Swiss Glacier Express Holiday

My wife (Janet) and I returned on 20 August 2020, from a rail holiday to Switzerland. Billed as the ‘Traditional Glacier Express’, it was run by Great Rail Journeys (other rail tour companies are available!)

I am not a great one for foreign trips, and one criterion for my booking was that it was totally rail travel, as I wish to avoid clocking up air miles. The experience started for us on day minus 9, when our main suitcase was collected, to go ahead of us. We were given 4 days notice of this, and expected to tell the company by return what we intended to pack! However, we managed to do this (fortunately we had already bought a new ‘case). It was only then that I realised that the case would be going by air!!

The trip for us started on day minus 1, 12 August 2020, when we took an evening Thameslink service from Sussex to London St Pancras International, and then stayed overnight at a Hilton Hotel in Euston.

Thursday 13 August 2020

The next morning we were up early, but not so bright, to return to St Pancras, Eurostar platforms to meet the group by 06:50! In view of Covid, there were only seven of us – Bridie, Robert, another couple Jean and Peter, ourselves, plus our tour guide, John (he would normally take up to 30). Having booked in, and passed through customs, we were able to join the Eurostar 9008 train to Paris Nord, at 07:52 for the trip proper. A swift trip brought us to Paris at 11:17 European time (= BST + 1 hr). We were then coached to Paris Gare de Lyon in about 20 minutes (John said that this trip could often take up to an hour). We were able to have some lunch, before catching the TGV 2369 to Lausanne, at 13:51, arriving 18:15. The last train was the 18:50 to Brig, in southern Switzerland, not far from the Italian border. We were in our hotel by about 20:45, and had a meal together there.

View from Brig Hotel

Location map

Friday 14 August 2020
The following morning, after breakfast, we took the 09:34 train to Kandersteg; so far all standard gauge trains, but be patient!

Fifty metres down from the hotel, was this scene –

MGB Train

This is an Matterhorn Gottard Bahn metre gauge train climbing eastward from Brig station, and we would be travelling this route in the subsequent days.

At Kandersteg, I took this picture on the platform –

Old loco

As this information board shows, the loco is a Jung, built 1911, and restored cosmetically for its centenary.

Information board

The purpose of our travel was to see the Oeschinen valley, high in the mountains. For this we walked to the cable cars, so here is a chance to introduce Janet and myself – albeit behind the obligatory face masks, on board our ‘car:

Ti in cable carJanet in cable car

We were then in for another walk, largely downhill, and passed on the way Swiss cows with their customary bells –

At the end of our walk, we were presented with views like this –

Oeschinen Lake

After time at the lake, we were able to return individually to Brig, and the hotel, for evening dinner.

Saturday 15 August 2020
The next day, we finally started the Narrow Gauge part of our holiday! Returning by foot to Brig station, the metre gauge Matterhorn-Gotthard route running from the street, outside the standard gauge station –

Brig MGB StationBrig station

Brig station

Today’s journey was by 09:27 service train to Zermatt, and the Matterhorn mountain.

Brig to Zermatt

Our train was a push-pull, with loco 91 of class 4/4 at the rear.

Loco 91

A multiple unit was ready to proceed in the opposite direction.

Multiple Unit

Metre gauge trains operated by Matterhorn-Gotthard Bahn work on 11,000 volts a.c.

The gradient profile shows that, after a short descent (to Visp) the train climbs seriously around 1000 m to Zermatt.

MGB Gradients

The trains therefore operate partly by adhesion, with rack and pinion on the steeper slopes. Change onto the rack is achieved on the move, at reduced speed, with, presumably, some form of sprung section of rack to ensure safe engagement. Whether on plain or rack, speed is impressive, and the ride comfortable.

As we approached the Matterhorn range, we had our first view of snow (temperatures even in the mountains, were comfortably around 20 degrees)

Glacier

We bade farewell to our train at Zermatt station,

Zermatt arrival

and now had a dilemma. The original brochure for our trip promised we would have a “SwissRail” pass, which would cover our main journeys, but also provide half-price deals for other attractions. What we received was an Interrail pass, which only covered the main routes. One of the possible extras at Zermatt was the Gornergrat Bahn, a sort of electrified Snowdon Mountain Railway, which would take us up the lower section of the Matterhorn. With the half-price deal, this would have been 59 Swiss francs each (think approximately 1:1 with the pound!). As a “once in a lifetime” experience, we would have swallowed this (and I thought Snowdon was expensive!). But almost £250 for the two of us was just too much. So, the best I could do, was to wander to the Gornergrat station, where I found a footpath across the tracks, from which I could obtain these pictures.

Gornergrat Station

Gornergrat Shed

Gornergrat exit

Gornergrat route

Gornergrat train

The Gornergrat is one of few railways electrified via three-phase power, using two pantograph collectors, and the rail as the third phase (earthed).

Nonetheless, we enjoyed walking around Zermatt in the sun, and sat in a park near the church.

Zermatt church

We did, however, partly regret not taking this

ride around the town, for ‘only’ 45 Francs!

Once again, we were free to return to Brig at will, but decided to take the suggested service at 14:13, where we met up with John. As we walked away from the station at Brig, we encountered the westbound Glacier Express service passing through the street –

Glacier Express at Brig

This evening was free to take dinner in the town, so we found a local Pizza restaurant that could serve gluten-free pizza to suit my needs – time for the selfie! –

Pizza meal

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