The Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway of the Rhaetian Railway were only the third railway lines worldwide to be declared World Heritage Site in 2008. Two sections operate between Thusis in the Swiss canton of Graubünden via St. Moritz, where you change from the Albula to the Bernina Railway, to Tirano in Lombardy, Italy. Upon its inception, the new railway system opened the gate to the world for a plethora of (winter) tourism region. Now it offers regular operations and particularly spectacular panoramic rides. Experience the Alps from an entirely new perspective!
Exceeding altitudes of 2,000 metres by train
At the onset of the 20th century the mountain regions and what would eventually turn into winter sport regions at the border between Switzerland and Italy were mostly isolated from the rest of the world. Enormous gorges, imposing inclines and almost
insurmountable rock giants posed massive challenges to the architects of the Rhaetian Railway. The Albula Railway in 1904 and the Bernina Railway in 1910 not only saw the installation of two high alpine routes, but also the rise of masterful transportation solutions. The countless structures – 196 bridges and 55 tunnels spread across 122 kilometres – displayed grand innovative ingenuity.
The manner in which these architectural masterpieces were incorporated into the mountain scenery continues to impress to this very day. A pronounced understanding for the region, combined with bold pioneering spirit, created breathtaking harmony – and all of that at altitudes of up to 2,253 m at the Bernina Pass, the tallest alpine railway pass in Europe. The two railways connect Switzerland and Italy during a four-hour journey, completely without any cog technology whatsoever – a genuinely innovative narrow-gauge railway that remains wildly fascinating to this very day.
The Albula Railway
The first part of this World Heritage railway line is entirely in Switzerland. Stretching across 61.67 km, the Albula Railway connects Thusis in the Hinterrhein district with St. Moritz in the Engadine. The 144 bridges have spans of up to two metres, the 42 tunnels and galleries promise spectacular experiences. It is hard to believe that construction of this line started as early as 1898. You cross the Solis Viaduct, the tallest bridge of the entire Rhaetian Railway at 89 metres, after only a few kilometres. Another phenomenon, if you will, is the stretch between Bergün and Preda. It actually has an air-line distance of 6.5 km that covers 417 altitude metres. However, not even the most powerful railway could master such a feat, which is why several civil engineering structures were built to extend this section to twelve kilometres with the railway crossing itself several times in order to reach the necessary height. Don’t sleep on the Albula Tunnel either – 5,865-metre-long and mostly drilled through thick granite.
The Albula Railway was supposed to be much, much longer. Original plans included an extension via the Maloja Pass to Chiavenna in Italy with a subsequent direct connection to Milan via Lake Como. Vague declarations of intent on the Italian side, World War I and the subsequent recession prevented said extension. A PostBus line now operates on this route.
The Bernina Railway
Having arrived in St. Moritz, you change for the Bernina Railway. This means heading for a different platform with different rails due to a different railway power supply system before eventually traveling east. Construction of the Bernina Railway only began after completion of the Albula Railway. The entire route was opened in 1910, winter operations were introduced in 1913/14. During the first years the avalanche barrier costs were enormous, the Railway teetered on the brink of bankruptcy multiple times. It was only once the Rhaetian Railway took over in 1943 that several new structures and modernisations were established to save the Bernina Railway.
The first stop in Celerina Staz is actually the lowest point on the north side of the route at an altitude of “only” 1,716 m. There’s an almost constant rise across the following 20 km reaching its highest point near Ospizio Bernina (2,253 m). Getting there involves a plethora of turns and multiple changes of the valley side. Various tunnels and galleries protect this part of the railway, which is heavily affected by snow drifts, until Poschiavo, furthermore setting in motion the almost constant descent en route to Italy. The hairpin bends behind Alp Grüm with their steep incline and the tight 180° bend are particularly spectacular. You’ll even get to “experience” partial left-hand traffic on tram-like grooved rails during the narrow cross-village links of Sant’Antonio and Le Presse. The Brusio spiral viaduct gains some altitude one last time before you reach the terminal station in Tirano at an altitude of 429 metres. The train to Milan, transporting you to the capital of Lombardy in about 2.5 hours, already awaits you in the adjacent station.
Highlights around the railway lines
The Albula and the Bernina Railway are perfect if you want to take it slow and easy. Due to its unique altitude and the constricted routeing on the narrow-gauge railway, you should expect a total travel time of about four hours. We especially recommend this experience in summer as the observation cars make it seem as if you could just reach out and grab the sky. In addition, there are numerous ski areas, hiking regions and day trip destinations awaiting you along the route and in its close proximity, such as:
- Bormio: There’s a plethora of winter sport regions along the border between Switzerland and Italy, such as Madeismo, Aprica, Livigno and Santa Caterina Valfurva. Bormio most certainly is one of the best-known ski areas of the Alps, not least due to the legendary Alpine World Cup skiing competitions on the Pista Stelvio. 50 km of perfectly groomed slopes await you.
- Poschiavo: The scenic townscape of the Grisons municipality is built around flagstone-covered houses from the 16th to the 19th Look forward to San Vittore, a late Gothic collegiate church, the Reformed church Santa Trinità and the Oratory Sant’Anna with its ossuary – a spectacular mix of appealing architecture and astonishing mountain panorama.
- Sonico: You’re certainly familiar with our World Heritage blog about the rock drawings in Valcamonica about this genuinely special region with prehistoric carvings in bare stone across a length of 25 km. One of the entrance points to this valley, Sonico, is less than an hour from Tirano, the terminal station of the Bernina Railway.
- Google Street View: To be fair, Google Street View probably isn’t what you’d call a sight, yet it counts as a special experience. In March 2012 the UNESCO World Heritage route Albula / Bernina was the first railway line in the world to be made accessible by 360° panoramic photos. You can find this virtual highlight at rhb.ch.
A ride with the Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway allows you to unwind in a wonderful way. You gaze at impressive architectural achievements, tremendous downward slopes, enormous rock giants and wild, untamed nature surrounded by many small, inviting villages. Add the various day trip destinations throughout the region to the mix and don’t miss out on this joyful ride!