As the train climbs the hill above the north shore of Lac Léman, leaving Montreux behind, I know exactly where we’re heading because I’ve done this trip before. The hustle and bustle of the so-called Swiss Riviera will give way to the peaceful agricultural countryside of the Pays d’Enhaut, followed by the exclusive resort town of Gstaad, before a gentle descent to Interlaken, between the twin lakes of Thun and Brienz in the Bernese Oberland. This 70-mile route, which crosses the röstigraben (French-Swiss German linguistic border) and connects some of the most famous tourist centers in Switzerland, has existed for more than 100 years. But today there is a big difference: Thanks to a world first in railway technology, I don’t have to change trains midway through.
The GoldenPass line, as it is called, was opened in stages between 1901 and 1916, the realization of a decades-old dream of connecting Lake Geneva, Gstaad and the Bernese Oberland by rail. But the journey has not been seamless. Due to the mountainous terrain, the railway from Montreux to Zweisimmen required meter gauge tracks (one meter wide), while the section from Zweisimmen to Interlaken was built in standard gauge (1,435 meters wide). As no train could travel on both, passengers had to change at Zweisimmen.
Not a big deal, you might think. However, the Swiss appreciate an engineering challenge, and this was one the Montreux Oberland Bernois Railways (MOB) and BLS (the two railway companies that operate the line) were determined to solve. After decades grappling with this technological conundrum, MOB proposed a solution in 2008: a custom-made bogie (the part of a train’s undercarriage that supports the wheels) that can shrink or widen to accommodate the different widths of the two railroads, as well as fit to the different heights of the platform.
Developed in Switzerland by Alstom, the resulting technology is unique. While variable gauge trolleys exist elsewhere, no other can fit as well as this one, making it a world first for Switzerland, a country that only loves a rail-related record. The Alpine nation already has the longest and deepest railway tunnel in the world (the Gotthard Base Tunnel), the steepest funicular railway in the world (the Stoosbahn in Schwyz) and the highest railway station in Europe (the Jungfraujoch at 3,454m meters). The world’s most variable bogie may not have the same loop, but it’s still a remarkable achievement in train technology.
From December 11, the brand new GoldenPass Express trains, equipped with these bogies, offer passengers a non-stop journey of 3 hours and 15 minutes without the need to carry luggage from one platform to another in the middle. However, that’s not the only reason why MOB invested £77m in the project. He also wanted to bring glamor to the line. The new carriages have large split windows and seating in all three classes: second, first and ‘prestige’. The latter is a step up, quite literally: the carriage sits 40cm higher than the rest, presumably immersing passengers more fully in the landscape (although I find the scenery just as glorious as second class), while its seats heated and reclining they can rotate to face the direction of travel. The onboard menu of local produce also added a wow factor to the former and prestige, including Swiss-produced caviar from Frutigen’s Tropenhaus, a fish farm that harnesses thermal water from the mountains.
While all of this is enchanting, nothing beats the view. This ultra-modern ride takes us through rural train stations, traditional wooden chalets and farm buildings, forests daubed with fresh snow and the 15th-century church of Château d’Oex, whose location on La Motte rock makes it a photogenic focal point during the hot air balloon festival which takes place here every January. While the idea of the GoldenPass Express is that you don’t get off, there are plenty of temptations along the way.
We swapped French for Swiss German, the palm trees and vineyards of Montreux for views of the Eiger and Jungfrau
The technological magic happens after about two hours, when we reach the Zweisimmen station. When the carriages pass over a special ramp installed on the track, the lugs support their weight so that the bogies can adjust without pressure. It happens in seconds and so smoothly that it’s unnoticeable, which is exactly the point. Most of the eight-minute stopping time is taken up by switching the locomotive driving the train, since the two railways also run on different electrical voltages.
Then we set off again, forward and gently downhill until we emerge from the hills and skirt Lake Thun on the road to Interlaken, where our journey ends. We exchanged French for Swiss German, the palm trees and vineyards of Montreux with views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (Grindelwald, with its new Eiger Express cable car and connection to the Jungfraujoch, is only half ‘now away) and it’s finally time to disembark. However, the GoldenPass line doesn’t actually end there. From Interlaken passengers can continue on to Lucerne, albeit with a change of train as part of that stretch of railway is cog railway. Could the new trains be adapted accordingly? It is yet another technical challenge for the Swiss to solve and I have no doubt that one day they will.
This trip was offered by Switzerland Tourism and the Swiss Travel System. A one-way trip from Montreux to Interlaken costs from CHF53 (£46) in second class. Seat reservations are recommended, at an additional cost (£17).