(CNN) — Combining elegance and comfort with 21st century technical excellence, Switzerland’s newest panoramic train journey finally starts on December 11 — three years later than planned and 150 years after it was first proposed.
The new Golden Pass Express (GPX) will directly connect three of the country’s most important tourist destinations: Montreux, Gstaad and Interlaken, a special route made possible by revolutionary new trains capable of changing the gauge of their wheels and the height of their coach bodies.
Thanks to the unique design of the new trains, passengers can remain in their comfortable seats throughout the three-and-a-quarter hour trip, immersing themselves in the ever-changing view through enormous panoramic windows.
The spectacular journey, taking in some of Europe’s most beautiful lakes, secluded valleys and high mountain passes, cuts across the grain of central Switzerland, following a trade route that has existed since the Middle Ages.
The result is a truly memorable journey for travelers, but one that has always been a challenging task for railway engineers and operators.
Until now, the Golden Pass Express concept has been largely a marketing exercise for the three railway companies involved, linking the tourism hotspots of Montreux, Interlaken and Luzern but requiring two changes of train.
From December though, one of those interruptions will be eliminated and the Montreux Oberland Bernois (MOB) Railway is confident that its stylish new GPX panoramic trains will increase the popularity of the route, particularly with international visitors wanting a seamless experience.
In just a few seconds, the trains can switch from the meter-gauge track of the MOB to the Swiss standard gauge of 1,435 millimeters, eliminating the need for through passengers to change trains en route. Between Zweisimmen and Interlaken, the trains run over the tracks of the Bern Lotschberg Simplon (BLS), Switzerland’s largest private railway.
Trains that can change gauge (the distance between their wheels) are nothing new — Spanish Talgo trains have been able to switch between standard gauge (1,435 millimeters) and wider Iberian tracks for decades, but the GPX trains have an added level of complexity that makes them a world first.
The new train comes into service in December 2022.
As well as changing gauge, the sophisticated trucks beneath each carriage raise the height of the body to match the higher platforms of the BLS stations.
The change in gauge is facilitated by designing the trucks with two half-frames, which can slide 435 millimeters sideways relative to each other. To do that, they have been equipped with independent wheel pairs without an axle in between the two sides of the bogie.
The stylish carriages are a collaboration between Swiss train builder Stadler, global transport giant Alstom, which designed and built the gauge-changing bogies, and the legendary Italian design studio Pininfarina.
Famous primarily for its automotive creations, from Ferrari to Peugeot, Pininfarina is far from new to the rail industry. It was responsible for the external look of Italy’s ETR500 high-speed train, Eurostar’s exterior color scheme and, back in 1993, Pininfarina and MOB worked together on a previous generation of trains known as the Crystal Panoramic Express.
“Having to deal with new safety standards has been a stimulus to our creativity, rather than a limitation,” said Alfredo Palma, design project manager at Pininfarina.
“In every project, whether it is automotive, transportation or architecture, our goal is to create beautiful objects while overcoming technical or regulatory obstacles. With MOB we have created a train that offers an immersive travel experience, in total symbiosis with the beauty of the surrounding nature.”
Costing $93.5 million (89 million Swiss Francs) for just 23 vehicles, they are an expensive solution to a problem dating back 150 years, when a direct service between Montreux and Interlaken was first proposed.
However, that cost will be balanced against the obvious benefits of providing a more convenient direct service — and the additional passengers it is likely to attract. Many of those passengers will be international visitors from North America and Asia, accustomed to paying premium fares to experience the best of Switzerland’s amazing Alpine scenery from its myriad scenic railways.
It’s hoped the train will help boost tourism in Switzerland.
Despite the delays caused by manufacturing issues and the Covid-19 pandemic, MOB and its partners — BLS, the cantons of Bern, Fribourg and Vaud and the Swiss Federal Office for Transport — believe that the investment will make an immediate contribution to the region’s economy.
“With the Golden Pass Express we face a spectacular technological challenge, shifting from narrow gauge to standard gauge,” said Georges Oberson, general manager of MOB.
“We also wanted this tourist train to be beautiful and elegant. That’s why we assigned the task to Pininfarina, one of the most prestigious design companies in the world.”
