Over the Oberalp

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Over the last couple of weekends I've been doing some exploring of the quieter railway lines of Switzerland. The country has a multitude of narrow-gauge lines serving the lumpier areas - they're far easier to build in mountainous terrain due to the necessary infrastructure and rolling stock being much smaller.

I'm currently restricting myself deliberately to routes on which a General Abonnement is valid. This means some famous railways are partially or entirely inaccessible (the Jungfraubahn, for instance, doesn't accept the GA for travel, but does give a 50% discount to GA and half-tax holders). The reason for this is that I'm trying to discover genuine "Get up and go" trips for people who either are fortunate enough to hold a GA already, or who hold a half-tax card and can therefore get the incredibly good value day tickets which are effectively a one-day GA. I guess I should also talk about these different ticket types sometime as well, not to mention the multiple options available to visitors to the country.

Today's trip was down into the heart of the Alps, to Andermatt near the Gotthard Pass. From there, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn runs service both west to Brig, Visp and Zermatt and east to Disentis, where the Rhätische Bahn takes over for the journey to Chur and St Moritz.

The first leg was an SBB Inter-Regio service from Zürich HB to Göschenen in the canton of Uri, not far from the Gotthard pass (in the timetable this is Table 600). Some IR services carry an observation car (Panoramawagen) - while it's only accessible to those with a valid First Class ticket, if you're feeling flush the views are spectacular. This is the main north-south route which crosses the Alps into Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and connects onwards for trains into Italy. After leaving Zürich there are views of the Zugersee before the line starts to climb up into the mountains through a multitude of short tunnels. Before Göschenen the line even gains height through a spiral tunnel.

Leaving the train at Göschenen, there's a nice view of the northern portals of the 15km Gotthard tunnel, which links Uri to Ticino under the Gotthard pass. This may sound long, but the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel (which you'll see works for in a number of places) will supersede it in a few years (and will become the world's longest rail tunnel). Through the underpass you'll find the platform for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn's shuttle service to Andermatt (Table 143). This is a relatively short but pretty steep rack railway, which gains about 300m between Göschenen and Andermatt - look out for the rough walls of the blasted tunnels.

At Andermatt the real fun begins. You're now on the route of the famous Glacier Express, although we're doing it the fun way, using the normal scheduled trains that run on the line rather than the glitzy Glacier Express service. This means you don't have to faff around with making reservations (which are compulsory for GE services), but also means you might want to take a sandwich or something along as there's no buffet service or trolley. You also don't have the shiny panoramic views the carriages on the Glacier Express give you, but the train windows are pretty big anyway (and, even better, they can be opened if you want to take photos without having to deal with the reflections).

The MGB runs the service from Andermatt to Disentis/Mustér (also on Table 143). The big surprise here is that all of a sudden, the announcements are in German and also in a language which sounds a bit like a hybrid of German, Italian and Martian. This is Romansch, Switzerland's fourth official language, which is spoken in some communities in this part of the country. 

After leaving Andermatt the train starts to climb. After a while there's a couple of metres of snow on the ground despite my doing this trip in May, and after 20 minutes the train has climbed about 600 metres and you reach the Oberalp Pass, at Oberalppass station. The pass is the border between the cantons of Uri and Graubunden, and after leaving Oberalppass the line starts to descend through a mixture of tunnels and galleries until it breaks out into a deep valley. As you pass the tiny village of Tschamut, the name of the local hotel - Hotel Rheinquelle - makes it clear that the source of the Rhine river is only a couple of kilometres away. The line runs down the valley with the infant Rhine (it's actually the Vorderrhein, one of the Rhine's two main tributaries) running nearby.

At Disentis (German) also known as Mustér (Romansch) the MGB train terminates. You now need to change - probably across the platform - to the Rhätische Bahn's service to Chur (Table 920). While less precipitously spectacular than the run from Andermatt, this section of the journey along the valley of the Vorderrhein gives plenty of nice views of the river as it grows into a serious river.

From Chur, I headed back to Zürich via an SBB express (Table 900), but there are plenty of other opportunities for further exploration in the area. The RhB's line continues to a number of other places, in particular further south to the Glacier Express's terminus at St Moritz.

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