At just over 35 miles, the Gotthard base tunnel is the world’s longest railway tunnel. When it opened in 2016, there was speculation as to the fate of the old Gotthard railway through the Swiss Alps. It’s a steeply graded, sinuous line; it skirts Lake Lucerne and then cuts under the St Gotthard Massif to reach the Ticino valley which drains south towards Italy.
Thankfully, the decision of Swiss rail operator Südostbahn (SOB) to step in with a new train service on the legacy line has breathed fresh life into a classic rail route. The first trains from Basel via the old Gotthard line, right through to Locarno, ran in April 2021. It’s a perfect north-south connection through the Alps, and one especially well suited to travellers from the UK; Basel is the most accessible Swiss city by train, taking just seven hours from London with an easy change of train in Paris or, on some services, Paris and Strasbourg.
Basel is by the railway, although the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who spent many childhood years in and around the city, remarked that when it came to railways his home town was a place of multiple personalities. In Jung’s day there was the Swiss station (now known as Basel SBB), the German station and the French station. It’s still much the same, although the French station is really little more than a down-at-heel annex of the Swiss station. That section for French trains is often referred to simply as the Westflügel (West Wing).
A train with style
SOB’s copper-hued Treno Gottardo to Locarno waits at Platform 6 at Basel SBB. This is no grand intercity train, but a modest Interregio linking key Swiss regions, with many stops along the way. For the Treno Gottardo that means 20 stops on the 4½-hour journey to Locarno. There are faster routes from Basel to the Ticino region – the sleek high-speed trains dash through the new Gotthard base tunnel – but who wants to miss the Alpine scenery by travelling through a very long tunnel?
We slip out of Basel, swapping densely settled suburbs at Liestal for the forested hills around the Homburger valley and then dive into the Hauenstein tunnel. Emerging into the sunshine, the Treno Gottardo makes a theatrical loop, crossing the River Aare to reach the first stop at Olten. From here it is a short hop south to Lucerne, but it’s a moment to note the great design which underpins the appeal of the Treno Gottardo.
SOB’s introduction of stylish Stadler Traverso trains in the past few years has brought real flair to this new route. Creative seating arrangements, generous space and large panorama windows make these Traverso trains perfect for a gentle rail cruise through the Alps. Few travellers make the full 180-mile journey from end to end. This is a train which is used mainly for journeys between communities along the route: Olten, Lucerne, Bellinzona, and villages in the upper part of the Ticino valley which rely on the Treno Gottardo as their main public transport link with the wider world. It is the mix of travellers which gives character to journeys on the Treno Gottardo.
Shaping the nation
Two hours into the journey, we have slipped by the Rigi massif, passed the Lauerzersee and are cruising along the east shore of the Urner See – the utterly beautiful southernmost limb of Lake Lucerne. Across the water there is a fine view of the meadows at Rütli, where representatives of Switzerland’s three founding cantons allegedly met to swear an oath of allegiance. On the far side of the lake a rocky plinth bears an inscription acknowledging Friedrich Schiller as the Bard of Tell. Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell and Rossini’s opera on the same theme sealed this uppermost part of Lake Lucerne as the cradle of Swiss identity.
The entire Gotthard railway, which was completed in 1882, was central to Swiss nation-building. This bold route through the High Alps underpinned Switzerland’s claim to being a natural mediator at the heart of Europe. By the mid-1880s, Switzerland was dubbed Gotthard Nation. The illustrious guidebook publisher Baedeker praised the Gotthard railway as “one of the grandest achievements of modern engineering.” And that demonstration of engineering prowess became central to Swiss self-understanding as a progressive, modern nation.
Beyond Flüelen, at the end of the Urnersee, the train climbs up the Reuss valley, performing neat pirouettes through circular tunnels, along the way affording three different perspectives on the handsome Roman Catholic church at Wassen. Göschenen, at the northern portal of the original Gotthard tunnel, makes a good stop for a couple of hours. At the station there is an exhibition on the Gotthard route, and it’s an easy walk into the village, which has an unkempt charm. Beyond the tunnel at Göschenen – happily, at nine miles, much shorter than the new Base tunnel – the Treno Gottardo descends through short spiral loops into the vineyards and chestnut groves of the Ticino valley.
This panoramic journey along the classic Gotthard line is neck-craning stuff, chasing the views as the train twists and turns. But peak spotting isn’t obligatory and, having travelled the route many times, I often now just sit back and let the landscape evolve. This route is pure cinema. And it’s a good deal more comfortable these days than in the pre-railway era; when the Welsh chronicler Adam of Usk crossed the Gotthard in an ox cart in the early 15th century, he was so terrified that he travelled blindfolded.
The journey ends at Locarno on the shores of Lake Maggiore. You may want to hop straight back on the train for the return run, but elegant Locarno warrants a couple of days. From here, my favourite route south into Italy is with the seasonal boat service down Lake Maggiore to the Borromean Islands and Stresa, from where there’s a good train service to Milan.
The Treno Gottardo leaves Basel every two hours for Locarno. For a few weeks in the early summer, engineering work will necessitate a change of train at Olten, about 30 minutes into the journey. The fully flexible one-way fare from Basel to Locarno is 84 Swiss francs (£69). Cheaper restricted fares (no stopovers) from £25. The full range of flexible and discounted tickets can be booked online at sbb.ch (for the best fares in Swiss francs), or book at raileurope.com (sterling fares available, but note there’s a £6.95 booking fee). If part of a longer rail tour, an Interrail pass is the best option and offers maximum flexibility. Prices start at £155 (€185) for a four-day pass, allaboard.eu. There is also the Swiss rail pass with unlimited travel on buses, funiculars, free access to museums and boat travel as well as trains (£229 for four days).