10 things worth knowing about Swiss Mountain Railways

We're big fans of exploring Switzerland by train, particularly with a rail pass, so these tips and info for travelling on Swiss mountain railways, should help you make the most of your train travel adventure.
How to travel on Swiss mountain railways

10 THINGS WORTH KNOWING ABOUT SWISS MOUNTAIN RAILWAYS

The info below should help make sense of the Swiss Railway network and hopefully enhance the incredible rail travel experiences that await you!

1: Making sense of the system:

What makes travelling in Switzerland by train unusual is that the Swiss national rail operator SBB, doesn't operate the vast majority of the country's special mountain railways.

Instead the mountain railways are operated by a plethora of independent private companies, therefore each of these companies sets its own timetables and ticket prices.
Though something which makes exploring Swiss Railways such a joy, is that the distinction between these different railways is somewhat blurred form a traveller's point of view.

SBB's online booking services sells journeys which involve SBB trains + plus a journey on the independent railway - and all of the types of the rail passes that can be used in Switzerland allow for travel on both SBB's trains and most of the independently managed railways.

The timetables tend to be arranged to provide as straightforward connections as possible between SBB's trains and the other train services.
Though if you want to travel solely on an independent railway, it makes sense to use its respective website as your primary source of information.

2: The tickets:

Most of the Swiss independent railways don't sell tickets online, but as discounted tickets for standard point-2-point journeys are never available - you won't lose out if you book last minute at the station.

Though if you will be travelling to/from the independent railway by standard mainline trains, a good option can be booking a through journey on the SBB website - which includes the mainline train AND the mountain railway train.

When making an end-to-end journey, booking this type of through ticket can give peace of mind for two reasons:

(1) the connections between trains at stations can be tightly timed, so you can avoid having to book tickets for the mountain railway against the clock;

(2) also at some mountain railway stations you can only purchase tickets from the ticket machines, and the machines don't always have English language options.

Or if you want to wait until arriving in Switzerland before booking a ticket, go to a SBB ticket desk and book a ticket for the end-2-end journey which includes the SBB train + the journey on the independent railway.

However, if you want to take a journey(s) which solely involve travelling on an independent railway, when planning a trip, before you book a ticket(s), it can be worth seeing what package deals are available on the railway company websites.
You can often save money if you combine a train journey with a journey on a cable car, or a lake cruise.

3: The Special Trains:

There are special train services, which can make exploring the Swiss mountain railways easier because they travel comparatively long distances, so save the need to change trains.

Not all of these trains require special tickets (which unusually for Swiss mountain railways) can be booked in advance - though the trains which do fall into this category include The Bernina Express and The Glacier Express.

However, other particularly convenient trains don't require a reservations or advance booking.
Because they can be worth targeting, these less well-known services are highlighted below  - they're particularly useful if you will be exploring Switzerland with a rail pass.

Not only can you see multiple routes on a single train ride, as these trains link different regions of Switzerland, they can provide useful connections between different mountain railways - which makes following an itinerary much easier.
 

(1)  The Voralpen Express provides a direct service between St Gallen in north-east Switzerland and Luzern in central Switzerland.

These Voralpen Express trains also call at Pfaffikon station, which has frequent trains to/from Chur and Landquart -  and both of these stations have connections with Rhaetian Railway (RhB) trains, which follow multiple spectacular routes to the likes of Davos, St Moritz and Klosters.

So The Voralpen Express provides a useful, albeit indirect, link between that Rhaetian Railway railway and the Zentralbahn (ZB) Railway - because at Luzern station, these Voralpen Express trains connect with ZB's trains,  including the 'Luzern - Interlaken Express' services.

The Voralpen Express trains also calls at Arth-Goldau station, which has a direct connection to the Rigi Bahn.

Also brand new and very smart trains are being introduced to these Voralpen Express services.

(2) The Luzern - Interlaken Express lives up to its name by providing a highly useful link between Luzern (which has direct trains from Bellinzona, Lugano, St Gallen and Zurich) and Interlaken Ost station, which is where the trains into the Bernese-Oberland depart from.

Interlaken Ost is served by direct trains to and from Basel, Bern, Thun,Spiez and Zweisimmen.

(3) We've cheated slightly by the including The Lostchberger trains on this list, becasue they're not the only trains to provide a direct link between Brig (which has connections to MGB trainsand Speiz station - which has trains to Interlaken Ost (see above) and Zweisimmen.
At Zweisimmen you can connect with MOB trains to and from Montreux.

Though if you will be travelling in either direction between Spiez and Brig, the route taken by the Lotschberger is much more spectacular than that taken by the alternative IC trains

4: The different types of railway - branch lines and networks:

Some of these independent railway lines are in effect branch lines - they travel between a junction station with another railway and a mountain summit and/or ski resort.

Companies operating this type of line include – AB, BAM, CGB, MVR, NStCM, PB, RB, SOB and TPC.
Note the abbreviations that have been used to designate each line/company.

Other independent railways connect multiple towns/cities and provide useful (but spectacular) networks and links between different regions of Switzerland.
Companies operating these lines/networks include:
FART 
MGB
MOB
RhB 
TMR
ZB


5: The Bernese-Oberland Network:

There is also a network of connected independent railways accessible from Interlakenthey are the BOB, BLM, JB, SPB and WAB.
To Jungfraujoch by train from Interlaken
You need to use this network of lines to travel between Interlaken and Europe's highest station at Jungfraujoch - and more info on how to take this journey of a lifetime is available HERE.

