BLNI Extra 35 – Switzerland February 2018
[D1] Switzerland – The Dampfbahn Furka-Bergstrecke
The Brig-Furka-Disentis Bahn was promoted, largely by French backers, to connect the upper Rhone
and Rhein valleys. The mountainous terrain required the railway to be metre-gauge and with rack
sections. The line from Brig to Oberwald was opened on 1 June 1915 and a month later was
extended to Gletsch, about half way up the climb to the future Furka summit tunnel. The First
World War brought work to a stop, though construction work eastwards was quite well advanced.
The Brig-Furka-Disentis Bahn was bankrupt in 1923, so the line was completed by a new company,
the Furka Oberalp Bahn. That was largely owned by the Rhätische Bahn, the Visp-Zermatt Bahn, the
Schöllenen Bahn and cantons Uri and Valais. Test trains operated from October 1925, but it was not
until 4 July 1926 that the railway was opened to the public between Gletsch and Disentis/Muster.
There it connected with the Rhätische Bahn from Chur. The Visp-Zermatt line was extended to Brig,
to link with the Furka Oberalp, in 1930. Even though the line passed below the Furka Pass in a
tunnel, heavy snow and avalanches prevented operation of trains between Oberwald and Realp
during the winter. The railway was electrified in stages in 1940-42, the final section to be completed
being Oberwald to Realp, where electric working started on 1 July 1942. The electrification work
included making the Oberalp Pass line usable year-round, but not the Furka section. A base tunnel,
between Oberwald and Realp, opened on 26 June 1982, finally allowing trains to run between Brig
and Chur throughout the year. In 2003 the Furka Oberalp Bahn merged with the Brig Visp Zermatt
Bahn, as the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn.
The final day of passenger services over the old line was 11 October 1981, with the last works train
running on 12 November 1981. Vereins Furka Bergstrecke was formed to preserve the Furka pass
line, with the railway coming back into use in stages. This took a considerable time, because
renovation of some major structures was required and the weather prevented work for a significant
part of each year. Another major project was repatriating and restoring a number of Furka Oberalp
steam locomotives that had been sold in 1947 for use in Vietnam. The railway is operated by
Dampfbahn Furka-Bergstrecke AG, which holds the concession for the line.
The first section, from Realp to Tiefenbach re-opened on 11 July 1992 and there was an extension to
Furka on 30 July 1993. The line through the Furka Tunnel to Gletsch was ceremonially opened on 14
July 2000. Public services started on 24 July, following a series of special trains. The final section, to
Oberwald, was opened to the public on 13 August 2010, after a formal ceremony the previous day.
The station at Oberwald is a basic two platform affair south of and adjacent to the Matterhorn
Gotthard Bahn line. The DFB ticket office and souvenir shop is to the north, close to the MGB
station. Oberwald is the lowest point on the line, 1,366m above sea level. Almost all of the line is
equipped with Abt rack rails, with gaps at the level crossings. The Oberwald level crossing is unusual,
in that the rack rail extends across the road, but retracts into the surface when the barriers are
raised. The railway climbs steeply through woods and along the Rhone gorge. On this section there
are a lineside water pipe and sprinklers, to deal with any fires caused by the steam engines. During
dry weather trains from Oberwald are followed by a diesel locomotive carrying a fire-fighting crew.
On the approach to Gletsch the railway crosses the Rhone on a viaduct and passes through a spiral
tunnel, 557m long, in order to gain height.
When the local land owner sold land to the Brig-Furka-Disentis Bahn in 1910 he made it a condition
that trains would stop at Gletsch for an hour and the last train of the day would terminate there.
This was for the benefit of the hotel he owned there. Fortunately, this condition has not been
observed for many years, but the train stops long enough to take water. It was at Gletsch that
passengers could observe the Rhone Glacier. The glacier has now retreated so that little of it is
visible and there is bare rock face where once there was a wall of ice down to the valley floor.
A further climb brings the railway to Muttbach-Belvedere at the west end of the Furka summit
tunnel. Even in June, it is usually necessary to clear snow from the line here. At the start of the
2015 season the snow was eight metres deep. There is an easier gradient through the tunnel, which
is 1,874m long, and no rack is fitted. Steam trains towards Furka are banked through the tunnel by a
diesel tractor, which avoids excessive smoke from the locomotive.
Most trains stop for about 15-25 minutes at Furka, at the east end of the tunnel and the summit of
the line, 2,163m above sea level. There is no settlement or road access at Furka, but refreshments,
souvenirs and local produce can be purchased in a large marquee by the line. Some steam
locomotives have to be turned on a turntable here before descending.
From Furka the railway descends the Furkareuss valley, through Tiefenbach, where water may be
taken. Below Tiefenbach is the famous Steffenbachbrücke. A stone arch bridge, built here in 1913,
was swept away by an avalanche before the railway opened. It was replaced by a steel bridge that is
retracted during the winter. The bridge deck is in three sections. The middle part folds down and
the end sections are then jacked up and slide back along the track over the abutments. A further
steel bridge near Realp, over the Furkareuss River, was built after the original stone one collapsed in
1955. It is non-retractable.
The railway runs parallel with the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn for a short distance on the approach
to Realp, but the two stations are several hundred metres apart. Realp is 17.6km from Oberwald
and 1,546m above sea level. As it was the original operating base of the Dampfbahn Furka-
Bergstrecke, the main depot and workshop are located at Realp, with the timetable based on out
and back workings from there.
The operating season is late June to early October with up to four trains running each way on
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There is one round trip Mondays to Thursdays, mid-July to mid-
August. Most trains are steam-hauled, but there is one return working by a diesel locomotive
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, except early and late in the operating season.
