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Train vs. Bus from Bellinzona to Chur

I'm planning a short detour from Italy up to Switzerland to enjoy some scenery in late August. I've seen quite a lot of Switzerland in the past (though not recently), but my travel mate has never been there, so I think this is a good opportunity to make a quick, relatively inexpensive foray across the border. We will start with the Centovalli route from Domodossola to Locarno, then grab a train to Bellinzona for a couple of nights. As we move on from Bellinzona to Chur (to begin the Bernina route terminating in Tirano), we have a choice between what I believe is a highly scenic train route (Bellinzona-Faldo-Airolo-Andermatt-Chur) and a more direct bus trip (Bellinzona-Mesocco-Spluegen-Chur).

Can anyone compare the scenery on the train and bus routes between Bellinzona and Chur?

The train takes quite a bit longer (roughly 4:00 vs. 2:10) and involves an annoying 3 transfers. There would be a total of 6 transfers that day since we're avoiding the extra-cost Glacier Express and Bernina Express departures.

On the other hand, both of us have a history of feeling queasy in road vehicles; I was quite uncomfortable on a different bus trip through the Swiss mountains many years ago. It's the speeding up and slowing down, plus the swinging around curves, that seem to do me in. Dramamine dosage is a tricky thing when you want to remain awake to enjoy the spectacular Alps.

Because of the greater potential for nausea on a bus, we're leaning toward the train trip. Is there a reason (scenery or otherwise) we shouldn't go that way?

We'll be buying a Saver Day Pass for the long travel day between Bellinzona and Tirano, so there's no cost difference to be considered here.

Thanks for any comments you can offer.

Posted by
19929 posts

I haven't been on it. If you have the patience, you could "drive" it on Google street view. It is a Swiss autoroute, even is just 2-lane for the most part. A lot of tunnels that eliminate most of the switch backs. I'd tend to stick to the rail routes if time was no object, and with a Saver Day Pass, money is no object.

Posted by
16131 posts

HI acraven,

You can see both the train and bus routes on this map of the Swiss transport system (Postbuses are in yellow):

https://www.mystsnet.com/en/download/swiss-travel-system-map-en-2023/?wpdmdl=14294&masterkey=63a023c8da36c

That will be a very long day to Tirano whichever way you go. If the goal is to visit Bellinzona, then go to Lago di Como, why not go from Bellinzona to Lugano (13-20 minutes by train) and then a short bus ride to Menaggio on Lake Como?

Or, if spending a bit of time in Switzerland the goal, you could go from Locarno to Flüelen on Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee) over the Gotthard Pass route, and take a boat to one of the lakeside towns, then the next day connect to Arth Goldau for the direct train to Milan, for a short ride to one of the Lake Como towns. Or just stay in Locarno and visit Valle Verzasca:

https://www.ascona-locarno.com/en/explore/valle-verzasca

Your plan appears to be focused on the Bernina Pass train. I know it gets a lot of love here; it seems to have become a “thing” with Instagram fame. But I wonder how much of that comes from people who have done both that and the Gotthard Pass route. The Bernina Pass route is indeed scenic, but it is a long detour for most itineraries. Having done both more than once, I will say I prefer the Gotthard Pass route for more interesting and varied scenery—-lakes, little villages, waterfalls, glaciated peaks, handling glaciers.

Posted by
27020 posts

I didn't think about using Google Maps to drive part of the bus route. That's a good idea!

Lola, the trip is a way of linking the Centovalli route (which I have taken and really liked) and the Bernina Express route (which I haven't traversed, never having been to that corner of Switzerland). Bellinzona is a convenient linking point since my travel mate likes castles and I've never stepped off the train there. I've been to Locarno, Val Verzasca, Lugano, Luzern, Bern, Zurich, Thun, Appenzell, St. Gallen, Geneva and quite a few smaller places over the years, some of them multiple times. I want to see something new this time, thus the rather odd itinerary.

Unfortunately, neither of us can do any significant rural walking, and my friend is a lot less enamored of cute small towns without significant sights than I am, so blasting through the Alps on a bunch of trains seems like not a bad idea. I know from experience I'm OK with a full day in transit if the scenery is really nice; we're going to find out how my friend feels about that. At least with the Saver Day Pass we won't spend an exorbitant amount of money on this experiment. I do sort of regret not seeing nice Swiss lake scenery, but if the lodging gods smile, we'll have some time on Lake Como.

Posted by
1521 posts

I have done both routes several times on my car. The bus is the most direct itinerary and so much shorter, so I would ordinarily advice for this. It is over the St. Bernardino highway; the first section is relatively flat, then there is a dramatic ascent. The route is meant to be highway standard, so curves are not very narrow, but frankly speaking is better than an ordinary road but an hell of an highway, and if you are stuck on the back of a truck it takes forever. On the top there is a short tunnel, the north side of the pass is relatively straight but for a short gorge.