6: Itineraries - from optium base locations for exploring Switzerland:

If you want to tick as many of these independent mountain railways off as possible, on a fabulous rail pass itinerary, then basing yourself in Basel, Bern, Olten* or Zurich can be a good idea.

Fast trains connect these cities to all of these mountain railways in under two hours, except for the Centovali/FART line - but a day trip to travel on the Centovali is also highly feasible from these cities.

*Our pick is to base yourself in Olten, not only is it the central hub of the Swiss railway network, the town's room rates tend to be much cheaper than the bigger cities.
More info about taking trains from Olten is coming soon, but ALL of the most popular mountain railways can be reached from here on either a direct train, or with one change of train. 

7: Using Rail Passes:

Ticket prices on SOME of these independent railways can seem comparatively expensive, but Swiss Travel Pass, Saver Day Pass, Eurail and InterRail holders can often travel for free or at a discount - details are included within each line's summary.

Switzerland is a comparatively small country blessed with comparatively frequent train services, trains depart at least hourly on virtually all routes - and that includes the independent mountain railways.
So travelling on multiple scenic routes in one day is a lot more feasible than you might assume - and using rail passes on such excursions will save you time and money.

For a general overview of why travelling with a rail pass can be a much cheaper and easier option, than using tickets, look no further than our Guide to using rail passes in Switzerland.

8: The less obvious benefit of travelling 1st class:

Not all of the Swiss mountain railway operators offer 1st class on their trains, but those which operate the longer routes including MGB, MOB, Rhb and Zb do have 1st class available.

At face value, opting to travel 1st class on these trains is the height of extravagance, because the 2nd class tickets can be fairly expensive, and aside from larger seats, there are usually few other obvious benefits of travelling 1st class.

However, as the benefits of travelling First Class are not particularly apparent, the First Class coaches, when available, are less busy and this is why travelling 1st class can actually be a big plus - particularly if you will be making the journey of a lifetime.

Seat reservations aren't available on the regular Swiss mountain railway services, but the trains can be exceptionally popular.
SMTJ has made several journeys by Swiss mountain railways, on which travellers have had to stand in 2nd class, because no more seats were available, while a 1st class coach conveyed only a handful of travellers.

But the extra comfort and the peace of mind of a near guaranteed seat, aren't the only factors which put ticks in the 1st class box.
The primary advantage of travelling 1st class on a Swiss mountain railway is the guaranteed access to the best of the views.
Because 2nd class can be very busy* on these trains, your chances of having a window seat will only be at best 50%, but this is virtually guaranteed in 1st class.

More often than not in 1st class, you'll also be able to shuttle across the width of the train, without disturbing any fellow travellers - so you'll have access to the views on both sides of the train and you won't miss any scenic highlights.

*If you will be travelling 2nd class and boarding at the station where a train commences its journey, it can be worth hanging back, so that you can be among the first to board the next train to depart.

9: Factoring in the weather:

Check the weather forecast in depth before heading off to explore the mountain railways.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s not much point in heading off to appreciate the scenery if the visibility is poor.

In particular don’t assume that because visibility is poor in your location, that it will also be inclement in the area that you want to explore.

In Switzerland the weather tends to vary between valleys, it’s possible to enter a train tunnel in pouring rain and then emerge a few minutes later, on the other side of a mountain, into a sunny day.
These views below were captured within 5 mins of each other!

Also don’t dismiss making journeys because the weather isn't perfect.
If you want to take photos, then sunny days are best avoided - because usually you’ll only be able to capture great images from one side of the train.
Cloudy days can also make many landscapes more atmospheric.

On days when clouds are obscuring the tops of mountains, explore the lower altitude lines such as the Centovalli (FART) or the ZB Zentralbahn Railway.

Also try to plan a trip to Switzerland, so that you won't be travelling on scenic railways on every day of your holiday, so that you'll have the freedom to take the trains when the weather is right.
If you have a Swiss Travel Pass you can use it to gain admission to a museum or a gallery, on grey days when the visibility is poor.

10: Alternatives to the independent railways:

You don't have to travel on one of the independent railways to experience stunning Alpine landscapes by train.
The images below have been taken from regular mainline trains, which take these scenic routes through mountainous landscapes:

(1) Zurich and Luzern - Erstfeld
(2) Erstfeld - Bellinzona - Lugano
(3) Belllinzona - Chiasso
(4) Thun - Interlaken Ost
(5) Thun - Visp** - Brig via Kandersteg (the route of The Lotschberger trains)
(6) Lausanne - Montreux - Aigle - Bex - Martigny - Sion - Sierre* - Visp** - Brig
(7) Zurich - Sargans - Chur/Buchs (connect at Sargans for local trains to Unterterzen station - located 5 mins from the cable car station that gives access to the Flumserberg winter sports area)

*Sierre station has bus links to the Crans Montana and val d'Anniviers winter sports areas.

**Visp station has bus links to the  Saas Fee  and Saas Grund  winter sports areas.

Swiss Mountain Railways Guide:


General Swiss Train Travel Guide: