the hand written schedule in my trip book. The Swiss lake ships are relaxing--you can enjoy
the sunshine and sip a favorite beverage or order a meal. We even saw a nude male swimmer that gave the passengers
a full frontal view. My favorite ship route is on the Rhein River between Schaffhausen and Stein a. Rhein. The
trip takes two hours up stream (Schaff. to Stein) but only an hour and 10 minutes downstream. This is a good
trip for people using a rental car. Park the car at the Stein bahnhof, and then everyone can take the trip to Schaffhausen.
The designed driver returns to Stein for the car (by train 15 minutes) while the others shop.
Interlaken separates Brienzsee on the east and
Thunsee on the west. These lakes are very clear with a limestone tint that offer postcard type settings for
photos. It’s easy to do the lake ships as their docks are near the Ost and West train stations. Ships
are also available on the Bodensee and Rhein River, Zurich See, Luzern Sees, Lac Leman (Geneva), Lac de Neuchatel
and Zugger See. These ships are covered by the Swiss Pass.
Thirty three Swiss cities offer s-bahn (where available),
local bus and trolley transportation to Swiss Pass holders.
The Swiss Pass also covers Post and regional busses
where the drivers are very helpful.
Using the trains, ships and busses
is a real treat providing lasting memories. Planning the routes for the next day while browsing the schedules and
sipping a beer in the Swiss outdoors is just slightly behind riding the rails.
The Swiss Pass covers many more facilities than the Eurail but, of course, the boundaries are limited to Switzerland and a few edges of the bordering countries. If you look at a European rail map it’s easy to find Switzerland--just look for the massive group of rail roads--looks like a spider web.
Travel light. It’s more important to pack wisely for train travel than for car. A crew type bag on wheels works well. I limit my bag to 25 pounds--including a little detergent for hand washing clothes. I recommend taking luggage on the trains rather than checking. Select a central location with good train connections such as Brig, you’re 70 minutes to Zermatt, 90 minutes to Interlaken, 120 minutes to Locarno and 40 minutes to Sion. I spent three days in Brig. Chur is another good location.
Switzerland lodging, food and beverages are expensive but the Rail Pass offers real value.