Many of Switzerland’s mountain railways play an essential role in keeping their communities alive, as Ben Jones discovered on a recent visit to the Lucerne region.
Every year millions of people from all over the world squeeze into little trains in Switzerland, hoping to experience unforgettable mountain vistas and clean Alpine air.
Whether they’re local daytrippers making an annual pilgrimage to famous peaks such as Rigi or Pilatus, Asian tourists ‘doing Europe’ in a week or, more energetically, hikers and skiers, few visitors will be aware of the essential role played by railways in the daily life of mountain communities.
There can be few railway depots anywhere on Earth that enjoy a better prospect than the Vitznau-Rigi Bahn’s (VRB) lakeside terminus at Vitznau.
One entire wall of the combined maintenance and freight depot is glazed, looking out over what the English-speaking world calls Lake Lucerne, but is known locally as Vierwaldstättersee – the ‘lake of the four forest cantons’.
From the 18th and 19th centuries, Switzerland’s economy was transformed by tourism – with British visitors at the vanguard of this new phenomenon.
Travelling on foot, by horse and donkey or, for the wealthy, by sedan chair, the early ‘grand tourists’ helped to open up previously isolated mountain areas. Their stories created an ever-growing demand from others wanting to experience the spectacular Alpine scenery.
However, while the mountains became a playground for the rich and adventurous, life remained tough for those living on the mountains – especially in winter.
As railway technology developed, lines probed deeper into the mountains, but it was not until 1871 that the first true mountain railway was built – specifically to carry tourists to one of Switzerland’s most famous summits.
On the waterfront
It’s a stunning view, not lost on those who work in the depot, and gives some clue as to why visitors have been coming here by lake steamer for more than 150 years. The VRB was Europe’s first rack-and-pinion railway, promoted and developed by Niklaus Riggenbach (after whom the rack system is named) and opened, initially with steam traction, in 1871.
In true Swiss style, it’s just a few short steps from the landing stage to the VRB station, and most passengers make straight for the little red trains heading up to the summit at Rigi Kulm, 1,300 metres above us and 7km away by rail.
However, today, I take a right turn to meet my guide for the day, Kurt Heusser, at the VRB’s freight depot. A retired teacher, Kurt is a long-time resident of nearby Weggis, and knows the Rigi’s railways and its 120km of hiking trails as well as anyone.
While passengers are the railway’s ‘bread and butter’ (ridership was up by 5% to 850,000 in 2017), it also plays an essential role in keeping Rigi’s mountain communities alive. Even today, with modern communications and materials, life in the Alps can be hard, especially where there are no roads and few motorised vehicles.
The VRB carries around 2,000 tonnes of freight a year, much of it to supply cafes, restaurants and hotels on the mountain. Many trains each day have a wagon attached at the ‘uphill’ end of the railcar carrying cages filled with perishables, crates of beer and soft drinks, chocolate bars and ice cream.
Other items, from furniture to kitchen equipment, tools, construction materials, milk churns and even goats and cows – this is Switzerland! – are carried as required.
Inside the freight depot are several ‘homemade’ wagons built to carry materials and equipment safely up the line, which has a maximum gradient of 1-in-5. X105 is the most recent addition to the fleet, a 22-tonne capacity flatbed lorry carrier designed to accommodate heating oil tankers, cement mixers, plant machinery and any other vehicles required higher up.
X128 is usefully fitted with a HIAB hydraulic arm and is used to deliver timber and firewood to the many small farms and houses along the route. All wagons are fitted with Riggenbach cog wheels for emergency braking.
There is limited road access so the railway has to be virtually self-sufficient, overhauling its own railcars and stock, equipment and even the rails and rack sections.
The well-equipped workshop has its own foundry and many of the original Riggenbach rack sections from the late-1880s are still used, being repaired and recycled as required.
Many other interesting vehicles shelter in the depot, from some of the original 3m-wide passenger coaches, dating from 1871, to a snowplough, constructed from old steam locomotive boiler plates.
Two operational steam locomotives – No. 16 of 1923 and No. 17, built in 1925 – are also based at Vitznau.
During the week before my visit, No. 17 was dispatched to the Arth-Rigi line on the far side of the mountain with an engineering train to repair overhead catenary damaged by fallen trees during a severe storm.
Neither the VRB nor the ARB has any diesel locomotives for such duties, so when there’s no electric it has to be steam to the rescue.
We join the next summit-bound train, formed of one of the VRB’s most recent power/trailer sets – Bh4/4 No. 21+Bt 31, dating from 1986. Our driver, Roman Flecklin, very kindly allows us to join him for the ride to Rigi Staffel, the original terminus of the line. It’s a real privilege to be in the best seat in the house as we begin our ascent.
Every few hundred metres we pass small steel platforms and Kurt explains they are unadvertised halts, situated close to tracks and farms, largely used by children relying on the train to reach schools in nearby towns.
Until recently there was a school on the mountain, but despite efforts to keep it going there weren’t enough children for it to be viable.
The timetable is seasonal, with advertised trains running hourly from 0900-1700 in the winter months. One train is usually sufficient, although that can increase to two on sunny weekends.
In the summer, up to five trains are flighted per departure and the VRB has to act very quickly if 250-300 people suddenly disembark from a lake steamer.
All staff, from depot fitters to management, are trained to drive, and railcars can be quickly scrambled from the depot to cope with spikes in demand.
However, that is only part of the story. The first train of the day is actually the school train at 05.45, and various other trains run as required, either to haul freight or as private charters for tour groups.
In either case, they can also provide an informal way for locals to move parcels, luggage, tools and themselves up and down the mountain, as I discover the following morning.
Trains also run early and late on both Rigibahnen lines to get staff to and from the hotels and restaurants.
Before spending the night in Rigi Kaltbad, Kurt tells me to be at the station at 08.30 the next morning for an uphill train to Staffel.
When I arrive, there’s no such train on the departure board – very unusual for Switzerland. However, just before the allotted time, an immaculate red railcar grinds up the hill and stops right in front of me.
A member of VRB staff informs me they’ve been told to make a special stop and deliver me to Staffel in time for the first downhill Arth-Rigi-Bahn train to Arth-Goldau. Word travels fast in these parts!
Even though the first advertised train is yet to leave Vitznau, it’s a busy scene at Staffel when we arrive. Another train is already there, delivering a wagonload of pallets to nearby restaurants and cafes.
All-terrain forklift trucks, usually hidden away in garages from the extreme weather that can strike at this altitude, emerge to distribute the provisions.
And then, like mechanised ants, they disappear again, leaving the station in a gloriously sunny, if chilly, silence. It’s a short but revealing glimpse behind the scenes of winter life on the Rigi.
Before long, a blue and white ARB railcar appears, loaded not with excited tourists, but with people clearly facing a long day at work. Happier faces from all over the world will follow later!
Between Staffel and the summit station at Rigi-Kulm, the VRB and ARB – originally competitors, but now part of the same group – run side-by-side on parallel single tracks.
It’s a quirk that dates back to the construction of the line, and the competition between the cantons of Lucerne and Schwyz to promote their own railway to Rigi-Kulm.
While much of the VRB route lies in Lucerne, Staffel to the summit is in Schwyz, and the latter made Riggenbach wait until they’d completed their line before allowing the VRB to use it, for a fee of course!
And, as you might expect, the view from the top is nothing short of stunning; a 360° panorama ranging from the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains to the north, 13 lakes and no fewer than 125 named peaks in the high Alps of the Bernese Oberland, Gotthard Massif, and east towards Austria.
Before we part company, Kurt tells me that Rigi is still ‘a very Swiss mountain’. Around 70% of visitors Swiss, with only 30% coming from overseas, although their numbers are growing, in contrast to other mountain railways, where foreign visitors are in the majority.
Movie stars and moguls
Across the lake from Vitznau is the Bürgenstock peninsular, home to a very different railway to those on Rigi. The Bürgenstock-Bahn is a funicular, rather than a rack railway, linking the pier at Kehrsiten with a recently rebuilt luxury hotel complex, perched 2,800ft above the lake.
High on a forested ridge, the resort has been a quiet retreat for the wealthy, famous (and occasionally the infamous) since it opened in 1873. In the 1950s and 1960s it was home to legendary actresses Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn.
The latter was married in the tiny Bürgenstock chapel in 1954, and lived on the mountain for 14 years from 1954-68.
Over the years it has also hosted United Nations summits, international conferences and gatherings of influential politicians, business leaders and academics.
For James Bond fans, the resort’s Palace Hotel was also home to the entire crew of Goldfinger, including Sean Connery, for a month during filming in 1964.
In October 2017, the Bürgenstock-Bahn reopened after a five-year closure and an £11.5m refurbishment that transformed it from a quirky throwback into a modern, fully automated, but sympathetic replica of the old trains. The refurbishment was part of a £425m redevelopment of the resort by its Qatari owners.
In 1887, the line was the first electrically operated railway of its kind in Switzerland, and one of the first in the world. Ascending on a ledge cut into an almost vertical wall of rock, it was a challenge to build, and remains a spectacular way to arrive.
The two new vehicles – 11 metres long, 2.5 metres wide and weighing 10.5 tonnes each – were built by Shiptec AG in Lucerne which, as the name suggests, is a boat builder. Unusually, the new cars were delivered by barge to Kehrsiten and craned into position on the rebuilt railway on June 12, 2017.
One of the old cars has been preserved in a new museum-cum-waiting room at Kehrsiten, sectioned to demonstrate how the original cable-worked funicular system operated. The museum also features dozens of archive images, artefacts and equipment from the line – a great place to spend a while waiting for the next train or boat.
