World class scenic winter train travel

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Ed Perkins

If you want to enjoy spectacular snowscapes without the hassle of winter driving, take a train.

Except in unusual circumstances, railroads keep their tracks open through snowfall heavy enough to shut down the highways. And many of them travel on routes with better sightseeing than you can find anywhere else.

If you want really great snow scenery, you can’t beat Switzerland. Although my recent (sponsored) train trips there were in snow-free late summer, I’ve also done them in winter, and you just can’t beat the Swiss panorama trains for scenery any time of the year.

The Swiss Alps times three

The Glacier Express is the number one Swiss panorama train. It runs between St. Moritz and Zermatt all year, with the exception of a break from Oct.  23 to Dec. 10. Winter trains with panorama cars operate once daily in each direction.

If you prefer, you can take less than the full trip, but don’t miss the section between Chur and St. Moritz over the UNESCO World Heritage Albula route. A full eight hours in the spectacular Alps — what more do I need to say?

The Bernina Express takes you from Alpine Chur or St. Moritz over the Bernina pass and down a spectacular line to comparatively sunny Tirano, Italy. Winter or summer, it’s one of the world’s great scenic rail journeys.

Trains operate all year, although sometimes you have to change at Ponteressina, near St. Moritz. The schedule favors southbound trips for best daylight viewing.

The Gotthard Panorama Express takes you over the former mainline that has been bypassed by the new 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel. The new tunnel cuts the travel time substantially, but 35 miles in a tunnel under the Alps isn’t a big sightseeing event.

Instead, take the panoramic train over the steep grades, curves, and spiral tunnels along deep river valleys and gorges. The Panorama Express trip runs between Lucerne and Lugano, combining a boat trip on Lake Lucerne with the train.

All three Swiss trains are covered by Swiss Travel Pass. But if one is enough, you can buy individual tickets. All three require reservations, with an extra fee. Buy either way online at sbb.ch/en or raileurope.com.

North American excursions

If you can’t make it to Switzerland, you can find some good winter rail sightseeing closer to home.

North America’s top winter rail trip is on the Canadian, between Toronto and Vancouver, which operates twice weekly in each direction during the winter. A friend takes this four-night trip every year or two, in the middle of winter, for the great scenery, especially in the Rockies between Vancouver and Edmonton. Find a deal on a cabin for one or two during one of VIA Rail Canada’s weekly “discount Tuesday” promotions.

Amtrak’s two top winter scenery trains operate through the western mountains:

The California Zephyr, between Chicago and Emeryville (for San Francisco), provides daytime sightseeing over the Rockies and Sierras on successive daytime segments. Daylight sightseeing through the Rockies is better westbound. If you just want the mountains, start or end your trip in Denver rather than Chicago.

The Empire Builder passes next to Glacier National Park in Montana on its trip through the Rockies, and it also passes through the Cascade Range in Washington. The best daytime Glacier Park sightseeing times are on the eastbound trip; in winter, you don’t get much daylight through the Cascades in either direction.

Other Amtrak trains with the potential for winter snow include the Pennsylvanian, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia; the westbound schedule isn’t good for daylight in the Appalachians. The Lake Shore Limited through the Berkshires, between Boston and Albany, might work, although the schedules limit daylight viewing in the mountains in both directions until early spring.

Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.

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