What does train travel mean to you? Presumably: poky carriages packed with commuters, sticky handrails and cacophonous overhead tannoy announcements? It wasn't always this way, of course. Time was, "catching a train" meant stepping into a swirling diorama of sweeping landscapes like a picturehouse on wheels - not least in Switzerland, blessed as it is with a rollercoaster of ice-lacquered peaks.
While rail travel has since become synonymous with anorak-clad train watchers and bleak urban sprawl, the tide is turning. In recent years, heightened environmental awareness and a greater appreciation for the outdoors (catalysed by the pandemic), has seen increasing numbers of rail-phobes hopping aboard the hype. For proof, look to one of Switzerland's most epic joyrides - The Bernina Express - which is fast gaining traction among a new generation of eco-minded, wildlife-oriented travellers.
Completed in 1910, This 750-mile route is an A-Z whistle-stop tour through the fluctuating landscapes of East Switzerland, zipping from the Swiss city of Chur down to Tirano in Italy, in just over four hours, passing over precipitous viaducts and through needle-thin mountain passes as you go. Put into numbers, that's 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and heights of 2,253m above sea level.
Of course, you can do the trip in one fell swoop, but in the name of slow travel we're stopping off along the way - taking a bistro lunch at Ospizio Bernina (the highest point on the route) and pausing for pics in St. Moritz, one of Switzerland's most glittering snow sports destinations. Hang around long enough in St. Moritz and you might spot the famous Glacier Express passing through. Really committed train buffs might even consider hopping aboard.
Overall, The Bernina Express is a whirlwind of a ride that propels you from mighty Swiss glaciers to palm-lined Italian lakesides at speed. It's the highest railway line across the Alps, connecting northern Europe to the south. Start with herb-infused fondue, finish with a thimble of limoncello. How's that for high-value travel?
Snow-capped St. Moritz and leafy Tirano
Yes, the Bernina Express is high-value, but not to the detriment of the environment. When we describe The Bernina Express as safe and clean, we're talking about more than simply onboard hygiene. Like many classic railways that once chugged along on coal, sputtering out plumes of carbon monoxide, The Bernina Express has shifted with the times. Forget diesel-powered engines; this route runs on 100% local hydroelectric power, which means you can settle in for the ride, guilt-free.
It's little wonder this route is gaining traction. Whether you're keeping things simple in second class or splashing out on a more spacious spot in first, each carriage offers vast, panoramic windows onto some of the world's most dramatic environments - like epic oil-paint canvases writ large, or a David Attenborough documentary in situ. Those aboard The Bernina Express don't simply whisk through resort towns, but soar through UNESCO-protected valleys like Valposchiavo and the Bernina Pass where wildlife is abundant and thriving.
Needless to say, a trusty pair of binoculars should sit in pride of place in your carry-on. Binoculars, and not much else. A journey on The Bernina Express isn't about munching through your winter reading list, or catching up on your favourite podcast but feasting on a buffet or natural and architectural marvels. Plug in and risk missing out.
It might be embedded in the annals of rail history, but there's something about The Bernina Express that feels tantalisingly zeitgeisty - and we're not just talking about the train's carbon-free credentials or onboard prosecco trolley. After the chaos of the past year, what could be more grounding than following in the wake of travellers past while ploughing through a sparse, glacial wilderness?
2020 might have been a rough ride. Go smooth on The Bernina Express: the past and the future of train travel.
For more information and to book a seat on The Bernina Express, click here.