A Südostbahn PE train on the route from St Gallen to Lucerne (photo © hidden europe).
In recent months, we have twice travelled from St Gallen to Lucerne on a Swiss PE train. The latter is the abbreviation for ‘Panorama Express’. It is only since December last year that this route gained PE status. But what’s behind that designation?
PE is a newcomer in the complicated categories of Swiss train types. It was introduced in 2019 when the Gotthard Panorama Express was upgraded from being an InterRegio (IR) service to become a PE. It was of course always called Gotthard Panorama Express – even though it never really was an express train – but last year it secured the PE prefix.
The Gotthard Panorama Express is no ordinary Swiss train. It follows the classic Gotthard Railway, the one which was rather sidelined by the opening in 2016 of the new Gotthard Base Tunnel. With spare capacity on the demoted route, the Swiss national rail operator SBB decided to launch a dedicated tourist train over this famously beautiful railway. Enter the Gotthard Panorama Express.
The Gotthard Panorama Express is SBB’s only train to be composed entirely of first-class carriages. And there’s a supplement payable in addition to the regular first-class fare. It’s a once-a-day train which runs only in high season. Unusually for Switzerland, seat reservations are compulsory.
The Gotthard Panorama Express is thus a rather rarified tourist experience. It has some good options for combining the train journey with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne – with expensive train-boat packages available. It surely is fun, but it comes at a price.
If that sounds not quite appealing, there are of course regular hourly trains over the Gotthard route, all offering a choice of second or first-class seating and no supplements are payable on these ordinary trains.
With the Gotthard Panorama Express acquiring PE status, we also noticed last year that the PE train prefix had been deployed to two other dedicated Swiss tourist trains, namely the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express. Like the Gotthard train, the Glacier and Bernina services run on routes where there are regular hourly services, but where affluent overseas tourists are subtly directed onto premium trains which demand higher prices.
The PE Glacier Express offers three classes of travel (first, second and excellence), while its Bernina sibling has two classes (first and second). Seat reservations are compulsory and each train has nice carriages with large panorama windows – though neither train is really an express.
The whole point of a train category (be it IR for InterRegio, EC for Eurocity or the upstart PE for Panorama Express) is that it allows travellers to discern what sort of level of service one might expect on the train. And with all three tourist trains acquiring the PE prefix last year, that abbreviation seemed pitched firmly upmarket.
With the European timetable change last December, the classy PE prefix suddenly appeared for the first time on regular year-round scheduled services in Switzerland. From 15 December, the St Gallen-based rail operator Südostbahn redesignated its hourly trains from St Gallen to Lucerne as Panorama Expresses.
These new PE trains are absolutely part of the year-round regular timetable, and not especially geared at the tourist market, although many visitors do surely ride the route and, as we found, are rewarded with some memorable lake and mountain views. But the great majority of travellers are just locals going about their routine business. The line is used by schoolchildren and commuters.
This new Panorama Express service is a world apart from the PE trains found on the Gotthard, Bernina and Glacier routes. There is nothing special laid on for tourists, no panorama windows and seat reservations are not necessary.
If we are confused quite what PE means, than surely others are too. Yet maybe the spread of the PE designation bears witness to a new mood in Switzerland about rail tourism.
Companies like the Switzerland Travel Centre (STC) and Rail Europe have for many years pushed the Glacier Express as a ‘must-do’ European rail experience. Much the same applies to the Bernina Express and latterly to the Gotthard Panorama Express. This has lead to a relentless focus on a small number of routes, often at the expense of other Swiss rail routes which, in our view, are every bit as nice.
Is Switzerland now determined to blur the distinction between dedicated tourist trains and regular scheduled services? It’s been done before on the so-called Golden Pass route from Lucerne via Interlaken and Zweisimmen to Montreux – where none of the trains bear the PE prefix, but travellers can enjoy excellent views through large panorama windows. It remains to be seen how and to what purpose the Panorama Express brand will be developed in the future.