The world’s largest country for train travel has raised the bar again

Golden Pass Express

We’re all anoraks for the day, even the technophobes among us: Journalists from a dozen countries stand on the Montreux station platform above Lake Geneva, wondering how the hell the new train we’re on boarding can change the gauge of the tracks and its height in relation to the rails – while on the move.

As we are proudly told, the train is a world first, and we are the first travel journalists to experience the new GoldenPass Express train before it enters commercial service between Montreux and Interlaken on December 11th. The Swiss dreamed of a direct train on this route for 150 years, and it took nearly 30 years to refine the technology to end the need for hundreds of thousands of tourists a year to change trains at Zweisimmen , where the standard and meter gauge tracks meet.

Despite the best efforts of the project managers, we only grasp the basics of the amazing engineering that makes this feat possible. At 15 km/h, the train passes over a device at track level which changes the width between the wheels and raises or lowers the height of the body. Beneath the coach is a bogie that functions as one of those maddening toy transformers. While the finer details escape us, we understand that the smart device and the new trains must have been very expensive, 90m francs (£78.4m) in fact.

Lane change ramp in Zweisimmen

Lane change ramp in Zweisimmen

So why do it? The GoldenPass route connects the two World Heritage areas of the Jungfrau and the Lavaux wine terraces that line the northern slopes overlooking Lake Geneva. Even though the beauty of the journey between them rivals the better-known route of the Glacier Express, the idea of ​​changing trains when heavy with luggage has too often deterred groups and independent travellers.

Leaving Montreux, we immediately see why the Montreux-Oberland-Bernois Bahn (MOB) sees so much more potential in the GoldenPass route, a name that dates back to the world’s first narrow-gauge Pullman train, introduced on the line in 1931. At the end, the line rears and begins a fierce ascent through the suburbs of Montreux, delightfully embellished with hectares of vines between the houses.

The lake extends to Geneva in the west, with snow-capped mountains in France flanking the southern shore. To the east, Villeneuve at the end of the lake, where Napoleon established a base for his crossing of the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard.

Montreux, Switzerland - Michal Ludwiczak

Montreux, Switzerland – Michal Ludwiczak

The steep side of the mountain forces the train to climb a series of disorienting horseshoe curves. Skirting the stones of the 15th century Château du Châtelard, the train reaches Les Avants where the view captivated Noël Coward so much that he lived in a chalet here for the last 14 years of his life. The train finally leaves the views of the lake up a valley of pine and beech forests to burrow into the 2.4 km summit tunnel.

It’s time to look at the new train. The MOB wanted to offer higher levels of comfort, and the GoldenPass Express includes a Prestige Class coach with heated, reclining leather seats that swivel so you can always face the direction of travel. Large glass surfaces next to and above the seats allow “more immersion in nature”, we are told, and all the food served on board is sourced from the surrounding area, except for the champagne. Even the caviar comes from the only sturgeon raised in Swiss spring water, in Frutigen.

Inside the GoldenPass Express Prestige

Inside the GoldenPass Express Prestige

Flashing in the daylight, we emerge into a classic alpine valley of rocky slopes, fir trees and isolated farmhouses. The train descends the side of the mountain in slalom to Montbovon before beginning a gentler climb towards Gstaad, passing in front of the famous chalet with 113 windows from 1754 in Rossinière. Hot air balloons often dot the sky above Château d’Oex, a center for the thrill of viewing the Alps from a wicker basket thanks to the village’s perfect microclimate.

The highest point of the line is reached by the climb from Gstaad, followed by another dizzying descent to Zweisimmen. Before we know it, we’ve discovered the magical contraption that makes this new train possible. We hear and feel nothing. We go out to contemplate the complex steel device and admire the ingenuity of its designers. We lose the MOB locomotive and gain one from the Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon Bahn (BLS) which will propel us to Interlaken.

The Simmental was a gift for railway builders, with only a few points where the huge rocky cliffs of the valley hug the river and the railway in a gorge. Covered wooden bridges span the Simme as the railway winds its way across the river to reach Spiez and a grandstand view of Lake Thun. The train descends to skirt the lake along a stretch of railway considered to be so scenic that the first carriages built for it had two-tier longitudinal beds.

We glide to Interlaken Ost along trains that wind up to 3,454m (11,332ft) and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch, another Swiss dream come true. A country popular for train travel has raised the bar yet again.

Essential

Four GoldenPass Express trains per day will travel the route in each direction, with journeys lasting three hours and 15 minutes. Fares are as follows (Prestige/1st/2nd): Montreux–Interlaken £111/81/46; Montreux–Gstaad £70/40/23; Spiez–Montreux £103/73/42; Interlaken–Gstaad £84/54/30. Reservations are compulsory for Prestige class (£30) and recommended for 1st and 2nd (£17). See gpx.swiss and myswitzerland.com for more information.

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