The passenger train glides almost silently around a mountain’s edge, climbing upward even past the tree line.
Far below, houses, cars and a church spire look like toys strewn on the green valley floor.
This is the Bernina Express, which runs through and atop the Alps from Chur, southeast of Zurich in Switzerland to Tirano, Italy. Most of the tracks were completed by 1910 and the 145-kilometer (90-mile) route over several rail lines was put together in 1973. Panoramic cars with high, curved windows were added in 2010 and now open-air cars also are offered.
It crosses 196 bridges, passes through 55 tunnels and touches 120 communities. These tiny Swiss and Italian villages are the kind where the church steeple bells still toll to announce the hour.
With some of the most beautiful mountain scenery anywhere, the Bernina Express is one of only two railroad lines designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As our journey begins, it’s raining and rolling white fog shrouds the mountaintops. We circle around the greenish blue water of several large lakes.
The Bernina Express, which is not a fast train despite its name, is part of Europe’s intricate rail system that includes high-speed trains connecting major cities and local trains serving smaller communities. On flatter ground, trains travel much faster. Zipping along at 186 mph, a trip from London to Paris under the English Channel, for example, takes two hours and 15 minutes and is faster than flying.
We pass many churches, such as the Church of St. Peter Mistail, which dates back to the 8th Century – 1,200 years ago.
Europe’s trains run on electricity like rapid transit in American cities. The electricity comes from overhead lines instead of a live third rail.
We go through a 5.9-kilometer tunnel between Preda and Samedan built by 1,800 workers and completed in the early 1900s.
As we emerge from the tunnel, the sun is shining. We pass through groves of evergreens and catch glimpses of the green valley below.
We never see freight trains. In Europe, freight trains often run faster with fewer cars than in the U.S., stick to schedules and may run on separate tracks than passenger lines. In the U.S., freight railroads own the tracks, so Amtrak trains often pull off to a siding and let a freight train pass.
Just before Alp Grum, we reach the summit, 2,250 meters – nearly 7,400 feet – above sea level. Here we are above the tree line and the peaks are covered with glacial snow. Waterfalls tumble thousands of feet down the mountain sides to lakes below.
The descent from the peak is smooth, but fairly rapid. At the Brusio Circular Viaduct, the train loops back and forth in a downward swirl. A continental divide is at Lego Blanco, where waters flow to the south into the Adriatic Sea and to the east into the Black Sea.
Near Poschiavo, we climb a wooded ridge, making hairpin turns and resume our descent. We pass by the last Swiss village, where residents speak Italian, and then into Italy.
When we reach the end of the line at Tirano, where we see Italian palm trees, the Bernina Express runs down the center of the main street and we have dropped to a level of about 1,570 feet above sea level.
Villages-News.com’s Marv Balousek recently took a trip aboard the Bernina Express passenger train, which runs from Chur, southeast of Zurich in Switzerland to Tirano, Italy.