Jungfrau Railway is still on top

by Clare O’Dea on the Jungfraujoch, swissinfo.ch

Not many records are still in place 100 years on but the Jungfraujoch railway station on the shoulder of the Jungfrau mountain in the Bernese Oberland is still the highest in Europe, a century after it opened on Swiss national day.

In its first full year in operation, 1913, the Jungfraujoch attracted 42,880 tourists; last year 765,000 made the unique rail trek to “The Top of Europe”.

On a midweek summer’s day swissinfo.ch joined the throngs of passengers expertly herded up and down the route every half an hour, 48 minutes each way.

The pace of the rail journey is slow because of gradient and the need to adjust to the high altitude. As British guidebook Muirhead’s Switzerland pointed out in 1923, “the transit of the long tunnel (fully 1/2 hr.) is rather wearisome”.

Unfortunately on this particular day, the stunning panorama view shown on the Jungfrau Railway website was obscured by cloud but it was still possible to get a sense of the scale of the Aletsch glacier. An impressive sight.

One man’s vision

The railway was the brainchild of one man, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, although he did not live to see its completion.

The well-travelled Swiss industrialist, partly-inspired by witnessing the building of the Suez canal, was so convinced of his idea that he sank a considerable chunk of his vast personal fortune into it.

The Italian workers on the railway got their small share, SFr4.5 per day, chipping away on a monumental task that was carried out between 1896 and 1912, with a two-year break. Thirty men were killed in the course of the project and 90 were injured.

The men risked their lives working all year round to blast a curved seven-kilometre tunnel through the Eiger and Mönch mountains to emerge on the saddle of the Jungfrau, or Jungfraujoch.

They cut holes in the sides of the mountains to get rid of the debris – holes that are now huge windows where the train stops on the way up to enable tourists to look at the view.

Guyer-Zeller was motivated by the success of other tourist railway lines, starting with the Rigi Railway on Lake Lucerne, completed in 1871, boasting the first locomotive in Europe to be built with the cogwheel system.

“In the first year of operation on Mount Rigi they got back 20 per cent of their investment in building the line,” railway historian Kilian Elsasser told swissinfo.ch.

Cogwheel systems were the main idea introduced by Swiss railways engineers in the 19th century. “Of the five cogwheel systems in existence, four were developed by Swiss engineers,” Elsasser said.

“The cogwheel railway system enables trains to go up steep hills. The cogwheel goes into a ladder or toothed rail in the middle of the track and this allows the locomotive to climb,” he explained.

New world

Vintage postcard showing the view of the Aletsch glacier (jungfraubahnen.ch)

The technology opened up a whole new world of tourism experiences but it was a very competitive market.

“In the 19th century it was like it is today for tourists, you have to have a selling point. After the first mountain railway in Europe, Rigi, they had to find another record. You had the steepest railway, Pilatus, and later on came the Jungfrau railway which was and still is the highest railway station in Europe,” said Elsasser.

Muirhead’s guidebook gives an insight into tourists’ impressions in the early days. It classed the Jungfrau Railway as “one of the most interesting mountain lines … bringing the most unathletic into the upper regions of the expert climber”.

However, it advised that the trip could only be recommended “when the weather is such as to make a clear view from the top practically certain”.

The Jungfrau Railway was opened in stages to help the financing. Reaching the Eiger north wall by tunnel was the first breakthrough and the first tourists were able to enjoy the spectacular view from the Eiger Wall station in 1903.

“Destructive folly”
Not everyone agreed that laying tracks and blasting tunnels in the Alps for tourists was a worthwhile pursuit.

“We have to put a stop to this destructive folly and save for our descendants what remains of our heritage of beauty,” the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty and the Swiss Heritage Society wrote in a petition to the government calling for a more prudent granting of railway concessions.

“We regret that so many mountain lines have already been built, which only benefit a small number of people economically, while from the ethical point of view they are not only useless but even harmful,” the campaigners pleaded at the time.

In the end history intervened to put a stop to the mountain railway boom. After the First World War the foreign tourists didn’t come back and a new kind of clientele had to be found.

“There was a middle class in Zurich or Bern which had developed and the railway companies started to sell family tickets or Sunday tickets to try to attract Swiss day trippers,” Elsasser said.

In more recent years a marketing drive in Asia has produced impressive results and the Jungfraujoch is on the must-see list of Swiss tourist attractions, particularly for Indian and Japanese visitors.

The station at the top now houses several restaurants, including an Indian restaurant, an “ice palace” and “snow fun” attractions, plus observation decks and a maze of access tunnels. It is crowned by the Sphinx Observatory – a scientific research centre.

On the slow train ride back, my fellow passengers appeared to be hit by “Joch lag”. Men, women and children of all nationalities boarded the train and promptly fell asleep, perhaps to dream of eternal snow, ice palaces and the ghosts of tourists past.

They may not have seen the ultimate view, stretching as far as Germany’s Black Forest and the Vosges mountains in France, but the sleepy travellers carried home proof of their adventure in the form of a unique document – the Jungfrau Railway centenary passport stamped at 3,454 metres.

Clare O’Dea on the Jungfraujoch, swissinfo.ch

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