Who, in their right mind, would think to build a railway up and through a mountain? Railway enthusiast Mike Harris ventured to Switzerland to travel with Jungfrau Railways to find out why.
Whirled from Zurich airport with double-decked, spotlessly punctual Swiss efficiency travelling through what the mountain dwellers somewhat disparagingly call ‘the flatlands’ – an area surprisingly industrial and busy – it hardly took any time for our intercity train to reach Bern. At Bern it was an easy almost effortless platform change for our connection to Interlaken.
Everything in the Swiss transport is timed to connect every 30 minutes. All meeting up – post bus, town bus, express train, stopping train, village bus, even the ferries – all connect, every half-hour, both ways, infallibly.
The platforms and the trains were litter-free and immaculate. Even announcements were made in clear, perfect English.
An impenetrable wall to the south
Looking down the valley from Interlaken the visitor sees three great peaks – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau forming an impenetrable wall to the south. Glistening with snow and ice, reaching seemingly to the roof of the world, I wondered how on earth was a four-coach, electric Jungfrau Railways train ever going to get up there. I was to find out.
From Interlaken we caught the Bernese Oberland Bahn (BOB) train. Incidentally the first railway came to the Bernese Oberland in 1890. Every now and then our train slowed and I could see the front of it climbing impossibly steeply. Because of the narrow gauge track it can twist and turn its way round trees, over rapids and rock falls, climbing through the lush summer pastures.
It can climb the steep gradient thanks to its rack and pinion mechanism – the train hauls itself up on a cogwheel fixed below the carriages. (We use the same method for the train up Mount Snowdon in Wales.)
Climbing the Eiger at 6mph
At Grindelwald we changed onto a much smaller train – still four coaches but electrically hauled. This was the Jungfraubahn proper. Narrower still, and rack and pinion throughout, this one climbs the Eiger at a fairly steady 6mph.
Approximately halfway up the Eiger, a mere 7612’, the train enters a tunnel – this baby goes through the Eiger and Mönch. Hacked out of living rock it took 16 years to complete. Sadly a number of men lost their lives in its construction.
The line goes steadily on up and up and a third of the way through the tunnel we stopped at the first of the two places on the track where glassed in viewing points have replaced the massive holes the miners used to dispose of the debris.
The train stops for five minutes so plenty of time to get off and look out from the Eiger. Train announcements are delivered in eight languages – including Korean. Eventually the train pulls into the full-sized Jungfraujoch terminus, making it at 3,454 metres Europe’s highest rack railway.
On top of the Jungfraujoch
From the terminus a lift takes visitors to the observation gallery and a full blown restaurant, with gift shop and an ice palace walk carved out of the living, moving glacier.
Needless to say the views on a fine day are spectacular, but sadly for us the cloud was down and sleet was blowing. We lingered outside just long enough to take in a glimpse of the glacier and the Sphinx Observatory – a scientific research centre.
On the return journey several people (including one of us) got off at the Eigergletscher stop to visit the chocolate manufacturer, Europe’s highest chocolate maker and possibly in the world.
We were blessed with better weather on the Schynige Platte Bahn. A small rack and pinion train was pushed up an even more impossible hill by an electric loco. The whole line shrieks vintage – and once a month a steam engine is brought out of retirement.
Twisting and turning and climbing, ever climbing, round trees, over ravines, through tunnels, past chocolate box chalets interspersed among fresh pasture, until at last the Jungfrau glistens in the distance with the Eiger hovering menacingly black nearby.
The descent is so spectacular that the locals call the final tunnel the ‘ooh-aah’ tunnel for the stunning view all of a sudden revealed to awe-struck tourists. (If they are sitting on the right side that is, otherwise you get an intimate view of the lichen-covered gneiss six inches from your nose).
If you only have one day available, go on this trip. Even up there a restaurant and hotel with glorious sun decks beckon. Giving the alpine garden tour a miss, I sat comfortably behind several grosse bieren not really believing I was looking across at the roof of Europe.
Far below little trains chased each other up and down the mountain side carrying excited tourists; the very reason why the railways were built in the first place. All because way back in the late 19th century a well-travelled Swiss industrialist called Adolf Guyer-Zeller, realised that there was potential in tourism.
Jungfrau region and rail fares: www.jungfrau.ch
The City Hotel Oberland AG: www.city-oberland.ch/en
The Hotel Schynige Platte: www.hotelschynigeplatte.ch