After the year 2021 without visiting my sister Florence in Zug in Switzerland, I finally returned to the Confoederatio Helvetica in March and April 2022. I stayed over a week. More than a family visit, I organised an excursion to French-speaking Switzerland, also known as Romandy, to visit Maxime and the vineyards of Lavaux in the canton of Vaud, near Lausanne. I also booked a journey on the world-famous Glacier Express from Sankt Moritz to Brig. Furthermore, I looked for a nice way in and out. The ÖBB Nightjet night train from Amsterdam to Zurich and the voyage home via Lyon in France.
Danny suggested to return from Switzerland to Belgium via Lyon and on the way do the Mont-Blanc Express, a train which links Martigny in Valais to Chamonix and further to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains-Le-Fayet, in Savoy.
“Crossing the wild Trient Gorge and ascending to breath-taking heights towards Chamonix, travellers will see waterfalls crashing down and majestic mountain crags rising in the background. Shady forests alternate with cozy villages and ultimately give way onto the grandiose glacier of the Mont Blanc, Europe‘s highest peak. Be sure to have valid entry documents for France. Swiss Travel System tickets are valid to and from Chamonix”, MySwitzerland says.
The route is served by the Mont-Blanc-Express, a train with a Valais coat of arms livery. The name of the company is Transports de Martigny et Régions (TMR), operating the Martigny–Châtelard Railway (MC), narrow gauge, with the Mont-Blanc Express and the Martigny–Orsières Railway, standard gauge, with the Saint-Bernard Express.
The train journey has two parts. In Switzerland, it’s called the Martigny–Châtelard Railway and once passed Châtelard-Frontière, it becomes the Saint-Gervais – Vallorcine Railway into France. Coming from Switzerland, you encounter Vallorcine first.
The route is 38 kilometres long. 18 kilometres on Swiss territory and 20 kilometres on French territory. The journey time between Martigny and Chamonix is 90 minutes. It takes another 45 minutes to reach St-Gervais, which is the terminus of the Mont-Blanc Express. In 1908, it took 3.5 hours to reach Chamonix from Martigny.
The track gauge is 1 metre, it is a metre-gauge railway (7% adhesion ramp) and rack and pinion (Strub system, 2.5 km between Vernayaz and Salvan, 20% ramp), direct current line at 850V.
The Martigny-Châtelard line was built in only 4 years (1902-1906) and inaugurated on 18 August 1906, it includes 6 bridges, 5 viaducts, 12 tunnels, 16 galleries to protect te train against avalanches. On the French side, the line was opened in 1901 from St-Gervais to Chamonix, in 1906 from Chamonix to Argentière and in 1908 from Argentière to Châtelard-Frontière. It comprises 9 tunnels.
I did the journey on 1 April 2022, a snowy day. So no great views, but a fairytale landscape.
The Z800 used is a 105-seat EMU, delivered in 1997 by ADTranz and Vevey Technologies in a joint purchase with the Martigny-Châtelard. This 1000 kW stock, composed of two motor cars, can run at 70 km/h (43.5 mph); it is rack and pinion equipped, and has pantographs in addition to 3rd rail equipment, so that it run to Martigny.
I had to change in Vallorcine. Im’m not sure why. But anyway, it helped running on time and catching the replacement bus to Aix-les-Bains.
The Z800 screams 1990s and is moderately comfortable. There is no catering. There is one toilet so you must be lucky for it to work.
Worth the detour?
Is the Mont-Blanc Express worth the excursion? Only if you’re up for something special. It’s quite a hassle to get to Martigny or Saint-Gervais. It’s mostly geared towards skiers hopping from one station to the other.
But I still enjoyed it.
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