Switzerland’s Rhaetian Railway (RhB) is the stuff of dreams. Its bright red trains wind through postcard-perfect Alpine vistas with a staggering array of stone and concrete viaducts, spiral tunnels, horseshoe curves, and gravity-defying grades. Its Albula and Bernina lines received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008, making the Rhaetian one of only three railways in the world on the UNESCO list. Its trains stop at storybook villages of wooden chalets and thousand-year-old castles, and roll through blindingly green pastures where sheep, cattle, and goats graze with brass bells on their necks clanging softly. Hiking trails closely follow nearly every kilometer of track, ensuring easy access for photographers and enthusiasts.
The meter-gauge RhB spans 384 kilometers, almost entirely in the Swiss canton of Graubünden—which is only slightly larger than the state of Delaware. You can easily ride the most famous routes in a single day in the comfort of panoramic cars on special site-seeing express trains. But if that’s all you do, you’d miss so much of what makes this railway so remarkable.
I first visited the RhB for two-and-a-half days in early June of 2016 while traveling through central Europe with my wife, Maureen Muldoon. I liked it so much that I came back on my own in September of 2017, again in October 2018, and once more in February 2020—and I hope to return again soon. If you’re thinking of planning a trip, or just want to learn more, I am happy to share what I’ve gleaned from my experiences. Read on.
When to go
Each season has its charm—and potential for unpredictable weather. I have eaten outside on a sun-drenched and unseasonably mild February afternoon, and I have sought shelter from a snowstorm in early September. The weather can change quickly in the mountains, and it helps to have some flexibility in your itinerary.
I would try to avoid the gray-brown days of late winter and early spring, and maybe the peak of the busy summer tourist season in July and August. Late spring and early summer feature snow-capped mountains, verdant foliage, and seemingly endless daylight. (Night photography aficionados take note: some lines will have no trains operating in darkness during the longest days of the year.) Late summer and fall can have idyllic weather, crisp light, and the glory of the larches turning gold—which typically begins in mid-October up around the timberline and washes down the mountainsides and into the valleys well into November. In winter the landscape can be stunning in new snow, the weather can be surprisingly pleasant, and the atmosphere can be downright festive around the region’s many winter sports and Swiss carnival or Fasnacht. Those can also bring crowds to the resort communities—be advised and book well in advance. In popular towns you may even need dinner reservations. Better still, if you’re not skiing or attending a World Economic Forum, avoid the resorts entirely and savor the villages; see more in where to go and stay.
When it comes to trains in different seasons, every line operates at least regular, hourly passenger services year-round. There are more of the special Glacier Express and Bernina Express trains from May through late October, and there’s typically a period from late October until mid December when none of the express trains run at all. During this time, many of the regular trains will carry a couple of the special panorama cars, available to any passenger for a surcharge of CHF 5, payable to the conductor. In the winter, there’s usually one Glacier Express and one Bernina Express each way daily, with additional panorama cars on many of the regular trains. See the section about regular operations for details.
If you want to see a steam locomotive or vintage electric equipment operating, there are several runs throughout the year. See the section below about historic trains for more details.
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Where to go and stay
While you can easily hit the high points of the Albula and Bernina lines in a single day, the communities and landscapes of Graubünden offer much to discover if you can spend a few days—or weeks—exploring them. I use booking.com to find hotels, and I try to follow two rules:
- Avoid the “destination” resort communities of Arosa, Davos, and St. Moritz. They tend to be more expensive, and they lack the rural charm and quaintness of the smaller villages that I have come to enjoy so much.
- Stay in hotels with a rating of at least 8.0 on booking.com—it’s somewhat arbitrary but has served me well. I opt for one- or two-star hotels with an expectation of CHF 80 per night for a single room and CHF 150 per night for two people sharing a double room, including breakfast (and the Swiss continental breakfasts tend to be very good, even in basic hotels).
I have broken each of my rules once; I regretted breaking no. 1, although breaking no. 2 worked out just fine.
Located in a deep valley near the headwaters of the Rhine River, Chur (pronounced core) is one of the oldest settlements in Switzerland, dating back to Roman times and with a compact and alluring old town (altstadt) full of restaurants, bars, and shops. Its population is only 32,000 (as of 2021), but it feels much larger. It is the cantonal capital of Graubünden, terminus of the standard-gauge Swiss Federal Railways (SBB-CFF-FFS, just over an hour from Zürich), and the location of the Rhaetian Railway’s headquarters. Fifteen kilometers to the north is Landquart, home to one of the railway’s two major shop complexes (the other is in Samedan).
Chur is an excellent base. Three major department stores near the station can meet any need you might have (including a replacement camera and tripod; don’t ask). The main boulevard leading away from the station, Bahnhofstrasse (“Train Station Street”), is pedestrian-only and a great place to enjoy a drink or a meal outside on a nice day. From Chur, you can cover the entire RhB network, and you can very conveniently explore the Albula, Sursevla, Arosa, and Prattigau lines.
I have stayed at two hotels in Chur and recommend both of them. Each one is about a ten-minute walk from the main station. These are budget-friendly options (by Swiss standards); a room for one person including breakfast should cost well under CHF 100. They are basic but perfectly adequate.
- The Franziskanner is at the edge of the old town and adjacent to the Arosa Line. It is usually the most affordable option in Chur, and it has private rooms with shared bathrooms. You will have a sink in your room, but be prepared to go down the hall to use the toilet and take a shower. The rooms are small and somewhat dated, but also clean and comfortable. The breakfasts are good, and the restaurant serves lunch and dinner, including excellent fondue at reasonable prices (again, by Swiss standards). Staff members have been helpful in my experiences. I stayed two nights in September 2017 and returned for fondue in February 2020.
- The Drei König is a little closer to the station and a bit more up to date (including a tiny elevator), though the rooms are still on the small side. They are clean, comfortable, and include private (though very compact) bathrooms. When I spent a night there in February 2020, the breakfast was very good with a variety of options, and the staff was helpful.
There are several higher end, more expensive hotels throughout the city, including the glimmering, four-star ABC Swiss Quality Hotel across the street from the train station.
I have stayed at small hotels in villages along the Albula, Davos, Engadine, and Bernina lines, and my notes about them appear below. I have not stayed along the Surselva, Arosa, or Prattigau lines and cannot vouch for any accommodations along them, although I have seen several that look interesting.
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To reach the mountain resort community of Arosa, the 26-kilometer Chur-Arosa Line climbs nearly 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) on grades as steep as six percent. Its engineering highlight is the Langwieser Viaduct (not to be confused with the Landwasser Viaduct on the Albula Line in Filisur), a reinforced concrete structure whose main arch soars 62 meters above the Plessur River. It is located two-thirds of the way up the line just beyond Langwies Station. Two kilometers down from the station is the far less famous but nearly as spectacular Gründjetobel Viaduct. Smaller bridges and tunnels abound, and there’s an impressive series of loops just above Litzirütli Station, where the regular trains pass each other every hour.
Riding the entire line takes an hour in each direction, making it an easy excursion from Chur. Cable cars in Arosa can whisk you up to the surrounding peaks, which are well connected by trails in the summer and feature world-class skiing in the winter.
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Going west from Chur, the Rhaetian Railway heads up the valley of the Rhine River on a double-track main line for 11 kilometers to Reichenau. One track is dual-gauge as far as Domat/Ems to allow standard-gauge freight trains access to the sprawling chemical plant. Just beyond Reichenau-Tamins Station, the Vorderrhein and the Hinterrhein flow together to form the Rhine. After crossing the Hinterrhein, the RhB splits into two single-track lines that follow each fork of the Rhine deeper into the mountains.
One of those lines heads west, up the Vorderrhein, for 50 kilometers through the Surselva Region to Disentis/Mustér. For the first 13 kilometers, the railway traverses the spectacular Rhine Gorge where the Vorderrhein has carved a deep and narrow chasm through breathtaking limestone. A hiking trail closely follows the railway for the length of the gorge, with additional trails switch-backing up to the rims for dizzying views. The stations of Trin, Versam-Safien, and Valendas-Sagogn provide easy access by train. The Spirituelles Zentrum (“spiritual center”) next to the Versam-Safien station has a café and rooms to rent. It looks like an inviting place for a quiet getaway.
After the gorge, the valley widens. Villages cluster along the river and in high meadows before the mountainsides become too steep. The Surselva is one of the few regions in Switzerland where Romansch, the nation’s fourth official language, predominates. It is a direct descendent of Latin, tracing the roots of the earliest settlers of what is now Graubünden. Listen for it in train announcements and conversations.
The tracks soon reach Ilanz, largest community on the line with a population of just under 5,000. The route has climbed less than 100 meters in elevation so far, but the grade soon intensifies to gain more than 400 meters over the rest of its length. After crossing the river at Rueun, the line climbs along the northern side of the valley on grades as steep as 2.7 percent. The stations of Rabius-Surrein and Sumvitg-Cumpadials have two names each because each station serves two communities, one located down near the river and another located higher up the mountainside.
