Dear fellow travellers
This autumn has seen the completion of a 30-year project to build a new main north-south rail route through Switzerland. The 57-km Gotthard Base tunnel opened in 2016, and then in September this year the first trains ran through the new Ceneri Base Tunnel. In mid-December, new Swiss rail timetables come into effect, and high-speed trains will then dash from Zürich to Milan in just 3 hours 17 minutes. It’s very fast, but you won’t see too much of the Alps.
The classic Gotthard railway
But what of the lovely old Gotthard route? When fast trains were diverted through the new Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2016, we feared for the future of the original Gotthard line. It was relegated to a secondary route, used almost exclusively by local trains.
No longer did the great expresses tackle steep gradients by the impetuous waters of the Reuss, and later perform elegant pirouettes on the spiral loops at Airolo as, on the south side of the Gotthard, the railway dropped down into the Ticino Valley. True, the classic line has its share of darkness for the watershed is crested in a tunnel, but that is a mere 15 kilometres in length. And on that original Gotthard line, there is a real sense of being in the mountains, and that’s somehow missing in the prolonged darkness of the new Gotthard Base Tunnel.
The good news is that the classic Gotthard route acquires regular year-round long-distance services again from 14 December. So those who don’t fancy a fast dash through the Gotthard Base Tunnel now have an alternative. The key asset of the old line, namely its views, is now showcased by calling the route the Gotthard Panorama Railway.
The new Treno Gottardo
The new service from mid-December is branded the Treno Gottardo, favouring the Italian name for the Gotthard route. It is not just a case of linguistic bias, but rather a nod to railway history, for the most celebrated of the grand expresses that once used this route was called the Gottardo. This was one of the longest surviving trains in the TEE network of exclusively first-class daytime passenger trains.
TEE stood for Trans-Europe Express. Fifty years ago, you could board the Gottardo at Bâle/Basel at 7.30 in the morning and travel in air-conditioned comfort through the Alps to reach Milan six hours later. The six-carriage Gottardo TEE train carried 168 passengers in open saloons - a seating arrangement that was seen as very modern at a time when separate compartments were still the norm on most long-distance trains in Europe. The Gottardo had a full-service restaurant car where passengers could enjoy a leisurely breakfast as the TEE train rattled along the shores of Lake Lucerne.
'Rattled' is the key word here. It is easy to look back with nostalgia at rail journeys of yesteryear. The reality is that trains and rail travel have become a good deal more comfortable over the last half-century. So we are really looking forward to trying the new incarnation of the Gottardo.
A slow route to Italy
The new service is run by a Swiss rail operator called Südostbahn (SOB) which is based in St Gallen in the north-east corner of the country. SOB already runs the hourly panorama express service from St Gallen to Lucerne, a route which we featured earlier this year in issue 61 of hidden europe magazine. Now SOB is using its smart carriages with big windows on the Treno Gottardo which will run every two hours from Bâle to Bellinzona via Lucerne and the old Gotthard railway. In Bellinzona there will be an onward connection to Milan.
From early April 2021, the Treno Gottardo will continue beyond Bellinzona to terminate at Locarno from where it is but a short hop from the station to the landing stage for the lake steamer down Lago Maggiore to the Borromean Islands and other destinations in Italy.
Speed versus slowness
Fifty years ago the Gottardo was celebrated for its speed. Travel pieties have changed, and these days discerning travellers value a modest pace. The new Treno Gottardo has the potential to rival the famous panorama trains in Switzerland, such as the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express. And it has the great advantage that it’s a regular scheduled train which runs 365 days a year with no need for pricey supplements or seat reservations. Just hop on and ride! Particularly when combined with an onward sailing on Lago Maggiore, it seems to us to be the perfect way to travel from Bâle to northern Italy.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)