Switzerland’s nonstop train

Switzerland is experiencing a healthy tourism rebound from the pandemic. Overnight stays in 2022 have reached 86.6% of 2019 levels thus far, according to Switzerland Tourism data shared with Bloomberg. Now this country of lakes, scenic train journeys and epic mountains has positioned itself to win over more tourists.

Golden pass
Golden pass

This scenic train ride connects central Switzerland with Lake Geneva. Travel all the way from historic Lucerne to Montreaux and enjoy tall mountains, green valleys and endless vineyards.

Starting on Dec. 11, the Golden Pass Express will link three of Switzerland’s major tourist destinations—Montreux, Gstaad and Interlaken—on a three hour and 15-minute journey that crosses into the heart of the Swiss Alps. Put simply: In a single day, you’ll be able to go from having breakfast on Lake Geneva in the west to hitting the highest train station in Europe along the famous Jungfraujoch to standing over the tallest glaciers of Europe. At the very least, you’ll be able to experience Switzerland’s French- and German-speaking lakeside towns on either side of the country, plus the Alps, on a low-stress itinerary.

Directly linking Switzerland’s most visited regions—Montreux’s Lake Geneva, also known as the Swiss Riviera, in the west part of the country, and lakes Thun and Brienz in Interlaken, in the east—has such enormous economic and tourism potential that the idea to create a direct route first emerged in the 19th century, when railway projects were starting to proliferate in Switzerland. There’s a written record of this from 1873, proving that Swiss railway founders were dreaming of this project becoming a reality one day, according to the Montreux-Oberland-Bernese Railway Co. (MOB) behind the new train.

It’s now a gamechanger for international tour operators who send large groups, because they usually avoid connecting train journeys to avoid the logistical nightmare of keeping track of everyone and their luggage transfers, says Jérôme Gachet, communications manager at MOB. Previously, tourists heading from Montreux to Interlaken had to connect at the Zweisimmen station to catch a second train.

“You have Montreux with Lac Clement [Lake Geneva], where you’re not far from the airport in Geneva, and then you have Interlaken, where you’re close to Thun, Lucerne, the Jungfraujoch, and you’re pretty close to Zurich airport,” Gachet explains. “So now we’re expecting a lot of groups: With this new route, they’ll be able to arrive in Zurich and then leave from Geneva.”

A number of Switzerland’s major tourist attractions are also made accessible from either end, including chocolate tasting at Maison Cailler in Montbovon, hiking in the mountainous Stockhorn region or boating on the deep turquoise-colored Lake Thun on a day trip while surrounded by panoramic views of the Swiss Alps.

This nonstop route seemed impossible for decades because the technology didn’t exist for trains to transition across the two types of railway tracks built in Switzerland—a standard European track (4.7 feet wide) and a metric-gauge track (3.2 feet wide), made narrower for ascending in mountainous areas.

The idea finally emerged in 2008 to alter the coaches rather than build new tracks, which had proven cost prohibitive. Thanks to variable gauge-changing bogies placed under the coaches—a mechanism to which a train’s wheels and axels are attached—plus an adapting ramp, the Golden Pass Express train can now transition from the mountain track to the standard track, and vice versa.

But it’s how the changes happen all at once that makes the Golden Pass Express’s technology a first in Europe and globally. When reaching Zweisimmen station, where the tracks go from narrow to wide, the clearance of the coaches adjusts (14 inches to 22 inches), its wheels widen as it’s elevated, and from there, it also goes through a needed change in voltage that requires a change of locomotives. All of this takes place while passengers are on board—and they won’t feel a thing.

The $95 million project was almost entirely imagined and made in Switzerland. But prestigious Italian car and high-speed train design firm PininFarina crafted the Golden Pass Express’s avant-garde look and nose. PininFarina is known for its work on European trains such as the Eurostar e320 and the look of many Ferraris and Maseratis.

Monday’s inaugural passes are sold out, says Gachet, adding that it’s filling up nicely for the weeks ahead. “We’re happy with the reservations we’re seeing, and it’s not yet Christmas school break.”

There will be just two trains per day with a single trip from each direction, one leaving from Montreux and the other from Interlaken, at almost the same time in the morning. Starting on June 11, 2023, the trips will increase to four daily roundtrips.

Epic Views With Local Fare

The Golden Pass Express was designed to immerse passengers in the striking landscapes on this route. You’ll go from soaring views over Lake Geneva as the journey winds its way from Montreux on to rural Chateau-d’Oex, popular for skiing and hot air ballooning, then continue on past forests, alpine chalets, mountains and fields of cows, where you finally descend toward Lac Thun and Brienz in Interlaken.

All 23 coaches and three classes enjoy sweeping panoramic views through nonreflective, oversize windows. But it’s worth splurging for the Prestige Class—a roundtrip fare from Montreux to Interlaken costs $199 per person, plus a $37 booking fee.

These 18 seats are elevated 16 inches for unobstructed viewing. A swivel feature ensures you’re facing in the direction the train is traveling at all times, and the seats can be heated and reclined.

On-board catering for all passengers is sourced from suppliers and breweries in the Bernese Overland region. Sample dried meat from local butcher Buure Metz, Testuz wines and Rugenbrau beers. There’s also alpine caviar from Oona for the Prestige section, made from sturgeon fish bred in mountain spring water.

If you’re wondering about Europe’s looming winter energy crisis, which could affect services such as trains, you can rest easy. Gachet says Switzerland in general has been taking precautions to avoid power cuts, and so far so good—there have been no blackouts. What he does foresee is increased energy costs after 2023, which is when the railway company contract terms are renewed. That might be your cue to get on the train in its first year while the prices are reasonable.

Christmas Markets, Slopes, Parties

The Golden Pass Express hits the rails in time for what’s expected to be the busiest Swiss winter skiing and holiday season since the onset of the pandemic. It’s a chance to visit new local businesses and attractions on the route.

The light-filled Montreux Christmas Market has reopened, ideal for sampling Swiss specialties such as fondue and mulled wine, watching a “flying Santa” zipline on his sleigh above the market and riding the Ferris wheel for panoramic night views. The boutique Hôtellerie de Châtonneyre is a recent addition, offering contemporary rooms overlooking the city.

Gstaad, a celebrity and billionaire winter holiday favorite, is where Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna have partied the yearend holidays away—more precisely at GreenGo, the 70s-inspired nightclub at the historic Gstaad Palace. The club is reopening after a three-year shutdown and celebrating its centennial on Jan. 7, with Grammy award-winning DJ Afrojack from Holland, who’s contributed to tracks by Beyoncé, Ne-Yo and David Guetta, among others, as well as headlined events such as Coachella.

At the family-owned palace hotel itself, reopening on Dec. 20, an expanded outdoor jacuzzi awaits the après-ski crowd, and select rooms have been fully renovated.

In town, Gucci and Louis Vuitton grace Gstaad’s chalet village storefronts, but visitors have the Christmas market in Saanen to look forward to again for traditional Alpine sweet treats and mulled wine, or they can buy last-minute gifts for loved ones, says Andrea Sherz, general manager and owner of Gstaad Palace. “Walking through the different villages of our beloved Saanenland is an incredible way to discover a great variety of local hand craftsmanship,” he says.

The railway company says it can’t predict how many tourists might ride on the Golden Pass Express in its first year. And overall, international travelers’ presence on train routes hasn’t caught up to pre-pandemic levels, says Gachet, and the railway is still suffering from their absence.

“That’s why we’re happy to launch the Golden Pass Express now,” he says. “It was a difficult period, but now we sense there is real interest in this train as something new to offer tourists from all over the world, and for us that’s a good thing.”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.