West of Sumvitg-Cumpadials, the railway crosses a series viaducts, capped by the towering Val-Russein next to two road bridges: the modern concrete arch highway bridge and the original wood covered bridge, which remains open to pedestrian traffic. The location, Punt Russein, is well worth a visit. The 482 PostBus makes a few stops on most days, or you can walk from Sumvitg-Cumpadials. Do not use the narrow, shoulder-less Highway 19. From the station, take the road leading west, cross under the tracks, head down through the village of Cumpadials to the river, and then follow the trails (map).
Disentis/Mustér is the western end of the Rhaetian Railway network, but not the end of track. The Matterhorn Gotthard Railway (MGB), also meter gauge, begins here and runs 90 miles southwest to Zermatt, gateway to Switzerland’s most iconic mountain, the Matterhorn. Glacier Express trains run straight through after changing locomotives. Regular trains on both the RhB and the MGB are timed for convenient connections in Distentis/Mustér, typically requiring only a short walk down the platform. If you have time in Disentis/Mustér, consider a visit to the Disentis Abbey, a short walk uphill from the station and one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in Switzerland.
Note that the MGB connects to the Gotthard Railway via a short (and stunning) branch line from Andermatt, and to the BLS Railway in Brig and Visp. The journey across the MGB rivals the RhB for spectacular scenery and engineering, and it is a convenient option for east-west travel across southern Switzerland.
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On a route filled with superlatives, the most spectacular section of the Albula Line is between Bergün and Preda, where three horseshoe curves, three spiral tunnels, and half-a-dozen large stone viaducts lift the railway 443 meters (1,453 feet) on a 3.5-percent grade over a crow-flies distance of less than seven kilometers (four miles).
Here, an InterRegio train is crossing the Albula II Viaduct. Ten minutes earlier, it departed from Bergün in the background at upper left. The train has already climbed through two horseshoe curves and one spiral tunnel. It will soon pass under the Albula III Viaduct at lower right, go through the second spiral tunnel, emerge from the portal visible at far right, cross the Albula III Viaduct, and disappear behind the trees at bottom. From there, it will traverse the third horseshoe curve, cross the Albula IV Viaduct, pass through the third spiral tunnel, and emerge on a rocky shelf for the final kilometer to Preda.
The Albula Line proper begins at Thusis, 25 kilometers south-southwest of Chur. After running south up the Hinterrhein River from Tamins, the tracks bend east into the narrow valley of the Albula River. Between Tamins and Thusis, the valley of the Hinterrhein is broad, deep, and castle-studded. So far, I have only ridden through it by train, but Rhäzüns and Ortenstein castles look particularly intriguing. The valley is also highly developed, and S-Bahn suburban trains run as far as south Thusis.
Three kilometers east of Thusis in the adjacent municipality of Sils im Domleschg, the tracks pass almost directly under the ruins of 12th-century Campbell Castle. You can get there on foot from the station through a mix of trails and roads (map). I suspect it would be a pleasant walk in nice weather; my only experience was in the pouring rain. Yet that only added to the mysterious atmosphere of the deserted ruins.
At this strategic location at the junction of two valleys, two more castles punctuate the cliffs above Sils. Ehrenfels Castle sits just above the tracks halfway between the Thusis station and Campbell Castle. Built in the early 13th century, Ehrenfels is fully restored and now a youth hostel. Closer to Thusis and much higher are the ruins of 11th-century Hohenrätien Castle, which promises dizzying views into the valleys below. You can walk there from the station via a steep, two-kilometer trail (map) that remains on my to-do list.
East of Campbell Castle, the railway heads up the Albula River through a deep, narrow, rugged gorge, vying for space with the highway, which runs almost directly above the tracks. The valley opens up again in five kilometers at the village of Solis, where the tracks vault across the Albula River on the towering Solis Viaduct, highest on the Rhaetian at 89 meters (292 feet). Trains do not stop at Solis, but a few PostBuses do. They are on line 521 and connect with trains at Thusis. I have heard that reservations are required, but I have not ridden any of these buses.
Other than riding through it by train, my one visit to Solis was on foot, a five-kilometer hike each way on a trail from Tiefencastle, the next station to the east. Tiefencastle is a pretty village where the Gelgia River falls out of a narrow valley in the mountains to the south and enters the Albula. Two hotels in the compact downtown look like inviting places to eat and stay, but I have always opted for accommodations further up the line.
Filisur is where the Albula Line becomings truly stunning, with a spiral tunnel just east of the station and the world-famous Landwasser Viaduct located one kilometer to the west. The Davos Line connects here, and each hour, on the hour, a symphony of three trains meeting and connecting plays out at the station.
