Rail route of the month: from Basel to Locarno, the classic slow of the Swiss Alps | Travel by rail

AAt just over 35 miles, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the longest rail tunnel in the world. When it opened in 2016, there was speculation about the fate of the old Gotthard Railway through the Swiss Alps. It is a strongly graduated sinuous line; it runs along Lake Lucerne then sinks under the Saint-Gothard massif to join the Ticino valley which flows south towards Italy.

Fortunately, the decision of Swiss rail operator Südostbahn (SOB) to step in with a new rail service on the old line has breathed new life into a classic rail route. The first trains from Basel via the old Gotthard line, to Locarno, ran in April 2021. It’s a perfect north-south connection across the Alps, and particularly well suited to travelers from the UK; Basel is the most accessible Swiss city by train, taking just seven hours from London with an easy train change in Paris or, on some services, Paris and Strasbourg.

The Treno Gottardo is a slow serve; there are 20 stops between Basel and Locarno in 4h30

Basel is close to 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 the railway, his home town was a place of multiple personalities. In Jung’s time, there was the Swiss station (today Basel SBB), the German station and the French station. It’s still pretty much the same, even if the French station is really little more than a seedy annex of the Swiss station. This section for French trains is often referred to simply as Westflügel (west wing).

A stylish train

The copper-coloured Treno Gottardo from SOB in Locarno is waiting at Platform 6 of SBB Basel. It is not a large intercity train, but a modest Interregio linking the main Swiss regions, with many stops along the way. For the Treno Gottardo, that means 20 stops on the 4.5-hour journey to Locarno. There are faster routes from Basel to the Ticino region – the sleek high-speed trains run through the new Gotthard base tunnel – but who would want to miss the Alpine scenery by traveling through a very long tunnel?

We slip out of Basel, swapping the densely populated suburbs of Liestal for the forested hills around the Homburger Valley, then dive into the Hauenstein Tunnel. Emerging into the sunshine, the Treno Gottardo makes a theatrical loop, crossing the Aare River to reach the first stop at Olten. From there it’s only a short hop south to Lucerne, but it’s a moment to note the stunning design that underpins the Treno Gottardo’s appeal.

Alfalfa. Photography: Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

SOB’s introduction of sleek Stadler Traverso trains in recent years has brought real style to this new route. A creative seating arrangement, generous space and large panoramic windows make these Traverso trains perfect for a gentle rail cruise through the Alps. Few travelers make the full 180 mile journey from one end to the other. This is a train that is mainly used for journeys between the municipalities along the route: Olten, Lucerne, Bellinzona and the villages in the upper part of the Ticino valley that rely on the Treno Gottardo as their main public transport link with the rest of the world. It is the mix of travelers that gives character to trips on the Treno Gottardo.

Shape the nation

Two hours into the trip, we’ve slid past the Rigi massif, passed the Lauerzersee and cruised along the eastern shore of the Urner See – the beautiful southernmost arm of Lake Lucerne. Across the water, there is a fine view of the Rütli meadows, where representatives of Switzerland’s three founding cantons are said to have gathered to take the oath of allegiance. On the other side of the lake, a bedrock bears an inscription recognizing Friedrich Schiller as the bard of Tell. Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell and Rossini’s opera on the same theme sealed this highest part of Lake Lucerne as the cradle of Swiss identity.

The entire Gotthard Railway, completed in 1882, was central to Swiss nation-building. This daring route through the Hautes Alpes reinforced Switzerland’s claim to be a natural mediator in the heart of Europe. In the mid-1880s, Switzerland was nicknamed the Gotthard Nation. The illustrious guidebook publisher Baedeker praised the Gotthard Railway as “one of the greatest achievements of modern engineering”. And this display of engineering prowess has become essential to Switzerland’s self-understanding as a progressive and modern nation.

Countryside in Flüelen on Urner See, the southernmost part of Lake Lucerne.
Countryside in Flüelen on Urnersee, the southernmost part of Lake Lucerne. Photography: Christoph Rueegg/Alamy

Beyond Flüelen, at the end of the Urnersee, the train winds its way up the Reuss Valley, performing neat pirouettes through circular tunnels, offering three different perspectives of the beautiful Roman Catholic church of Wassen along the way. Göschenen, at the northern portal of the original Gotthard tunnel, makes a good stopover for a few hours. At the station there is an exhibition on the Gotthard route, and it is an easy walk into the village, which has a neglected charm. Beyond the Göschenen tunnel – fortunately nine miles, much shorter than the new base tunnel – the Treno Gottardo descends in short spiral loops through the vineyards and chestnut groves of the Ticino valley.

This scenic journey along the classic Gotthard line is a breathtaking experience, chasing the sights as the train twists and turns. But peak viewing is not mandatory and, having driven the route a few times, I now often sit and let the scenery evolve. This itinerary is pure cinema. And it’s much more comfortable these days than in pre-rail times; When the Welsh chronicler Adam of Usk crossed the Gotthard in an ox-cart in the early 15th century, he was so terrified he traveled blindfolded.

The village of Göschenen at the northern end of the tunnel makes a good stop.
The village of Göschenen at the northern end of the tunnel makes a good stop. Photography: Hidden Europe

The trip ends in Locarno on the shores of Lake Maggiore. You might want to hop straight back on the train for the return trip, but elegant Locarno deserves a few days. From there my preferred route south into Italy is with the seasonal boat service on Lake Maggiore to the Borromean Islands and Stresa, from where there is a good train service to Milan.

Travel Notes
The Treno Gottardo leaves Basel every two hours for Locarno. For a few weeks in early summer, engineering work will require a train change in Olten, approximately 30 minutes into the journey. The fully flexible one-way fare from Basel to Locarno is 84 Swiss francs (£69). Cheaper restricted fares (non-stop) 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 raileurope.com (sterling fares available, but note that there is a booking fee of £6.95). If it is part of a longer rail circuit, an Interrail pass is the best option and offers maximum flexibility. Prices start at £155 (€185) for a four-day pass, allaboard.eu. There’s also the Swiss Rail Pass with unlimited travel on buses, funiculars, free access to museums and boat trips as well as trains (£229 for four days).

Nicky Gardner is co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published in April 2022 (available from the Guardian Bookstore for £16.52)

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