The Glacier Express: The Definitive Guide
Of the 5251 km of Swiss railways, it is the 291 km Glacier Express journey from St Moritz to Zermatt that is the most famous.
The route was opened in 1930 when passengers were first able to travel non-stop from Zermatt in the south of Switzerland to St Moritz in the east.
Today around 300,000 people ride the rails from these two iconic locations and enjoy the dramatic Alpine scenery that passes by during the eight-hour journey.
A brief history of the Glacier Express
Shortly after the Glacier Express first opened it earned the nickname ‘The slowest express train in the world’ due to its ‘glacial’ pace. It used to take a full 11 hours to complete the journey at an average speed of just 16 mph.
The original route was serviced by both steam engines and electric engines, but in 1942 the whole track was electrified and today the train travels at much more speedy 22 mph.
At its highest point the line reaches 2033 m. As the Alps is a snowy place in the winter (!) it has only been since 1982 that trains have run all year round and not just during the summer months.
A scenic tourist trip
The journey has only ever been a tourist trail as there was never a need for it for commuters or business. For this reason, there has been much emphasis on the design of the carriages to enable panoramic views.
In the mid-eighties CHF40 million was spent on a complete overhaul, with new windows that reach up into the ceiling of each carriage to ensure the biggest vista possible.
Glacier Express Statistics
Distance: 181 miles
Max Elevation: 2033m/6670 ft
Gauge: Narrow gauge rail
Bridges crossed: 291
Tunnels traversed: 91
Passengers: 300,000 per annum
1st class ticket cost: £210 one-way
Departures per day: 2 from each location
Dining car: Each train has an on-board kitchen serving three-course meals
The Glacier Express route
A journey on the Glacier Express can start in either Zermatt or St Moritz. Whichever direction you take there are plenty of stunning sights along the way.
No doubt you’ve chosen to enjoy your skiing holiday in Zermatt (and if you’re not sure, make sure you read our reasons why Zermatt is better than St Moritz), in which case you should start in St Moritz and finish in Zermatt.
Once on the train to Zermatt, look out for the impressive Solis Viaduct, followed shortly by the wonderful Landwasser Viaduct.
‘Spot the castle’
From there the line makes its way through the Domleschg Region where you can play ‘spot the castle’.
The next leg heads through the Rhine Gorge (also known as the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’), where the natural rocky landscape provides an epic backdrop for your lunch.
The scenery gets better and better as you venture through the Oberalp Pass, the Andermatt mountains and the icy landscape of the Goms.
Your final stretch takes you up the valley to the town of Zermatt where you arrive at the main Bahnof station. From this point, you can catch the equally famous Gornergrat train or new 3S Matterhorn Paradise cable cars to the resort’s glaciers and admire the incredible Matterhorn.
More Glacier Express Facts
- Part of the Glacier Express route is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site
- The Glacier Express passes through the 9.3 mile Gotthard Tunnel. In 1982 was the longest rail tunnel in the world and remains one of the world’s longest
- The first Glacier Express trip departed from Zermatt at 7.30 am on 30 June 1930
- A journey from St Moritz to Zermatt is called the ‘Royal Route’
- Along the Glacier Express route, there are 12 stops. Recently passengers have been able to book shorter legs along the route for as little as CHF23
Zermatt v. St Moritz
Despite being linked by this historic railroad there has always been a rivalry between the two Glacier Express destinations. For a reminder of why Zermatt is better than St Moritz, take a look at our recent analysis.
Zermatt, of course, comes out as the better destination for anyone booking a ski trip!
If you are catching the Glacier Express and are planning a stay in Zermatt then get in touch with our small team who can help you find the perfect accommodation for you.