The closest viewing point of the Landwasser Viaduct is an easy 15-20 minute walk (map) northwest from the station. The “classic” spot is across the valley, a 35-40 minute walk (map) that includes some steep sections. Riding one stop from Filisur up the Davos Line will take you over the Wiesener Viaduct to Davos Wiesen, where you can disembark and take a dizzying walk back across the viaduct on a dedicated hiking trail. Both the Filisur and Davos Wiesen stations have cafés with outdoor seating.
- Hotel Grischuna is the place to stay in Filisur, although I have never had the pleasure. The hotel is next to the tracks, just up the Albula Line from the station, and some of the rooms have balconies with a view of the railway. I have eaten two dinners at the restaurant, and found both the food and the service to be of high quality (not to mention the views).
Since the Grischuna was fully booked on both of my stays in Filisur, I have used two other hotels there and recommend both of them for their clean and comfortable rooms with good breakfasts. Both hotels are located downhill from the station in the middle of town, and they are across the street from one another. You can take a short (less than a ¼-mile) but steep path down from the station or use the winding road for a longer but more gradual descent.
- Hotel Rhätia is smaller and more traditional, with local specialty foods in its restaurant. I spent a pleasant night there in 2017 in a single room with a shared bathroom.
- Hotel Schöntal is larger and more modern; the owner’s wife is Chinese and the restaurant sometimes features Chinese cuisine, which can be nice for culinary variety, especially towards the middle of a trip. Maureen and I stayed there for one night in 2016 in a double room with a private bath, and we particularly enjoyed waking up to the sound of cowbells ringing softly from across the valley and sampling cheeses from the same farm at breakfast.
Once I broke my rule of not staying in the “destination” resort communities by spending three nights in Davos at the end of my fall trip in 2018. I found a reasonably-priced and perfectly adequate room at the Hotel Frieden, just down the street from the Davos Platz station. It was fine, the location was quite convenient, and the owner could not have been more accommodating, but Davos lacks the charm that so many of the villages exude.
Bergün is at the bottom of the most spectacular section of the Albula Line, which ascends a 3.5-percent grade in a series of two horseshoe curves immediately to the east of town. Above them, the track keeps climbing while clinging to the side of a mountain through the siding of Muot before going through a disorienting series of three spiral tunnels and another horseshoe curve while crossing several stone viaducts. At the top of the grade is Preda, western entrance of the 5.9-kilometer Albula Tunnel. The RhB is currently building a parallel replacement tunnel, and an exhibition next to the station describes the history of the original 1903 tunnel as well as the construction of the new one. A hiking trail connects Preda with Bergün, offering several great views of the spiral tunnels and multilingual interpretative signs along the way. Other roads and paths leading into the hills up from Bergün offer good views of the horseshoe curves.
I have stayed at three hotels in the region:
- Hotel Ladina is next to the Bergün Station and blends traditional styling with modern design. I greatly enjoyed my six-night stay in 2017 in a quirky single room on the top floor with a private bathroom and view of the tracks for CHF 90 per night that included an exceptional breakfast. Dinners in the restaurant were equally tasty.
- Hotel Piz Ela is in the center of town, a five-minute walk down from the station. It’s a bit dated with simple accommodations including shared bathrooms and a rating of just 6.9 on booking.com, the one time I deviated from my 8.0 rating policy. With low expectations, I found it perfectly comfortable for a two-night winter stay in 2020 when everything else was either booked or far more expensive. My single room was CHF 73 per night and did not include breakfast, but the Italian restaurant served excellent pizza and the receptionist was friendly and helpful. A bakery on the nearby town square took care of coffee and pastries in the mornings, and there’s a grocery store next door to it. The WiFi at Piz Ela, however, was quite spotty in my room on the top floor, although it was fine in the restaurant.
- Hotel Preda Kulm, located about a kilometer down from the Preda station, offered one of the warmest welcomes I have ever received when I came for two nights in 2017. The owner is a native of the region who has lived and traveled abroad extensively. She even invited me to join her family for dinner on a slow night. The food was good, the room was comfortable, and the setting is one of the most tranquil I have experienced—and that’s in a region where tranquility abounds.
There are several more options in Bergün, including the stately Kurhaus that has intrigued me with each passing.
Don’t miss the excellent Albula Railway Museum at the Bergün station, which presents a history of the Rhaetian Railway through compelling design and a thoughtful mix of context and detail. Text on the panels and labels presents the history in four languages, including English. The hand-built O-scale model railway on the ground floor features exceptionally-detailed structures and rolling stock. The preserved “crocodile” locomotive outside hosts a “driver simulator” that is sometimes opened for an additional price.
Go sledding on the one-lane, twisting mountain road linking Bergün and Preda. It closes each winter to become a five-kilometer toboggan run with the railway serving as the lift. You can rent a sled, purchase a ticket (either for one run or a day pass), take your sled on the train up to Preda, and slide back down to Bergün. In addition to the regular, hourly trains, the railway also runs a sledding special to provide service every 30 minutes. Halfway down the run, you can stop at the Snow Castle next to a viaduct for a drink or a snack. There’s a festive winter atmosphere in Bergün, which also has a second, more challenging toboggan run and several ski slopes (served by regular chairlifts).
Samedan is an excellent base for exploring the Albula, Engadine, and Bernina lines. It is also the location of one of the Rhaetian’s two main shops (the other is in Landquart) and a major freight terminal, so railway activity abounds. It is also close enough to the resort community of St. Moritz that hotel prices tend to run a bit higher than elsewhere on the system.
- The Hotel Terminus is directly across the street from the station with well-kept, decently-proportioned rooms with private baths. There’s a good restaurant on the ground floor whose kitchen stays open until 2200–an hour later than many restaurants in the area and a prime option if you need a late meal. I spent two nights there in winter 2020 for CHF 150 per night in a double room. That’s significantly more than usual for me, but the location was worth it. That was during ski season; prices might be lower at other times.
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If you don’t need the convenient location of Samedan, several villages located down the valley of the heartbreakingly-beautiful Engadine offer some wonderful accommodations.
I have stayed twice in Zuoz, for four nights each time. Neither stay was long enough.
- The Hotel Klarer is on the town square in a traditional Engadine building that is 500 years old with walls nearly two feet thick. It is uphill from the station, about a ten-minute walk. I had a simple and comfortable single room (with shared bathroom) on the top floor overlooking the square in fall 2018; the price including a good breakfast was about CHF 70 per night. Dinners were good, too, and the staff was helpful. Be forewarned that the church clock directly across the square rings on the quarter-hour, with a particularly boisterous wake up call at 0500 sharp, seven days per week. This makes it quite easy to be in position for sunrise photographs!
- Gasthaus Convict Zuoz is in a modern building just down the street from the station. It is in some ways more like a hostel than a hotel, although the rooms are private. Bathrooms are shared, and additional facilities include laundry and a large common area. Breakfasts are simple but adequate, and included in the room prices—which are about as low as you will find along the Rhaetian. I paid CHF 60 per night in winter 2020 in the middle of ski season, and prices do not seem to fluctuate. The owner was very helpful, and even though the reception desk is only open for a few hours in the morning and evening, I had no problem arranging for a late check-in and early check-out by writing in advance. And, for what it’s worth, you can still hear the town clock, but from sufficient distance to make it peaceful rather than insistent.
If you want to splurge on a nice meal in Zuoz featuring local and seasonal ingredients, go to Dorta, located just down the hill from the station. It will hurt your budget (although there is no such thing as a cheap dinner in Switzerland), but you will not regret it.
Further down the valley, Cinuos-chel is right between two large viaducts, including one spanning the Inn (En) River, and the place to start a hike on the trail that runs above the tracks through the rugged gorge to Zernez. I have not stayed in Cinuos-chel, but twice I had dinner at the Hotel Veduta, just across the street from the train station (which is called Cinuos-chel-Brail since it also serves the nearby village of Brail). I enjoyed the food, atmosphere, and staff, and would not hesitate to stay there. Prices seem reasonable.
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Ardez, near the end of the Engadine Line, is a stunning crown jewel of a town with two churches and the keep of a ruined castle perched atop a hill.
- The spotless B&B Chasa Arfusch was my home for three nights in the fall of 2018, where I had a wonderful room (with a private bath but not breakfast) overlooking the town, valley, and railway for about CHF 90 per night. It is part of Schorta’s Alvetern Hotel across the street. The steep climb up from the station is well worth it. I opted against adding breakfast in favor of early-morning photography; a Volg grocery store just down the street ensured I didn’t go hungry in the mornings, but I suspect the hotel breakfasts would have been amazing. Both of the dinners I had in Schorta’s were phenomenal, including an Italian buffet that remains among my best meals in Switzerland.
Scuol-Tarasp is the end of the line. I have not stayed there, but I had a good dinner at the Hotel Bellaval Scuol just beyond the station. Scuol is home to one of the largest hot springs and spas in the region, but I have not investigated it yet. I have taken the connecting 923 Post Bus up to Tarasp and hiked around the castle, which is the best in Graubünden and among the more impressive in all of Switzerland.
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World War I put an end to plans to extend the railway down the valley into Austria and the standard-gauge Arlberg Railway at Landeck. A combination of two buses makes the connection a few times per day, offering an intriguing “backdoor” option to or from the Rhaetian Railway.
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For most of my explorations of the Bernina Line, I set out from hotels in the Engadine. On my first trip in 2016, however, Maureen and I spent a memorable night in the station hotel (located inside the station building) at Alp Grüm. The location near the top of the pass offers a breathtaking view into the Val Poschiavo opening towards Italy, and hiking trails lead into the mountains in every direction. The rooms are clean, neat, and comfortable inside two-foot-thick stone walls, and the restaurant serves simple but tasty regional cuisine. Our double room with a private bath and breakfast cost CHF 160.
This is one location where I have felt the language barrier a bit, as most of the staff members speak Italian or the local Romansch, but not much English. We nearly missed dinner on account of that, thinking our meal time was 20:00 when in fact that was when food service ended. (And there are no other options, nor any way out after the last train except by a very long hike.) But a staff member found us wandering around outside and encouraged us to come in if we wanted to eat.
While I have not stayed at the summit of Ospizio Bernina, the Albergo Ospizio Bernina located up the hill from the station twice fed me wonderful meals that sustained long days of snowshoeing on the pass. The first time, I arrived in the middle of the afternoon when the kitchen was closed, but the kind receptionist made me a grilled cheese sandwich with prosciutto that could have earned a Michelin star after four miles on snowshoes above 7,000 feet. I returned later in the week during normal lunch hours and came away equally satisfied. I would not hesitate to stay there given the opportunity on a future trip.
Once off the pass (via a spaghetti bowl of looping tracks down a seven-percent grade) and into the Val Poschiavo, several villages in the Italian-speaking part of Graubünden look to offer pleasant rooms at somewhat lower prices than in the north, not to mention excellent Italian cuisine. But I prefer being up in the mountains and the higher valleys, and so I have not tried any of them—with the notable exception of a delicious Italian lunch in Brusio, location of the spiral viaduct that is the signature structure of the Bernina Line.
The Rhaetian Railway ends just across the border in the Italian city of Tirano, where Milan is three hours away via the standard-gauge Trenord that runs past villa-studded Lake Como. The Trenord station is directly across from the Rhaetian Railway terminal, with timely connections in both directions. Tirano itself is well-worth exploring. Walk 15 minutes back to the old town square, where the Rhaetian tracks run down the street and pass the lofty tower of the Santuario Madonna di Tirano. Be sure to have a look inside.
If you’re up for a hike, wind your way back through the buildings to the river, cross it on the modern footbridge, and head up through the terraced vineyards to the Xenodochio di Santa Perpetua for panoramic views of the city and its confluence of valleys. Back in town, any number of sidewalk cafés and restaurants, including a few on the same square as the railway stations, will replenish you with pasta or pizza and wine.
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The Rhaetian Railways’s stable of historic equipment includes a number of steam and electric locomotives, many of which operate regularly. Check the Steam & Nostalgic Rides page on the Rhaetian Railway website for current information.
- G 3/4 (2-6-0T) no. 1 Rhaetia (under restoration)
- G 3/4 (2-6-0T) no. 11, Heidi
- G 4/5 (2-8-0) no. 107, Albula
- G 4/5 (2-8-0) no. 108, Engiadina
- Xrot 9213 (0-6-6-0) rotary snowplow
Left: G 4/5 no. 107 leads an excursion train out of the station at Sumvitg-Cumpadials during a Surselva trip from Landquart to Disentis-Mustér and back in February 2020.
Regular steam operations feature one of the G 4/5 locomotives, which typically run the following trips each year on Sundays:
- Early February, Engadine, Samedan to Scuol-Tarasp round trip
- Mid February, Surselva, Landquart to Disentis-Mustér round trip
- Mid May, Mother’s Day, Landquart-Chur-Filisur-Davos-Landquart circle trip, counterclockwise
- Mid August, Landquart-Davos-Filisur-Chur-Landquart circle trip, clockwise and up the 4.5-percent grade from Klosters Platz to Davos Wolfgang, generally requiring a doubleheader of both G 4/5 locomotives
- Mid September, Surselva, Landquart to Disentis-Mustér round trip
- Mid October, Engadine, Samedan to Scuol-Tarasp round trip
- Mid December, Christmas, Landquart to Valendas-Sagogn “holiday light” round trips
Additionally, on the last Sunday of February, the Xrot 9213 rotary snowplow typically runs a specially-chartered trip on the Bernina Line with several photo runbys between Pontresina and Alp Grüm and return. Tickets go on sale in August and tend to sell out quickly.
- Bernina crocodile no. 182
- Ge 2/4 no. 222
- Ge 4/6 no. 353
- Ge 6/6 I no. 414 (Rhaetian crocodile)
- Ge 6/6 I no. 415 (Rhaetian crocodile)
Right: Rhaetian “Crocodile” Ge 6/6 I no. 415 pulls the Glacier Pullman Express up the 3.5-percent grade out of Bergün in September 2017.
One of the Ge 6/6 I crocodiles has been running for the past few years between Davos Platz and Filisur from early May to late October. Using a mix of historic and open panoramic cars, the train makes two round trips daily, replacing a pair of regular trains on the line in the late morning and afternoon.
A few times each summer, one of the Ge 6/6 I crocodiles pulls the elegant Glacier Pullman Express on the portion of its journey between St. Moritz and Disentis-Mustér. The train, which consists of elegant blue-and-cream Pullman parlor cars, continues to and from Zermatt on the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway. On the Rhaetian Railway, it typically goes north from St. Moritz to Disentis-Mustér on a Friday, and then returns in the opposite direction on the following Monday, spending the weekend on the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway.
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Albula Experience trains generally make a round trip over the Albula Line on a few summer Sundays, typically with a crocodile for power.
One of the crocodiles also pulls a few special family-oriented trains each year featuring the children’s conductor character Clá Ferovia.
Other trains with historic rolling stock operate throughout the year for private charters and other special events. Join Club 1889, the Rhaetian Railway’s volunteer historical society, to receive updates.
If you plan on photographing any of these special trains without buying a ticket to ride them, remember that it still takes time, effort, and real money to keep them running. Support these efforts by joining Club 1889 and purchasing the annual FairFoto Pass, which enables photographers to support restoration efforts without riding the special trains.
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Download up-to-date, graphic timetables that show “string diagrams” of the trains on each line at the remarkable fahrplanfelder.ch website (look near the bottom of the list for RhB1 – RhB6). Stations appear on the vertical axis, times on the horizontal axis. The diagonal lines (“strings”) are the trains, with black for regular passenger, blue for freight, and purple for special expresses. Light gray lines indicate light engines or empty stock (“deadhead”) moves.
Take note that while the string diagrams show all possible train movements, not all trains run on each day.
- Freight trains typically run on weekdays, with a few Saturday runs and several conditional runs that only happen on an as-needed basis. Freight trains can also run ahead of schedule depending on traffic, sometimes by thirty minutes or more. Very short trains or trains with no cars sometimes happen.
- The Glacier and Bernina expresses follow seasonal timetables, with most services running from May through October.
- Some commuter passenger trains run only on weekdays; some passenger trains geared toward recreational activities run only on weekends.
Big changes are coming to the Rhaetian Railway’s equipment beginning in 2021. Stadler Rail is supplying the RhB with 56 new ABe 4/12 “Capricorn” railcars, the largest order for rolling stock in the railway’s history. They feature fully-automated coupling systems that allow the cars to separate and combine at key junctions. Their entry into regular service will allow the railway to retire more of its older equipment.
Listings of daily locomotive assignments are available by joining the RhB Club; annual membership benefits include a 1st class, one-day pass for a day of travel on the railway.
On the Albula Line, with the exception of a few early morning and late evening services, the regular, hourly trains consist of six-unit Alvra coaches plus a cab car on the end facing Chur and the power on the end facing St. Moritz. Power is either a Ge 4/4 III locomotive or an ABe 8/12 “Allegra” railcar.
Nine scheduled freight trains run on each weekday, typically with a Ge 6/6 II locomotive as of early 2021. Note that these historic electrics, built in 1958 and 1965, will likely be retired by the end of 2021.
Up to four pairs of Glacier Express trains and two pairs of the Bernina Express can run daily. The Glacier trains are typically five white panorama cars with a red car bearing the logo in the middle. Ge 4/4 II locomotives typically pull these trains. The Bernina trains run with five or six red panorama cars pulled by Allegra railcars, which have dual voltage capability to run on both the Bernina Line’s 1,000-volt D.C. system and the 11,000-volt A.C. system of the Albula Line. Watch for the voltage change in Pontresina: the D.C. pantagraphs are on the front and rear car, with a single A.C. pantagraph on the middle car. One pair of Bernina Express trains runs daily over the length of the Albula Line for most of the year, while a second pair runs daily to and from Landquart via Davos, joining the Albula Line at Filisur.
While the Albula Line technically begins in Thusis, I also include the segment between Chur and Thusis, which hosts all of the above trains in addition to S-Bahn suburban commuter services with ABe 4/16 railcars.
The Surselva Line splits off from the Albula Line at Reichenau-Tamins and heads west through the Rhine Gorge to Ilanz and then up the valley to Disentis-Mustér and a connection with the Matterhorn-Gotthard Railway to Zermatt.
The regular, hourly passenger trains run all the way between Disentis-Mustér and Scuol-Tarasp in the Lower Engadine. They generally consist of older coaches pulled by Ge 4/4 II locomotives. Additional commuter trains run as far as Ilanz.
All of the Glacier Express trains that run over the Albula Line also run over the Surselva Line. Their locomotives change ends during the station stop at Chur.
Two pairs of freight trains run to and from Ilanz on weekdays. As of early 2021, one pair of freights runs with a Ge 4/4 II and the other with a Ge 6/6 II. Occasionally there’s a morning freight run all the way to Disentis-Mustér and back to pick up logs loaded there.
The Arosa Line sees hourly Regio services each way with Allegra rail cars, often supplemented with a few older coaches. Beginning in 2021, when the trains carry coaches they often run in “push/pull” formations, with the power on the Arosa end of the train and a cab car on the Chur end. Typically on the weekends during both the winter and summer tourist seasons, there are one or more additional trains that make an express run non-stop from Chur to Arosa and back. There’s a little freight business on the line, mostly logs loaded at St. Peter-Molinis, and a single freight train can run as far as Langweis on weekday mornings when needed.
The line up the Prattigau, heading east out of Landquart to Klosters Platz is at present (early 2021) the busiest on the system.
- The trains between Disentis-Mustér and Scuol-Tarasp run hourly with Ge 4/4 II locomotives pulling older coaches.
- Trains to and from Davos Platz also run hourly each way, usually with either Ge 4/4 III locomotives or Allegras on the end facing Davos and a cab car on the end facing Landquart. These trains often carry extra coaches on the rear, which means the power is frequently in the middle on trains bound for Landquart.
- S-Bahn suburban commuter services run hourly as far as Schiers with ABe 4/16 electric cars.
- Every other hour (roughly), trains run between Landquart and St. Moritz via the Prattigau, typically with a Ge 4/4 II and older coaches.
- Seven freight trains (four east and three west) run on each weekday, although mostly at night. There are two additional pairs of as-needed freights that can run from Landquart as far as Saas or Küblis, but they seem pretty rare from my experience.
The trains of the first two bullet points could be combined beginning with the new timetable in December 2021 when more of the new Capricorn railcars enter service.
While not as spectacularly scenic as some of the other lines (but still quite beautiful), the Prattigau offers dense activity on a line that is mainly single track, with well-coordinated meets at sidings and a few short stretches of double track. Its east-west alignment is also well-suited to photographing sunrises and sunsets, although I have barely exploited this (so far).
The Davos-Filisur Line sees hourly service each way by local train. In the past, one of the Bernina Express trains has operated over this line from May through October, but not in 2021. The regular trains make timely connections with Albula Line trains in Filisur, but not with trains to and from the Prattigau in Davos Platz. That connection generally requires a 30-minute layover—which is an entirety by Swiss standards!
Traffic on the Engadine Line features a mix of regional passenger and freight trains, but none of the site-seeing express trains. Hourly services run between Pontresina and Scuol-Tarasp, typically four- or five-car push-pull trains with a cab car on the Pontresina end and a Ge 4/4 II locomotive on the Scuol-Tarasp end. These trains typically include a baggage car in the middle for carrying bikes in the summer and ski equipment in the winter. Additionally, trains between St. Moritz and Landquart run every two hours (roughly) each way, typically with a Ge 4/4 II pulling older coaches. On the weekdays, there are three freight trains each way (mostly at night, but with a northward run in the late morning), plus an occasional turn from Samedan to Zernez and back.
The Bernina Line deviates from the Swiss standard “pulse timetable” of hourly service at the same minute of each hour. Regional passenger trains still run every hour, but on schedules that alternate between one hour and the next. The reason is that every other hour, Bernina Line trains have extra time built into their schedules to accommodate the addition of a few freight cars. Logs from Switzerland roll south into Italy while oil comes north; food and other commodities also move by rail—all of it on the Bernina Line’s seven-percent grades. Additionally, Bernina Express site-seeing trains run up to four times daily each way during tourist seasons, always unencumbered by freight cars. Powering most Bernina Line trains are ABe 8/12 “Allegra” railcars, supplemented by a few of the older ABe 4/4 III rail motors.
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