The other itinerary is a railway buff paradise. The first stretch is the old Gotthard route. Very windy and quite steep for being a train; there is a place where the railway travels at three different levels on the same side of the mountain, so from the top level you can see two lower stretches of track (sear on the left side). There are elicoidal tunnels, that are corkscrew-shaped, but you cannot feel the curve in the train. Then there is the old Gotthard railway tunnel, quite long. At the north side of the tunnel you get out at Goschenen, and transfer to a small train leaving in front of the station. The stretch to Andermatt is in a spectacular gorge, but most of the railway track is between snow sheds (seat on the left side). Railway is so steep that needs rack. At Andermatt you switch to another rack train, the ascent to Oberalp pass is magnificent as the railway threads on a side of the mountain (like the Gotthard but much more times), you can see the Andermatt station down below like from an airplane (of course you need a clear day). The other side the of the Oberalp is not as dramatic but still quite steep. (This time seat on the right side). At Disentis you need another change as the rack engine is no more needed, the route to Chur is in a relatively flat and calm valley (seat on the right, but makes little difference).

The railway itinerary is so long; running also the Bernina line after it is frankly a lot of railway. Changing is not an issue if you manage not to be overloaded with luggage.

If you want to have an idea of the railway, these two videos from the engine are very clear.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cq_8IgaFpwY (the first 10 minutes to Andermatt)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ef7ppIeFMkw

And this is the post bus Bellinzona-Chur
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3JbGNtxkc4

If you try to do all the way to Tirano in a single day you can shave off half an hour by changing in Reichenau-Tamins to St.Moritz instead of changing in Chur and having to backtrack. But it looks to me a never ending day.

Two possible variations: going back to Bellinzona from Chur by bus and making a round trip. - Overnighting somewhere (I like Disentis more than Chur or St. Moritz, by the way, it is in the middle of nowhere but has a baroque abbey).

Posted by
740 posts

We did the Bellinzona to Chur bus a couple years ago and didn't think a thing of it. In fact, I had to pull up my notes to make sure that day was by bus, and confirmed it had to have been. But the fact it was an unremarkable and forgettable bus ride means we clearly had no issues. Of course, it also means it wasn't a bus ride that left us amazed at the scenery -- that had been earlier in the day between Chur and Zillis / Zillis to Bellinzona. THOSE rides I remember! You would not have been happy for what it took to get up into Zillis and the Church of St. Martin!

Posted by
16131 posts

Lachera, thank you for your detailed description of the train route, and all the changes required. I know a lot of people look at a rail map of Switzerland and see the two lines (Glacier Express and Treno Gottardo) crossing one another, and think they can make a simple change from one to the other. But in fact the Gottardo train is in a tunnel at that point, with the Glacier Express tracks well above. So they must leave the Gottardo train at Göschenen and change to the rack railway for the climb up to Andermatt to catch an eastbound train there, with another change at Disentis.

All part of the fun of riding trains around Switzerland.

Posted by
27020 posts

Thanks for all the details and the video links, Lachera. I'll remind my friend to revisit this thread so she can access this additional information.

I do know Saver Day Passes for August 29 will soon be available. I don't like buying non-refundable things that early, but I don't dare risk waiting long enough for it to make a significant difference in the risk. Without the SDP, I believe the fare would be around CHF 125. I'm pleased the fare for the Milan-Domodossola-Bellinzona trip is about the same as the cost of an SDP, so there's no advance purchasing required for that travel leg.

I'm looking forward to seeing a bit of Switzerland again, but planning a trip to such an expensive country is stressful. You just know there could be a major financial penalty if you mess something up!

Posted by
1521 posts

Well, the new Gotthard base tunnel crosses the Andermatt-Disentis line about at Sedrun, but 550 meters deeper; as two building and airing vertical shafts had been bored and a technical station for railway traffic and emergencies had been built underground, it was considered to link the station with an elevator and open it to the public. It had to be named "Porta Alpina" (Alpine door); but in the end it was decided to be too expensive for the Graubunden canton. It may still be done in the future; say, 30 or 50 years from now. It would have saved two or three hours to your trip and would have been an unique experience.

[Interestingly, I rent an home all years for three weeks in Igls near Innsbruck. This August I woke up hearing a distant click at 6.00am exactly every morning. They were the miners boring the new Brenner railway tunnel just 300 meters under that home.]

Posted by
16131 posts

In 2010, before the deep Gotthard Basis tunnel was built (it is now closed by an accident that requires extensive repairs), we rode the Cisalpina train from Zurich to Milan, over the Gotthard Pass route now used by the Treno Gottardo and Gotthard Panorama Express. (And for the duration of the closure of the deep tunnel, by all direct trains between Zurich/Luzern and Milan). Here is an interesting article on the recent history of this route and the controversial “tilting trains” that were built to handle all the curves:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisalpino