Constructed to conquer the Alps, link mountain resorts or transport coal, Europe’s mountain railways are a great tourist attraction today. Our tour via the oldest and most spectacular mountain rail routes starts in Switzerland, which is undeniably the European leader in the railway industry.
1. The Glacier Express. Switzerland.
Route: Zermatt – St. Moritz/Davos. Length: around 300 km
The Glacier Express will take you on a spectacular trip through the beautiful Alps. The railroad connects two Swiss resorts, Zermatt and St. Moritz (or Davos). The trip may seem a bit long as it lasts 7.30 hours, but it is never boring – it leads across 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. The train goes really high – across Oberalp mountain pass it reaches the altitude of 2,033m.
Most of the amazing route between Chur and St. Moritz was declared a World Heritage Site in 2008.
For the timetable, route tickets and rail passes check www.glacierexpress.ch
2. Zugspitze Bahn. Germany.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Zugspitzplatt. Length 11.5 km
Zugspitze Bahn is the cogwheel train that leads to the glacier situated just beneath the German highest summit, Zugspitze (2962 m). Zugspitze railway line was built in 1930’s and to date it is considered a masterpiece of engineering thought.
The train passes the Eibsee lake where the visitors can admire the stunning view of the Alpine peaks of Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It continues to Riffelriss where the train dives into the 2 km long tunnel and then reaches the altitude of 2,600 m.
For timetable and fares check: www.zugspitze.de
3. Semmering Bahn. Austria
Gloggnitz – Mürzzuschlag. Length 41 km
The Austrian Semmering Bahn is considered to be Europe’s oldest mountain railway – it was built in mid 19th century by around 20,000 workers. The railway leads through 14 tunnels, 16 viaducts, 100 stone bridges and 11 smaller iron bridges – all set up in spectacular mountain scenery.
According to UNESCO (that declared the railway a World Heritage site in 1998) the Semmmering Bahn is one of the greatest achievements of railway building in the earliest phase of railroad construction industry.
For timetable and fares check: www.semmeringbahn.at
4. Gornergrat Bahn. Switzerland.
Zermatt – Gornergrat. Length 9.4 km
As many as 29 Alpine peaks can be admired from Gornergrat Bahn – the highest open-air cogwheel railway in Europe. The train leaves Zermatt and while climbing Gornergrat it passes numerous bridges and tunnels. After around 40 minutes it reaches 3089 m altitude, just beneath the Gornergrat peak. The route is believed to be one of the most scenic mountain trips in the Alps.
Last year, in 2008, the railway celebrated its 111 year anniversary. The construction of that historical line commenced in 1896, lasted two years and involved 2,400 workers.
For timetable and fares check: www.gornergrat.ch
5. Chemin de fer de La Mure. France.
Saint-Georges-de-Commiers – La Mure. Length 30 km
If the French name of the railway appears to be too long, you can simply call it the Mure train. The railway was constructed between 1882 and 1886 and it was electrified in 1903.
The route leads thorough impressive mountain scenery dotted with viaducts, tunnels and a breathtaking dam at lake Monteynard (above).
La Mure was designed to transport coal from the Matheysin Plateau to Grenoble. In mid-1970s the wave of railway closures hit France, but due to the oil crisis the authorities decided to keep the mining line for another 15 years. It had saved the railway that later became a great tourist attraction.