Bernina Express: riding the Alps by train – Part 1

Bernina Express: riding the Alps by train - Reflection of the train under the snow
Bernina Express the UNESCO railroad

The Bernina Express is a lovely red train, popular with tourists, that crosses the Alps and connects Switzerland with Italy.

The railway was built between 1908 and 1910. It’s operated by a regional company (Rhaetian Railway) and belongs since 2008 to the UNESCO list of the World Heritage Site, being both an old and very scenic rail route.

I love trains and train journeys since the time of my youth when I travelled through Europe with an Inter-Rail card for one month every year.

But those were times of short money in my pockets and I couldn’t afford to pay the extra charge the company requires for travelling along this route and getting a seat reservation on this train.

For this reason, the Bernina ride remained on my wish list for decades; I must say it stands in very good company: the Ghan in Australia, Glacier Express, another fascinating Swiss train, Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia, Cusco to Machu Picchu line in Peru and so on.

But at one point in my life, thanks to my good friend Lukas Tanner who lives in Switzerland, I was finally able to enjoy this ride through the Alps, crossing 196 bridges, through 55 tunnels and across the Bernina Pass.

Which route to choose?

There are several options regarding the route you can follow: you may start your journey in the posh Sankt Moritz, change train in Pontresina and arrive in Tirano; you may also make a sort of round trip, continuing from Tirano along the Lake Como and arriving again in Switzerland, in Lugano, from where you can continue your journey to any place in Switzerland. We chose a different route: we started our ride in Scuol-Tarasp. And this for two good reasons, the first one being that in Scuol you find an awesome spa where you can spend half a day relaxing and enjoying a wonderful view from the panoramic solarium.

Map of the Bernina Express route
A map of the train’s route from Scuol to Tirano.
By Sansculotte at de.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The second good reason is that starting from Scuol-Tarasp, the route allows you to enjoy the view of the fresh Engadin valley covered with woods, before entering the realm of tundra and glaciers, high on the Alps.

This was our plan.

Our plans and the reality

We didn’t take into count Mr Winter, who showed off the morning of our departure with a strong snowfall. We didn’t know it yet, but that was going to be the biggest snowfall of the year! Well, no more green forest in Engadin, but white white white (sometimes grey….) snow. It will get better later, we both thought.

Zernez station under the snow.
This is Zernez in Engadin, at the beginning of the trip, and before starting to climb.

We were wrong, but it was a thought (a hope!) we still had when we entered Pontresina station. This is where the real Bernina Express ride starts.

Here the train cars are adapted to the narrower gauge of the line and the train is linked with a different engine, working with the different voltage of the alpine line. Ah yes, the Bernina Express is an electric railway, with no diesel pollution up on the mountains! The manoeuvre was made in a completely white landscape, with falling snow. It was also very cold!

Pontresina station, the real beginning of the Bernina route, under the snow
Pontresina station, the real beginning of the Bernina route, under the snow
A read car under the white snow in Scuol station
Up, in the snowstorm

The complete leg from Pontresina to Tirano takes about 4 hours, gets you to the Bernina Pass and shows you wonderful alpine sights. Well, I can’t swear the last sentence is true, I’ve read a similar one somewhere. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much during the journey, only snowflakes and fog! They say there’s a wonderful lake (Lago Bianco) just in front of the Ospizio Bernina station at 2,253 meters, the highest point of the line.

Well, I believe it, but when we left the train at this station we couldn’t see much more than snow hills in freezing cold.

Bernina Express: riding the Alps by train - The train waiting for departure at Ospizio Bernina Station
Ospizio Bernina station

Our plan was to hike for some hours and wait for the last ride to Tirano.

Ospizio Bernina: the station

But the only thing we could do was look at the train coming from Italy approaching the station and finding its way through the snow. An amazing sight anyway!

Approaching Ospizio Bernina station

This is the first part of the journey.
The second part is here.

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