D A Y - E I G H T
Today we relocate. One lady (cousin) cannot take more time off work, and is headed home, the rest of us are bound for Chur, at the base of the mountains leading up to St. Moritz and good access to eastern cities. The evening before we trundle the big baggage for all of us to the rail station and pay the 7 francs apiece to ship them - the cousin's to the airport, and the rest of us to the Chur station. Everyone keeps an overnight bag for tonight and in the morning, but big bags will be a hassle.
The cousin departs north to Bern 30 minutes ahead of us with just the train change in Bern required (the train will be a thru-Zurich to the airport), and is confident she won't get "too" lost, and we depart later to the south. The trip from Thun to Chur can be made on direct mainline express via Zurich in a little over 3 hours, but that's for "wimps", and I don't mention that point to the girls.
Routes today: 300 145 620 630 600 610 612 920
Our trip duplicates the previous venture to Brig, where we swap trains to the next one thru the Simplon tunnel, which begins just south of Brig. Our train turns out to be a "Cisalpino" express through to Milan, and is "kinda" like a TGV or ICE trainset. BIG disappointment. Inside it appears to be of cheap construction, has unattractive decor, and in no way compares with the superlative ICE I rode earlier.
The tunnel itself sees several France - Italy thru services during the night hours, and during daylight sees a local plus one or two expresses most hours. Again, an occasional thru international service is in the mix. How do they handle customs? Like they should! The Swiss-Italian border is crossed in the tunnel, so as we traverse it "polezei" and customs officials pass thru the train checking passports. No "stop the train" and play stupid games like is done on the US/Canada borders.
A note I think I have overlooked so far in these discourses is hours of service. The Swiss system basically runs from about 5am to midnight every day, with that open "window" I would assume used primarily for maintenance. Even the mainlines are mostly without service in those hours (except for international thru service).
Anyhow, we traverse the tunnel, wind down a valley for a while, and debark in Domodossola. Signs direct us to our connecting train downstairs, and we enter a subway system and our first ride on the Italian/Swiss railways system "F.A.R.T" (yes, it always gets a double-take from english speaking patrons, and the bold chrome emblems on the cars are the subject of many-many comments). The initials stand for "Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi". The railcars are nicely done fairly new equipment similar to Swiss branchline service, and we roll out of a tunnel, cross thru a small village, and begin a long winding ascent up a pass.
As in the Swiss system, we have taken a seat in first class in this articulated 2-car set, but I note that (for a change), the driver's compartment has a solid glass wall behind, no shades have been lowered as is the common practive, no-one is occupying the first row of second-class seats right behind him, and we switch and are treated to an unobstructed view "cab ride" thru many miles of curving line in deep snow as we cross a mountain range and stop in numerous small hamlets.
Eventually we cross the Swiss border again. There is a road alongside where we stop at a station with the traditional "gates" where customs is performed for autos, but a customs agent merely boards our train, walks the length, and waves to the driver as he leaves and we are off again. We eventually approach a major town/city of Locarno, and drop into a modern subway system for a couple of miles before we reach a terminus underground. I cannot figure why the subway exists from a city center, as we did not stop, nor did I note any platforms passed. Perhaps this rail line was built at a later date and there was no other access available except for underground due to the age and density of the building above ground?
Nonetheless, we ride up an escalator and signs direct us onto the platforms of the regular Swiss system. There is only one train sitting in the station and the girls walk alongside towards the front looking for the first class car, while I check the ever-present yellow poster to confirm the track for out connection, which proves to be this train. I start walking forward, get about one car, and hear shouting from behind. Turning (as do the girls), we see train crew frantically waving us to get aboard, so we each find the closest door and enter as the train pulls out of the station. Being engrossed with the details, I had neglected to pay attention to time and we had actually arrived in the subway 4 minutes late, and this was a 5 minute connection. They had held the train's departure for connecting passengers, but weren't tolerating gawking tourists delaying things!
Anyhow, we run for awhile, then merge onto the main line coming from the south, and reach the end of this local service at Bellinzona, where we change trains to a thru train to continue northward. We are now on the Gotthard pass/tunnel route, the main/heaviest used connection between Italy to the south and Switzerland and the rest of europe to the north. This double track line is subject to EXTREMELY high traffic levels, with thousands of tons of freight moved daily in addition to at least 2 expresses per hour each way plus many international services. Traffic is so heavy that although there is a demand for local service on the line, there are no time gaps to provide the service, and a new tunnel to expand facilities is under construction.
To cope with the existing traffic level, the swiss have made every improvement possible. The line we are riding northward is climbing sharply and twisting thru narrow valleys over viaducts , but the topography does not allow much room, and there are several tight loops used to gain elevation, some in the open, and some partially or completely tunneled into the mountainsides. To keep traffic moving, the swiss have "superelevated" all the curves, even in the tight loops, and trains travel at a minimum of 50 mph over the route. Freight traffic is subject to the same constraints, so all freights have adequate power and short consists so their weight allows them to maintain the constant required speed. (Just go up, sit above the Tehachapi loop, and try to picture trains coming thru there at a constant 50 mph! - The Swiss do it 24 hours a day in tighter conditions!).
After the climb, the main tunnel is anticlimatic and we pop out the far end high in the mountains with a similar (but not as dramatic) descent ahead down to Arth-Goldau where the lines split to Lucerne, Zurich, and eastern Switzerland (I passed thru there on the "Voralpen Express" on the third day).
However, we are bound for some SERIOUS mountain railing, so we drop off at Goschanen, a stop just outside the northern tunnel portal. Here, a narrow gauge line descends from a plateau high above down a narrow crevasse in the mountainside at the rear of the main station, providing connections to the land of the "Glacier Express" high above.
We walk around the back to the platform, and "whoops" - MAJOR crowds! There is a 3 car train loading, it appears to be standing-room only, and there are still a couple hundred people on the ground! The train goes into motion, and I check and see it is about 5 minutes early on departure! Checking around reveals that this is an "extra", and that based on holiday crowds flocking to the snow/ski areas, they are just shuttling bodies as fast as they can get trains in. It is about 6 minutes up the steep rack assisted canyon, and sure enough 12 minutes later another train pulls in and begins loading. We will be about 7-8 minutes late however, and my next connection is another 5-minute one, so when the conductor checks tickets I ask about the connection and he informs me they know this train is late, but he will radio ahead to confirm there are connecting passengers.
Our climb up the crevasse is one of the more scenic we have encountered as we cross a bridge as we leave the station, then enter a tunnel, and as we exit the tunnel we are clawing up sheer rock on all sides, sometimes in tunnels, sometimes on ledges. The snow in the area has been getting daytime heat and nightime cold, and with melting and freezing there are huge icicles hanging from all the rock surfaces.
We top the crevasse after a few minutes, then cross a level valley buried in snow and pull into the Andermatt station. Here is our connection to the (route) of the "Glacier Express" (we take the route, but there are other non-reserved trains serving the line, which we ride).
To the west, the line does a gradual climb, then reaches the Furka-Oberalp pass, a tremendously high pass with such heavy snow and Ice that the rail line is always closed in winter, and even several bridges are always dismantled and removed since avalanches routinely destroyed them during the winter months. 20 plus years ago the Swiss "bit the bullet" and tunneled thru that particular mountain range, enabling year-around service on thru (to Brig and Zermatt), and also added the needed auto-shuttle service to the tunnel, since the highway over the pass also is closed in winter. The closed line sat dormant for several years, but was left in place and is now running again in summer as a "museum" line. My earlier guide, Dan Aeschbacher, works the line in the summer.
Anyhow, we are bound the opposite direction out of Andermatt, and we leave the station and immeditately engage a rack and begin a steep twisting ascent up a treelees mountainside over the Oberalp pass. This route switches back and forth as we climb several thousand feet high above Andermatt and the valley below, with ski runs abundant and people skiing and sledding everywhere. We make numerous stops, and while many people are using rope tows and chairlifts, many others board the train and ride up further then disembark and run down the slopes again.
We plow on through the snow and eventually reach the crest of the pass and begin a long steep but open (wide valley) down the far side. The mountains around us are heavily covered in snow, and areas of recent avalanches are clearly discernable from the broken-away snowfields high above. When snow conditions close the road over the pass, auto ferry service is offered with passengers riding a coach behind the flatcars.
We reach our destination and train change at Disentis-Munster at about the same time that we drop below the snow line, and make the usual short connection to another train. Here it is not a normal "connection" of crossing lines, as there is only a single line in the valley. Rather, it is a junction between private railways (all covered by the Swiss pass), and the only thru trains (there are more than just these 2 private lines involved) are the "Glacier Expresses", which swap power between lines but use thru cars. Other timeslots are train-changes, but they are direct platform changes so it is no big hassle. We wind ever ownard down the valley, merge with the line coming down from the San Moritz area which we will travel later, and arrive in Chur.
Here I experience my second "language difficulty", as we have reserved rooms at the "ABC hotel on the Bahnhof plaza". The street out front of the station contains 2 tracks of a local mountain railway, and across them are the city itself. I can see about 3 blocks down, and although I see a "hotel" sign down there, I see no ID so go to the "tourist information" office and inquire "english"? I get the "yes - I speak some - may I help?" which is common, and ask how to locate the ABC. Seems simple, right? WRONG! The woman informs me, "but of course - you must take the bus #22 out front - it is about 10 minutes from here". WHOA! That isn't "at the train station". I think about it a minute and my mind clicks "DUMMY". I have been listening to train platform announcements for a week ("Gleis" means track, and it is clearly marked on every track sign - track numbers are 2 - 3 - 4, but track 1 is always "Ein" in German) and realize that although I routinely hear announcements of platforms sections B-C-D etc, I never hear "A", I always hear "AH". AHA! Just as their letter "Z" is a "Zed", their "A" is an "AH". So I try again, "Hotel AH-B-C"? Bingo - "oh yes - just across the street and to your left" (the sign I had seen). The woman apologizes, and explains that she "heard" "A" as "AYE", and my "BC" as "Beece", and since there is a hotel IBIS, I was on my way to the bus!
OK - day is done - 8 more trains (now 78), another 325 miles (now over 2000 at 2074).
Tomorrow, I'll run around the east end while the ladies tour the "Old City" of Chur a couple of blocks from the hotel and see if there is an ecomomic slump in the east they can also jump-start.