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The Rhaetian Railway in the Alps

The Rhaetian Railway (the Ferrovia Retica in Italian) is an outstanding example of modern engineering triumphing over the isolated landscape of the Alps. The two railway lines, which cross the Swiss Alps through two passes and cover the Albula and Bernina areas, solved the problem of isolation experienced by many communities in the Central Alps. Opened in 1904 the railway is an impressive structure; the Albula line includes covered galleries, forty-two tunnels and as many as 144 bridges and viaducts, while the Bernina line has fifty-two bridges and thirteen galleries and tunnels. The social and economic impact of the railway was recognized by UNESCO when it was named a World Heritage Site in 2008. In 2009 it was announced that an examination of the Albula Tunnel revealed it needs to be brought up to current standards. A new tunnel is under construction and it should be opened in 2021.

The Rhaetian Railway
The Rhaetian Railway

The Rhaetian Railway is a Swiss-Italian railway company that owns the largest network of private trains in Switzerland. The ownership of RhB is broken down as follows: 51.3% owned by the Cantonal government of Graubünden, 43.1% by the Swiss Confederation, 4.6% is held privately and 1% is held by local communities. The railway company operates most of their lines in the South-East canton in Graubünden.

The Rhaetian Railway connects some of the best known tourist locations in the area, such as Davos and St. Moritz. Berninbahn is one of the lines in the region that crosses the Bernina Pass, which connects Switzerland to Italy. This line reaches Tirano where further links to Italian locations are available. The railway has certainly improved the ease of travel between Italy and Switzerland.

History of the Railway

The network of the Rhaetian Railway was developed in different stages during the late 19th and early 20th century. Due to the years that passed during development various electrification systems were used when the railway finally got up and running. Construction of the Albula railway line began in 1898 and went on until 1904, while the Bernina train line was opened in 1908 by Bernina Railway, which operated it until 1940 when it was purchased by Rhaetian Railway.

The railway line is 1000mm gauge and the entire network covers 84 tunnels. The longest tunnel is the 19 kilometer Vereina Tunnel, which was opened in 1999. The Albula is another long tunnel, measuring at 5.8 kilometers in length. There are also 383 bridges spanning across the railway line. A twelve kilometer section between Cama and Castione became separated from all the other lines after a landslide in the 20th century. Eventually this section of the railway was closed down.

The Bernina Express

The Bernina Express runs on the Rhaetian Railway line and connects Chur with Tirano and Poschiavo, in Italy. The express train crosses the Swiss Alps and is famous because it passes along the majestic Bernina and Albula landscapes for a majority of the journey. It must be noted, however, that although the train is called an Express it is not particularly fast. In fact, the Bernina Express provides a one-seater ride on a long journey, travelling slowly on the route, revealing new and beautiful scenic landscapes with every kilometer travelled.

The train is made up of beautiful coaches equipped with commentaries in different languages. If you wish to ride the Express train you must reserve seats in advance. The train is popular with tourists because it connects to Tirano, which services Lake Como and Lugano.

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An old coach on the Bernina Express

The Routes

The Bernina railway has different trains used for travel in summer and winter. In the summer there is a special train that travels to Pontresina from Chur, with only a few stops. The train then continues from Pontresina to Tirano. The entire trip takes around four hours through a scenic landscape and on this journey the train passes through 55 tunnels and 196 bridges. The train also travels through the Bernina Pass, where the highest altitude is 2,253 meters.

In the spring, winter and fall months, the Bernina train only consists of a few cars that are usually attached to the other trains on the route. The cars are attached to the Regio Express for travelling from Chur to the town of Samedan. For travelling to Pontresina from Samedan the cars are attached to the Scuol Tarasp Pontresina train and then to another train for the journey from Pontresina to Tirano. All of these trains also have regular cars for passengers and tourists who travel through normal cars during these months and do not have to pay any supplements. Along the way, the Bernina Express passes through several beautiful and noteworthy towns and landscapes, one of which is mentioned below.

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The Alps as seen from the Bernina Pass

The Bernina Pass

At a height of 2,328 meters the Bernina Pass is the highest pass in the Alps’ Bernina Mountain range. The pass is located in the canton of the Graubünden in Switzerland and connects the town of St. Moritz in Switzerland with Poschiavo, which is an Italian speaking town in Switzerland. The pass ends in Tirano, a town in Italy, in Valtellina. The Bernina Pass is located a few miles east of Piz Bernina, hence its name. The pass is crossed by rail and road and the most popular tourist train for traversing the area is the Bernina Express described above.

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The Bernina Express. Ph. Fotoember on depositphotos


Tirano is the last stop on the Bernina Express. The town is located in the Sondrio province in north Italy, close to the Italy-Switzerland border, and has a population of close to 9,000. There are two train stations in close proximity to Tirano, one is operated by the state train company and the other operates on the route that connects the town to Lecco, Milano and Sondrio. The second train station is operated by the Rahetian Railway and the trains are generally used by skiers and tourists looking to visit Pontresina, St. Moritz and several other locations famous for winter sports.

bernina express
The Bernina Chain

The Adda River flows through the town of Tirano and its main tourist attraction is the Shrine of Madonna di Tirano. It is said that the Blessed Mother appeared to Mario Degli Omodei in 1504 and it is this event to which the shrine is dedicated. The site is very significant to Catholic pilgrims and draws many to the town of Tirano every year.

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Tirano, the departing town of the Bernina Express. Ph. Patrick Muller on flickr

The Rhaetian railway is not really cheap (it’s about 40 euro for the 2 and half hour ride between Tirano and St. Moritz; you can book here: https://www.rhb.ch/en/home), but it’s an unforgettable experience.

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