Alpine Tracks

Top-notch transportation makes for a car-free experience

By: David Swanson

A sober sobriquet about Switzerland has it that “the trains run on time.”

While the saying gives short shrift to the country’s trove of scenic and natural attractions, it also overlooks the fact that Switzerland’s buses, paddlewheel lake steamers and peak-scaling gondolas also maintain meticulous schedules.

The Swiss Travel System links all of these elements together seamlessly, making the experience of getting from one place to another a pleasure.

Consider a recent trip.

I flew Swiss Airlines nonstop from Los Angeles to Zurich, but I didn’t check my bag to Zurich, instead I used Fly Rail Baggage to check it through to my final destination, the mountain-clinging village of Murren. Renowned for its winter skiing and summer hiking, my guidebook told me Murren’s population was just 350 and the cliff it straddles is so sheer that the village is inaccessible by car.

I de-planed at the Zurich Airport and used my Swiss Rail Pass to board a train that took me to the city’s main rail station. From there, it was a quick jump to the train for Interlaken, and then I transferred onto a cog rail train to Lauterbrunnen. Here, a funicular was waiting to make the climb up the steep valley wall. I disembarked from the angled train car and watched my bag being loaded onto another train that made the 10-minute trip along the cliff to Murren, with the charming, chalet-style Hotel Eiger right across the street from the station.

It was a 3½-hour journey from the airport. And while it might sound complex, it was actually easy to carry out. (The entire schedule was available online.) What’s more, I was able to get from LAX all the way to tiny Murren without ever negotiating with a taxi driver or porter. In fact, during my two weeks in Switzerland staying in six different hotels, I never stepped into a car.

With public transportation this good, who would want to?

A Scenic Experience

Travel within Switzerland isn’t limited to the famed trains. The Swiss PostBus mail coaches that were expanded to serve as transportation in 1906 started with three buses serving a 12-mile route. Today, as the PostBus celebrates its 100th anniversary, the route network covers 6,400 miles, with 2,000 buses transporting 102 million passengers a year.

The PostBus is not so much a competitor to the rail system but an extension of the train service, reaching from the rail platform to even more remote villages and trailheads, and sometimes offering more direct routes than the train network provides. And some PostBus routes have found their own acclaim, like the four-hour Palm Express between St. Moritz and palm-tree-lined Lugano. Most people travel this route for the memorable lakefront scenery.

Similarly, and also part of the Swiss Travel System, classic lake steamers connect the cities and resort towns straddling the larger bodies of water, notably the lakes of Zurich (sailing to Rapperswil), Geneva (Lausanne, Vevey, Montreaux), Lucern (Vitznau, Weggis) and Interlaken (Brienz). Most of the paddlewheel boats are museum pieces that date to WWI and earlier and typically operate in summer.

As a train admirer, however, I was content to focus my transportation needs by riding the rails, and during my stay in Murren I also journeyed to Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe. The cog train ride from Wengen is barely 10 miles, but with adult fares running a stiff $120 roundtrip, it’s got to be the most expensive train trip in the world on a per-mile basis. Fortunately possessing a Swiss Rail Pass cut the ticket price in half.

Amazingly, half of this “scenic” train journey lies inside a tunnel. But the passage is an engineering marvel, carved more than a century ago in the heart of the Eiger, one of the Alps’ fiercest mountains, the scene of multiple climbing dramas. It’s also avalanche country, and as the train climbed the lower slopes early one morning I could hear sun-touched glacier ice breaking free and crashing down the mountain faces, the thunder echoing up and down the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

The train slowly entered the tunnel, and halfway along we stopped at Eigerwand, a “window” carved from the tunnel out to the north face of the Eiger, an awesome, sheer expanse of rock and ice. The access was utilized in several heart-stopping rescues when unexpected blizzards swept in on climbing teams (replicated in the 1975 Clint Eastwood film, “The Eiger Sanction”). Farther along, the train stopped at Eismeer, a south-facing window that looks down on the 14-mile Aletsch Glacier, Europe’s longest, where massive folds of snow that feed the glacier glistened like marshmallow cream.

Perched on a ridge at 11,333 feet elevation, the Jungfraujoch terminus is more than your typical train station, it is a bustling beehive with five restaurants, glacier sleigh rides and elevators that escort visitors up to observation decks with sweeping views from the top of the Alps and down to glacier caverns. I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular place to be perched on a clear day.


There are two main types of passes sold for the Swiss Travel System.

The Swiss Pass is valid for unlimited travel on trains, postal buses, boats and the public transportation systems for 37 Swiss cities. For 2007, the second-class Swiss Pass ranges in price from $194 for four consecutive days to $434 for one month; a first-class pass runs $291 to $651. A Swiss Youth Pass (up to age 26) is discounted by 25 percent.

The Swiss Flexi Pass is valid for any three, four, five, six or eight days within a one month period, but the days do not need to be consecutive. On the days the pass is not used, a 50 percent discount applies for all travel. The second-class Flexi Pass ranges from $184 for three days to $344 for eight days; a first-class Flexi Pass runs $276 to $516.

When two or more persons travel together on either pass, each is discounted by 15 percent.

Fly Rail Baggage service is available from all airports served by Swiss Airlines. Bags are delivered by 6 p.m. to more than 50 train stations around Switzerland, and many hotels will arrange the final luggage transfer. The cost is $15.


Swiss Travel System Passes (available from RailEurope):

Commission: 8 percent when booked online.

Timetables and route information:

Swiss travel information:

New Swiss Travel Features

Swiss Passes now provide a 50 percent discount on all “mountain top” rides that previously were not covered. This includes such famed journeys as the cog rail to the Jungfraujoch, the mountain aerie near the summit of the Eiger and the pulse-quickening gondola ascent to Klein Matterhorn, the glacier wrapped pinnacle on the Swiss-Italian border overlooking Zermatt. The cost of these ascents without the discount are $120 and $68, respectively.

The passes are also now valid for admission into more than 400 museums and exhibits around the country, including most of Switzerland’s top art collections. The Swiss Open-Air Museum Ballenberg, the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and the acclaimed new Paul Klee Center in Bern are all covered.

A detailed list is available at: