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I'm a regular visitor to Geneva, where I grew up, but often fly into Zurich a three-hour train ride away. I'd rather ride the rails than transfer to a domestic flight. The scenery keeps me awake. If the train goes via Bern, the windows provide a passing panorama of cow-chewed pastures dotted with castles and tidy villages. If I connect through Biel instead, the Bernese Alps are strung out across Lake Neuchatel like a vision of the afterlife.
This public train journey costs a fraction of the price of the famous private Jungfrau rack railway, and I think is more satisfying. Switzerland's dramatic alpine railways are superb, but they cost a motza and are crowded with tourists. On a regular commuter train journey, scenery is found around every bend and Swiss trains are reliable, clean and comfortable, so you'll never have a bad experience.
Of all the regular public services, the ride between Geneva and Montreux might be best. The railway line skirts Lake Geneva and, apart from suburban ugliness around Lausanne, features vineyards and views across the lake to the French Alps on the far side. Occasionally you blow past a medieval village. By the time you approach Montreux, the terraced vineyards are spectacular. Stay on the train, or transfer to the local all-stops, and you pass under the walls of Chillon Castle just past Montreux, one of the country's classic postcard sights.
Most Swiss live on the plateau that splits the Alps and Jura Mountains to the north, so that's where you'll find most public railways. You miss out on high mountains (though they often lurk on the horizon), but you get gorgeous countryside instead.
Ride between Lausanne and Bern and you cross the linguistic border, as you'll notice when train announcements switch from French to German. Most of the time you're in the canton of Fribourg, which provides some of Switzerland's prettiest scenery. The green, rolling countryside is clumped with pine forest and red-roofed farmhouses. Fortified towns flash by. Fribourg town looks great as the train crosses the Sarine River. Bern too makes for an impressive approach.
Another lovely country ride takes you between Lucerne and Bern along the Emmental Valley through a UNESCO biosphere reserve. You pass big, comfortable-looking farmhouses where Emmental cheese is produced, and across moorland. Streams jump and gurgle beside the tracks and in summer the meadows are blurred with flowers.
In Switzerland's north-west corner, the short ride from the spa town of Yverdon to university and watch-making centre Neuchatel is a treat. The lake of Neuchatel is pale and pleasant and, at points, the rail lines are almost in the water. Look out for Grandson Castle, where the battlements tremble as the trains pass. The ride on towards Basel is almost as good, skirting another lake and the foothills of the Jura Mountains.
The St Gallen to Lucerne route is splendid. Do it in that direction (heading south-west) and the train races you towards a splendid jagged-ness of Alps on the horizon. These routes, through what the Swiss call the pre-Alps, provide brilliant scenery. Public rail lines in the Alps themselves are more limited (rack railways are privately owned) and often resort to tunnels. The splendid train from Chur to St Moritz hauls you through peaks gleaming with snow but often leaves you in the dark.
The trip from Lucerne to Lugano also goes from dark to light but is very impressive. It takes you from steep-sided outlooks over alpine lakes and pine trees to the palm trees of Italian-speaking Switzerland, where the sun shines and town squares are filled with cafes. But perhaps the journey from Interlaken to Montreux via posh resort Gstaad is best: two hours of the look-at-me panoramas that Switzerland so effortlessly provides.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe and Cathay Pacific.
Rail Europe books train journeys in Switzerland and offers a variety of passes that cover unlimited travel for varying numbers of days. See raileurope.com.au