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Crossing the Alps by Bernina Express

A ride on the Bernina Express is a journey of contrasts. It is one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. Raging mountain streams are bridged by spectacular structures and tunnels are dug into sheer rock faces. The route leads through lovely meadows up to rugged peaks and glaciers, along lakes and passes through different climate zones and the Canton's three different language regions in a matter of just over four hours.

Bernina Express on the Brusio viaduct
Brusio circle viaduct in the Poschiavo valley

Important as ever, the Bernina Bahn transports people and goods for over 100 years - surviving two world wars and several recessions. The extraordinary beautiful Albula and Bernina landscape together with the Bernina line became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

Historical and Technical Bits

The Berninabahn (BB) was built between 1906 and 1910 between St. Moritz and Tirano and was independent until 1943, when the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) bought the line due to financial problems.

The Bernina Express route is renowned for its dramatic bridges and spiral tunnels that are necessary to overcome height. The train travels over 196 bridges and through 55 tunnels. Due to the tight turns and spiral tunnels, the length of the Bernina Express is restricted. The single track one metre gauge railway climbs up to the Bernina Hospiz at 2253m / 7,392 feet above sea level and descents into the Poschiavo valley with gradients up to 70 per thousand (7 percent) without the help of rack rails.

Between Alp Grüm and the town of Poschiavo, the line overcomes approximately 1000 meter/3'281 feet difference in altitude on a stretch that measures 5km/3miles as the crow flies. It is the highest adhesion railway in the Alps and one of the steepest adhesion railways in the world. It is the only Swiss Railway that overcomes a main Alpine divide without a vertex tunnel. Needless to say it needed brilliant ideas and more than conventional engineering knowledge to build the line.

The Berninabahn (BB) was created in the heydays of electrically powered railways and runs to this day on a different DC system than the Rhaetina Railway (RhB). Since 2011 it is not necessary anymore to change locomotives in Pontresina. However, the power system still has to be switched.

Bernina Express | Bernina Bus | Bernina Pullman Train
St. Moritz-Venice Tour | Good to Know | Tickets & Passes
Seat Reservations

Bernina Express Route

The Bernina Express connects Graubünden's capital, Chur, with the Engadin and travels over the Bernina pass through the rugged Puschlav valley before crossing into Italy. It not only crosses national borders but three language borders as well: From German to Rumantsch to Italian - all three official languages spoken in Graubünden.

Bernina Express route
Left: Bernina Express route within Switzerland, map adapted from Wikipedia
Right: Bernina Express line from Chur to Lugano (Cantons Graubünden and Ticino) ©RhB

From Switzerland's oldest city - Chur - the Bernina Express follows for a short bit the river Rhine before turning into the Domleschg valley with its farm fields and castles along the river Albula.

Shortly after Filisur, the train has to overcome height by passing through spiral tunnels. It runs across the most imposing bridge on this route - the Landwasser viaduct - before disappearing straight into another tunnel. The train emerges in Spinas where it meets the river Bever and crosses the language border from German to Rumantsch.

Shortly after, the train arrives in the Engadin. The power system has to be switched in Pontresina (now the Bernina line) before the Bernina Express is twisting its way along scenic view points up to the highest point on its journey, the Bernina Hospiz at 2253m / 7,392 ft) above sea level.

Right after the Morteratsch station, the Montebello turn offers great views to the Morteratsch Glacier. Both stations, Diavolezza and Bernina Lagalp, are departure points for cable ways - very popular for hiking and skiing. And of course, the Bernina Glacier is another extraordinary sight.

After the Arlas Gallery (avalanche protection) two small lakes appear, Lej Pitschen and Lei Nair, and directly behind them the Lago Bianco dam which also marks the watershed between the Danube and Po.

The dramatic Bernina landscape is of archaic beauty, pure and untouched - so it seems. But the Lago Bianco (white lake) is actually a manmade water reservoir, where sheets of ice still float late into spring or even early summer.

The train runs along its banks to the Bernina Hospiz. The Rhaetian Railway is thereby the highest railway line in the Alps operating year round.