Steam trains normally comprise vintage carriages, with wooden seats in second class. Passengers
travelling first class benefit from padded seats and receive a welcome drink. A guide travels in the
first class saloon to point out features of interest. An English language information leaflet,
specifically saying that it is “for our 1st class passengers”, is available for those who do not speak
German. Other languages may be available as well. The diesel trains use carriages from the 1950s
and include a vehicle for conveyance of bicycles.
Fares are high, with prices for the full length of the line ranging from 48CHF second class single,
diesel-hauled, to 200CHF first class return on a steam train. Seat reservations are recommended for
diesel trains and obligatory for steam. Trains can be heavily-booked for coach parties. Tickets are
available allowing travel one way by rail and the other by post bus over the Furka Pass. Swiss Travel
Passes, InterRail and other concessions are not valid. Further information about the line can be
found at www.dfb.ch.
The following five photographs show the 13:50 Oberwald to Realp on 24 September 2017. The locomotive was
Furka Oberalp No 4, built by SLM Winterthur in 1913.
Oberalp, with the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn station behind the train.
Gletsch, where the Rhone glacier used to extend down what is now a bare mountain slope.
The train at Furka during the refreshment break.
Carriages are stabled in the loop and siding at Tiefenbach.
No 4 departs for the depot at Realp.
[D2] Switzerland – The Martigny Orsières Railway
The Martigny Orsières Railway is unusual in that it was promoted not by local interests, but by the
British Aluminium Company. The company started smelting aluminium at Foyers, on Loch Ness, in
1896 and inaugurated a much larger plant at Kinlochleven in 1904. Aluminium smelting requires a
large amount of energy and the company sought to expand overseas, in areas where cheap hydro-
electricity could be generated. A smelter was constructed at Strangfjorden in Norway in 1906. In the
same year the company acquired water rights at Orsières, with the intention of building a smelter
there. This needed a railway to be built up the Val d’Entremont, from the Simplon main line at
Martigny. British Aluminium obtained a concession to build a railway not just to Orsières, but over
the St Bernard Pass to Italy. Although the company had rights to mine bauxite in the south of
France, it is difficult to see what possible justification there was for promoting such an ambitious
line, which would have required a lengthy summit tunnel.
The first sod was cut at a ceremony on 23 July 1907 and the railway opened to Orsières on 1
September 1910. The line was single-track, 19.3 km long and electrified at 8,000 volts, 15 Hz.
However, the aluminium smelter was never built. Aluminium Industrie Aktiengesellschaft (AIAG),
based at Neuhausen, successfully claimed to have the exclusive right to use the Hall-Héroult patent
method of aluminium smelting in Switzerland. This is something British Aluminium should have
been well aware of, having acquired the British and Colonial rights to the patent from AIAG in 1894.
The company sold the water rights, but retained the railway for some years.
Passenger traffic was light. Initially there were just four trains daily, on round trips from Orsières
down to Martigny. There were four electric motor coaches, two for passengers and two for goods.
It was the later exploitation of water rights, after the railway was in Cantonal ownership, that
brought about modernisation of the line. Construction of the Mauvoisin dam at the head of the Val
de Bagnes required a large volume of cement to be conveyed and a branch line from Sembrancher
to Le Châble, opened on 5 August 1953. This might be seen as something of a luxury, for the line
was only 6.2 km long, terminating only one quarter of the way from Sembrancher to the dam site.
However, the branch helped serve the growing winter sports traffic, with Sembrancher being linked
by cable car to Verbier. The electrification system had been changed to the Swiss standard of 15kV,
16 2/3 Hz on 16 February 1949, allowing cement trains to be hauled by SBB locomotives. The
original two electric passenger vehicles were converted to 15kV, but were supplemented by a new
one in 1955. They were not finally replaced until 1965, when the company acquired three new
motor coaches, to the same design as those used by SBB.
On 1 January 2000 the Martigny Orsières merged with the Martigny Châtelard company as
Transports de Martigny et Régions. Since 2002 the line has been worked by three ‘Nina’ electric
units, of the type used by the BLS Lötschbergbahn. It is only in recent years that the railway has had
a regular interval hourly service for most of the day. Previously, trains ran approximately hourly, but
not all at the same minutes past each hour. Trains run through to Le Châble, with a connecting
shuttle between Sembrancher and Orsières. Buses to Verbier connect with the train at Le Châble.
The timetable was revised at December 2017, including additional trains at peak times, calling only
Railcar No 6 'Orsières' at Sembrancher on 31 August 1987
[D3] Switzerland - Breakthrough of Eppenberg tunnel
Completion of the 2.6km Eppenberg tunnel was marked by a ceremonial breakthrough in
Gretzenbach on 2 February 2018. The fit-out of the tunnel will now begin and is expected to take
around a year. SBB are halfway through the six-year project, which it said was running on schedule
and in line with its CHF 855 million (€738 million) budget. The tunnel is scheduled to be
commissioned before the 2020 timetable change.
The Eppenberg tunnel is located on the line which links Olten and Aarau. The tunnel will enable the
creation of a new four-track railway between Däniken and Wöschnau, generating much-needed
additional capacity along the route. Around 550 trains currently use the corridor every day, making it
one of the country’s busiest rail routes. As well as SBB’s domestic services the line is used by freight
traffic and international long-distance services.
[D4] Switzerland / Italy – Mendrisio to Varese
[BLNI 1294.471] A member has sent two photographs taken on Sunday 7 January 2018, the day that
the service commenced.
PIS Screen in unit 524 101
524 101 in the platform at Varese