Rail Trip Through Swiss Alps Is a Treat

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Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer explored some old and new trains recently. Her report follows:

BERN, Switzerland -- I am a Luddite.

I didn't know I was until I boarded my first high-speed train in Switzerland and realized that the days of rail romance might soon be over.

As impressive as the on-board announcement "You have currently reached the speed of 186 miles per hour" might be to some, I yearned for the storied days when first class travel meant private passenger compartments, white-glove service and gourmet cuisine.

Such treats are still available on scheduled routes, but must be sought with deliberation.

Meanwhile, as the European Union aims to connect all of its cities with trains that go 140 mph and faster, there are benefits for the leisure traveler, such as more frequent connections and faster journeys through areas where going slow offers no scenic advantage.

But when it comes to dramatic scenery -- snowcapped Alps surrounded by dreamy lakes and Alpine cottages -- Switzerland is a wonderful place for a leisurely train trip.

Many tourists opt for the famous Glacier Express between Zermatt and Chur or St. Moritz, but this ride, which offers passengers entrancing perspectives from glass viewing cars, is more of a sightseeing excursion than a way of getting from A to B.

Between Lucerne and Spiez, however, by way of Interlaken, travelers also should try the sleepy Brunig Panoramic Express, a narrow-gauge line, and Golden Pass' Salon Bleu, which features enlarged windows for better viewing.

Both lines, which take their time winding through the Alps, run stately passenger cars with wide, overstuffed seats no business traveler would encounter on a congested commuter route. Wide windows perfect for gaping at the great outdoors are unique to these slow-moving, high-climbing trains of yesteryear.

Public transportation in Switzerland includes ferry rides, and a new perspective of the Alps can be gained by going by train from Interlaken to Speiz, then taking the hour-or-so ferry on Lake Thun to the tiny castle town of Thun and its picturesque chalets. Because the train does not go directly to the ferry in Spiez, clients with tight connections are advised to take a $5 cab the rest of the way.

A Swiss train I hope never to ride again -- although it has its fans -- is the Cisalpino, the tilting Italian Pendolino adopted for most of the Swiss high-speed rail system.

Instead of using expensive new track to obtain high speeds, the train tilts when rounding curves to maintain velocity. Boarding the train, I felt like I was in a space capsule.

The journey lasted 20 minutes but seemed like an eternity because the train's titling action turned my stomach.

A passenger told me when the Cisalpino made its debut in Switzerland a few years ago, it was lampooned by journalists for its effect on travelers sensitive to motion sickness. Since then, officials claim improvements have been made to provide for more tranquil travel.

One can only hope so, because the titling technology is said to be the wave of the future for European high-speed rail.

Much more relaxing were rides on the French TGV from Lausanne to Paris, the double-decker TGV from Paris to Lyon and the Thalys from Paris to Brussels, which uses TGV technology.

Traveling from Switzerland to France resulted in a bit of culture shock because I had to adjust from laid-back Lausanne to the bustling Gare de Lyon in Paris, where upon leaving the train I nearly was run over by a luggage transport that plowed through the crowd as if scoring points for jostling pedestrians.

The latest TGVs, like all high-speed trains, have plush chairs designed for lumbar support, headrests that double as pillows and seats that recline by pushing forward to maximize train space.

In first class, seats on one side of the isle are singles; on the other side, seats come in groups of twos and fours, the latter with handy tables and two seats facing "the wrong way."

My impressions:

  • For reasons no rail guru has been able to explain to me, high-speed trains feel more confining than their older, slower counterparts.
  • Even in second class, the high-speed trains I took offered plenty of leg and arm room. In fact, I could find little difference between the two classes.
  • Despite the cachet of high-speed trains, the snack cars on all of the trains I took sold overpriced, unremarkable fare.
  • My favorite was the red Thalys. If a train can be sexy, then the Thalys gets my vote.
  • The four-class Eurostar is as swank as the Concorde but more more affordable. The four-class train has art deco-inspired lamps and brown and tan geometric carpeting that lend it a clubby feel.
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