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Swiss mountain trains

The 1st April 1886 (April Fools' Day) someone could read in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung that a British investment company was planning to build a road suitable for horse carriages going to the summit of the Jungfrau, and to install an electric railway going to the Rottal cottage near the summit. In that far day the Swiss citizens probably took this as a joke.

Swiss mountain railway
The rack railway which connects Brienz with the summit of the Rothorn, inaugurated in 1892.

But it is true as well that in that time they were already used to mountain railways. In 1871 it had been inaugurated the first European rack railway, between Vitznau and Rigi-Kulm. It was based in the invention by Nikolaus Riggenbach of installing a rack between the rails, on which a rack wheel on the locomotive geared. Only by doing so such strong slopes like that of Rigi-Kulm, which was of 25 percent, could be overcome.

Albeit Riggenbach had patented his invention already in 1863, nobody had shown interest in this new idea. The friends of the inventor fled when this one wanted to show them, for the umpteenth time, how the model of his rack railway worked. So, Riggenbach had to seek investors abroad. But also the participants in an engineering symposium simply shrug when hearing about the project. Finally, the impulse for building the Rigi-Kulm railway came from America.

Also there an inventor, Sylvester Marsh, had patented the operating principle of the rack railway roughly at the same time than Riggenbach. Marsh was lucky enough to find entrepreneurs that were open to his projects. They financed the construction of a rack railway going to the summit of Mount Washington, of 1917 meters in height. This first mountain railway was inaugurated in 1869. Then the Europeans awake and Riggenbach had the chance to build the Rigi-Kulm railway.

Swiss mountain railway
Different mountain railways in the Swiss Alps: the Bernina railway next to the Morteratsch glacier and Piz Bernina (upper left); the Furka-Oberalp line which leads to the ski paradise in the Disentis region (upper right); the Jungfrau railway next to the homonym mountain (lower left); and the Gornergrat railway passing by the peak Cervino (lower right).

Since 1871, a steam locomotive of vertical boiler effectuated in 75 minutes the ascension from Vitznau in Lake Lucerne to the mountain of 1800 meters in height. Both natives and tourists made a good use of this railway from the first day. Not every day someone had the pleasure of gazing the alpine landscape from an elevated position. The Swiss saw their occasion and Riggenbach soon received an order to build a second rack railway, this time between Lauterbrunnen and Scheidegg-Grindelwald.

The two first rack railways were technical revolutions in that time. The Swiss, however, still believed that it was impossible to reach the Jungfrau heights by means of a rack railway. They started to listen when, three years after the joke of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the Pilatus line started service. This rack railway, being the steepest one in the world with a slope of 48 percent, opened a region which during centuries almost nobody had dared to enter. The local legend said that the spirit of Pilatos resided there and that in the summit a dragon lived.

In that time the first plans for the Jungfrau railway were already finished. The impulse for the construction of this line stretch came, in 1893, from the Swiss industrial entrepreneur Guyer-Zeller. The idea of how this route could be better arranged came to his mind while descending from the summit of the Schilthorn. In the hotel he made during midnight the first sketch, which was later preserved as a relic. The first station of this line was inaugurated in 1898.

Swiss mountain railway
With slopes of up to 48 percent, the Pilatus line inaugurated in 1889 is the steepest rack railway in the world.

The Swiss engineer Roman Abt followed the steps of his compatriots Riggenbach and Locher. He built the lines Aigle-Leysin and Furka-Oberalp and the Gornergrat railway, as well as the Zugspitze line in the Bavarian Alps. In 1892 the Brienz-Rothorn railway effectuated its first travel and in 1910 the Bernina railway was finally inaugurated.

Many of these technical masterpieces had to conquer with great effort the mountains. Every year large amounts of money have to be spent in the maintenance of these lines, because the mountain devours again and again bridges, protections against avalanches and cable layings. But anyone that had ever traveled on railway on the enchanted world of the Swiss mountain will confirm that those expenses are well worth it.