The Bürgenstock-Bahn climbs 440m from lake to mountain in just 943m, and represents the ‘glamour’ end of mountain railways. However, it still plays an important role bringing in staff who commute from Lucerne, and both cars have a small, open freight compartment at one end.
Also on the southern shore of the lake is the Treib-Seelisberg-Bahn (TSB), a funicular with a much lower profile, but playing an essential role in linking its community to the outside world.
After the high-tech Bürgenstock line, the TSB is far more traditional, but also connects a pier served by timetabled lake steamers at Treib, to Seelisberg, perched 330m above on an outcrop with outstanding views. Trains connect with every boat, either to Brunnen, just across the lake, or north and west to Vitznau, Weggis and Lucerne.
My guide for the visit is Alexandra Hug, of the Seelisberg tourist office. She explains the 1.5km line opened in 1916 for pilgrims who had previously tackled the climb on horseback.
The original 1916 winding motor and mechanism, beautifully maintained, is still doing the job for which it was built more than a century ago.
She explains: “The TSB employs just four people, increasing to nine if we include those operating the connecting postbuses. Operation of the line has been the responsibility of the same families for several generations.
“The TSB is part of the community. It has become part of the unique identity of Seelisberg.”
The TSB’s two trains were built in 1965, again delivered by boat to the lower station as there was no suitable road access. In this case the second one fell into the lake as it was being lifted off the barge and had to be dried out, cleaned and checked before it could be used! Fortunately, no lasting damage was done and the vehicle continues to provide sterling service with its sister.
While the TSB carries only a little freight, it remains an important link for locals and tourists alike, providing the quickest route from Seelisberg and surrounding villages to Brunnen, for main line SBB trains to Zurich and beyond.
A few miles from Brunnen, deep in the Muotathal valley, lies the base station of a new funicular railway that has attracted global interest since it opened last December.
The new Stoosbahn is now the world’s steepest funicular railway – an astonishing and ingenious piece of Swiss engineering designed to give the little mountain village of Stoos much improved access to the outside world.
It’s a replacement for an obsolete funicular dating from 1933, which had to be replaced after Swiss safety authorities withdrew its licence to operate.
Planning has been underway since as far back as 2003, but the five-year construction of the new line didn’t start until 2012.
With a maximum incline of 110% and a vertical difference of 744m over a 1.74km route, the £39m line presented its builders – Garaventa, from nearby Arth-Goldau – with an enormous technical challenge.
Not only did it have to climb an almost sheer rock face immediately in front of the valley station, it had to negotiate two tunnels through that same rock. Problems with drilling the tunnels led to delays and cost overruns – the line eventually came in £9m over budget and around two years later than envisaged.
Unusually, the line starts and finishes on level track – a feature not normally associated with funicular railways. To achieve this, two bespoke vehicles, designed and built by Swiss company CWA, feature five rotating barrels.
Four enclosed cabins accommodate up to 1,500 passengers per hour (136 per train), a 50% increase over the old line, while the fifth unit is for freight.
The cabins remain level at all times, providing flat access throughout for passengers in wheelchairs or with limited mobility, as well as families with pushchairs, luggage and winter sports equipment. Journey time is only around five minutes, operating at 10m per second.
Unlike many seasonal funicular railways in the Alps, Stoosbahn is classed by the Swiss authorities as an essential public transport link. As a result it can be used with a wide range of Swiss travel passes and tickets and runs roughly half-hourly between 0700 and 2100.
Crucially, this public transport role applies not just to passengers, but also to freight – supporting the businesses and residents of Stoos.
Around 10,000 tonnes of freight every year was carried by the old Stoosbahn and it is expected this will increase, especially as the new line terminates right in the middle of the village. The upper station of the old line was much less convenient, being around 1km away from the village centre.
Freight depots have been provided at both the valley and mountain stations, providing indoor facilities for transfer of goods and equipment between road vehicles and steel containers that fit into the fifth barrel of the new trains. And, of course, what goes up, must come down!
The Swiss are famously keen recyclers, so downhill trains take away all the village’s waste material, from glass bottles and card to empty pallets and construction materials.
With no road access, the village is dependent on its trains for much more than just bringing in day-trip skiers from Lucerne or Zürich.
The smooth transition from level to almost vertical happens very quickly and the view from the rotating cabins is exceptional. You’d have to be very jaded not to be impressed by such a remarkable piece of railway engineering!
Getting there, getting around
The Lucerne Region is within easy reach of the UK via Zürich airport, which has frequent direct trains to Lucerne throughout the day. It’s also possible to travel by rail using a combination of Eurostar, TGV Lyria (Paris-Zürich) and SBB internal services.
Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £116 in Second Class and £188 in First Class.
Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel System network. This pass also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 90 towns and cities.
The Swiss Travel Pass also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, allowing you free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices from £197 in Second Class.
For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit: www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk
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