Passengers have a choice of three classes — Second Class, First Class or, for 28 lucky people per trip, the luxury of reclining leather seats in Prestige Class. First and Prestige Class travelers can also book an at-seat service of locally produced food and drink to enhance the journey.
Initially, the new GPX trains will run through from Montreux to Interlaken and vice-versa just once a day, leaving Montreux at 9:35 a.m. and Interlaken at 9:08 a.m.
From June 11, 2023, the service will ramp up to four return trips per day, leaving Montreux at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m., 12:35 p.m. and 2:35 p.m. and returning at 9:08 a.m., 11:08 a.m., 2:08 p.m. and 4:08 p.m.
The train starts at Montreaux on the shores of Lake Geneva.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
What can travelers expect from a GPX journey, and how does it compare to other scenic railways?
Heading east, the trip starts on the shores of Lake Geneva in the beautiful town of Montreux — home to the world-famous Jazz Festival and generations of musicians and artists. A tourism hotspot for more than 150 years, it remains hugely popular with international visitors and an ideal base for exploring western and central Switzerland.
From their town center station, MOB trains climb quickly up the mountain side, increasingly stunning views of the lake switching from side-to-side as the train negotiates a series of 180-degree turns through the vineyards to gain height.
Eventually, when it can climb no further, the line dives into the 2.5-kilometer Jaman Tunnel, eventually emerging into the glorious Hongrin Valley in the bucolic Gruyere region — famous for its dairy cows, and the cheese and chocolate made from their milk.
High mountains tower over lush green valleys as the MOB winds through carefully manicured farmland and equally neat Alpine villages.
After leaving the junction station of Montbovon, the line starts to climb again, passing Chateau d’Oex to reach the world-famous resort of Gstaad — a long-established winter playground for the rich and famous.
Passengers can connect to the railway that rides up the north face of the Eiger to Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station.
NICHOLAS RATZENBOECK/AFP via Getty Images
Having crossed the linguistic divide between French-speaking Canton Vaud and Canton Bern, where Swiss-German dominates, the railway passes through sparsely populated highland country to the summit of the line before dropping through a series of loops into Zweisimmen.
Previously, GPX passengers would change from their MOB panoramic train into a larger, more conventional BLS train to continue their journey, but they can now relax in their seats as the train passes over the complex gauge-changing equipment for the next leg.
As its name suggests, Zweisimmen stands at the confluence of two arms of the River Simme — the Gross Simme and Klein Simme. Our route follows the unified river north and then east through the beautiful Simmental for 35 kilometers, reaching the shores of Lake Thun at Spiez.
Spiez is a major railway junction where our route crosses the international main line from Basel and Bern to Italy via the Lötschberg and Simplon Tunnels.
Daytrippers can change here to enjoy a spectacular ride over the original Lötschberg mountain route to Brig in the Rhone Valley before returning direct to Montreux.
The town of Gstaad lies on the GPX’s routes.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
But the GPX continues alongside Lake Thun, gradually descending to the water’s edge for the memorable final leg to its destination and Switzerland’s original tourist hotspot — Interlaken.
In the literal tradition of many German place names, Interlaken is exactly that — a town sitting on a narrow stretch of dry land between two of Switzerland’s largest lakes — Lake Thun and Lake Brienz.
A popular destination in its own right, it’s also the starting point for some of Switzerland’s most unforgettable journeys — not least the three-stage trip through the north face of the Eiger to Jungfraujoch — Europe’s highest railway station at 3,454 meters (11,332 feet).
You can also continue by Zentralbahn panoramic train to Luzern via Meiringen and the Brunig Pass. Meiringen is a “must see” for Sherlock Holmes fans, close to the Reichenbach Falls, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero and his nemesis fell to their death.
Like many of Europe’s scenic railways, MOB relies heavily on tourism. Over the last three years, it has been hit hard by the restrictions on international travel and the ongoing absence of visitors from key markets in Asia. According to recent surveys, passenger numbers are not expected to return to pre-Covid levels until 2024 at the earliest.
However, with the stunning new GPX trains, MOB has created an added attraction to the Golden Pass route that will doubtless allow many new visitors to experience this underrated gem of a journey.
Top image credit: MOB