From here, the red train steadily descents via Alp Grüm through the Poschiavo valley toward Tirano. Alp Grüm marks the last station before the Italian linguistic border. From here, one has great views to Palü Glacier and after the sharp turn following the station Lago Palü (Lake Palü) comes into sight. If one looks back from the shores of Lago Palü one can see three different avalanche protection galleries, the middle one disappearing into a spiral tunnel.

Val Poschiavo in Graubünden
Poschiavo valley

Poschiavo is a lively town with Italian flair and chestnut forests. The small town is unusually rich in history and architecturally interesting. The route continues through the valley and along the river Poschiavino and Lake Poschiavo toward the last viaduct on this journey that helps the line adjust height. The nine-arched circular Brusio viaduct is not the most technically challenging structure on this route, though it has become the landmark of the Bernina line.

Right after crossing the national border but before arriving at Tirano station, the Bernina Express passes the Basilica and shares the road with oncoming traffic.

Bernina Express Bus

From early spring to late fall, the Bernina Express Bus connects the dots with southern Switzerland. The red Bernina Bus operated by the Rhaetian Railway runs through the Veltlin valley - famous for its fine wine - through picturesque villages and along the banks of Lake Como to Lugano.

Bernina Express Bus waiting for passengers
Bernina Express Bus in Tirano

Bernina Pullman Express

The historic Bernina Pullman train, often pulled by the much-loved "Crocodile" locomotive - travels from Pontresina to Tirano. It is a guided tour and only runs frequently. If you are interested, do check travel dates directly on their website. It also can be booked for private groups.

Bernina Pullmann
My niece, ready to dispatch the Bernina Pullman Express

St. Moritz - South Tirol - Venice

Seven World Heritage sites in one journey, from the Alpine village St. Moritz to legendary Venice or visa-versa. This tour on trains and busses is a highlight and a feast for eye and palate. You can do it on your own or as a guided tour. Click here for more information.

Good to Know

    Brochures are ready at the seat Bernina Express Brochure at your seat
  • The Bernina Express runs year round both ways;
  • Bernina Express Bus between Tirano and Lugano is serviced between mid-February to November;
  • Panoramic windows offer unobstructed views;
  • First and second class coaches;
  • There's only a minibar for basic refreshments; no dining car. If you need more than just a snack, there are lots of food stalls and stores in the train station in Chur (and more a short walk from the train station);
  • Commentary provided in different languages along the route as well as a pamphlet with information;
  • You can get a Bernina Certificate for free at the train stations in Chur, Davos, St. Moritz, Poschiavo and Tirano;
  • Regular passenger trains (no panorama windows and no refreshments at all) travel the exact same route year round too. No reservation necessary;
  • The delightful Alpine city of Chur is often neglected by travellers - unfortunately;
  • Pontresina is not as famous as St. Moritz but it's "more Swiss" than its glitzy neighbour. The train station is a bit outside of the village but buses run frequently; wide variety of accommodations;
  • Tirano is a wine growing community. The main attraction is its pilgrimage church "Madonna di Tirano". It's believed that the Madonna appeared here in 1504.

Best Time to Travel

  • The journey is beautiful year-round, though I prefer mid-January to end of April and June to October;
  • A steam snow blower is regularly used in winter. Quite an experience.

Tickets and Rail passes

Seat Reservations

Seat reservations are compulsory. You can make the reservation as early as three month before your actual travel date.

Tip: Make seat reservations from Chur to Tirano on the right side driving direction as far back as possible and you will have a good view to the front of the train disappearing into the Landwasser Viaduct.

Connections in Tirano

  • The Bernina Express Bus between Tirano and Lugano is serviced between mid-February to November;
  • Connecting Italian trains bring you from Tirano to Milano in a couple of hours and beyond;
  • Bus to Edolo and then train to Venice (St. Moritz - Venice route);
  • Or return by Bernina Express or the regular RhB train back to the Engadin and beyond.

Enjoy the journey!

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Panorama Windows
Panorama Windows bring you close to nature
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The imposing Landwasser viaduct
Landwasser viaduct near Filisur

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