HomeWorldWhy Switzerland built a 2-kilometer-long train

Why Switzerland built a 2-kilometer-long train

(CNN) — High in the Swiss Alps, St. Moritz has made a name for itself as a place to push the boundaries of winter sports. By the time it hosted the second Winter Olympics in 1928, its reputation as a playground for wealthy adventurers was already well established.

On Saturday, the region continued its long tradition of pushing the boundaries of what is possible with an epic world record attempt – not on snow or ice, but on rails.

To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Switzerland’s first railway, the country’s rail industry came together to run the world’s longest passenger train ever – 100 cars, 2,990 tons and almost two kilometers long.

Formed from 25 new “Capricorn” electric trains, the record-breaking 1,906-meter train took nearly an hour to travel approximately 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) on the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage-listed Albula Line from Preda to Alvaneu in eastern Switzerland. to lay.

Like the legendary Cresta Run toboggan run, the Albula Line is known for its endless twists and turns and steep descents. A world-renowned masterpiece of civil engineering, the 62-kilometer line between Thusis and St. Moritz took just five years to build, despite requiring 55 bridges and 39 tunnels.

Prior to its completion in July 1904, visitors faced a risky 14-hour journey over rough trails in horse-drawn carriages or sleighs.

The centerpiece of the line is the 5,866-meter Albula Tunnel, which runs deep beneath the watershed between the Rhine and Danube.

Spirals, floating viaducts and tunnels

The train rolled on a winding path through the mountains.

swiss-image.ch/Philipp Schmidli

Echoing part of the route taken by the world-famous Glacier Express since 1930, the world record attempt was made by the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct and the extraordinary spirals that secured the line’s international heritage status.

In less than 25 kilometers, the train descended from 1,788 meters above sea level at Preda to 999.3 meters at Alvaneu, using a succession of spirals, soaring viaducts and tunnels.

The record attempt was organized by the Rhaetian Railway (Rhaetian Railway, or RhB), supported by Swiss train builder Stadler, and is perhaps even more astonishing as it takes place on a narrow gauge railway.

Unlike most Swiss and European railways, which use the “standard” gauge between the rails of 1,435 meters (4 feet 8.5 inches), the RhB rails are only one meter apart.

Combine this with a route with notoriously tight turns, steep inclines, 22 tunnels and 48 bridges over deep valleys and the challenges become apparent.

Previous holders of the world’s longest passenger train record – Belgium and before that the Netherlands – used standard gauge tracks through flat landscapes to their advantage.

However, preparations began months before the RhB event, including test runs to ensure the unique train could be operated safely.

“We all know the Albula line very well, every change of slope, every incline,” said lead driver Andreas Kramer, 46, ahead of the big day. “It goes without saying that we go through the process again and again.”

He added: “We have to be 100% synchronized every second. Everyone has to keep their speed and other systems under control at all times.”

An initial test run ended in failure before the train even got moving when it was discovered that the emergency braking system could not be activated and the seven drivers in the many tunnels could not communicate with each other by radio or mobile phone.

Kramer, assisted by six other drivers and 21 technicians, instead used a temporary field telephone system set up by the Swiss Civil Defense Organization to maintain communications as the train traveled through countless miles at 35 km/h. tunnels and deep valleys.

Specially adapted software and an intercom between the seven drivers allowed the 25 trains to work together in harmony. Any mismatch in acceleration or deceleration during the journey would have exerted unacceptably high forces on the tracks and power supplies, creating a major safety issue.

RhB Director Renato Fasciati said: “Switzerland is a railway country like no other. This year we celebrate 175 years of Swiss railways. With this world record attempt, RhB and its partners wanted to do their part to achieve a groundbreaking achievement never seen before.”

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Festive atmosphere

The train consisted of 100 cars.

The train consisted of 100 cars.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

During the long descent, speed was controlled by regenerative braking, similar to that of some electric cars, which fed power back to the 11,000-volt overhead power lines.

However, with so many trains on the same section of track, there was concern that they could feed too much power back into the system, overloading both trains and local power grids. To prevent this, the top speed of the train was limited to 35 km/h and software had to be adapted to limit the return of power.

Additional safety cables also had to be installed in the train to support the standard mechanical and pneumatic connections between trains.

On the big day, the RhB hosted a railway festival in Bergün and 3,000 lucky ticket holders were able to attend the record attempt via a live TV feed while also enjoying local entertainment and gastronomy. Normal services through the Albula Tunnel to St. Moritz and beyond were suspended for 12 hours.

Three satellite uplinks, 19 cameras in drones and helicopters, on the train and along the track filmed the train, providing a unique record of this once-in-a-lifetime event. This alone was a major challenge in a remote, mountainous area with limited mobile telecommunications coverage.

A railway nation

The record attempt was organized to celebrate 175 years of Swiss railways.

The record attempt was organized to celebrate 175 years of Swiss railways.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

For a small country with a mountainous landscape that at first glance seems unsuitable for railways, Switzerland pokes way above its weight in the industry.

By necessity, it has long been a pioneer in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering and its technology and expertise are exported all over the world.

Technical highlights such as the Gotthard Base Tunnelopened in 2016, it continues a long tradition of pushing the boundaries of the possible.

It is not without reason that the Swiss are the world’s most enthusiastic train users and they travel an average of 2,450 kilometers per year by train, a quarter of their total annual total. As in other European countries, mobility has exploded in recent decades: the average annual distance traveled by car and public transport has doubled over the past 50 years.

They traveled 19.7 billion passenger kilometers by rail in 2019, the last “normal” year before the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021 this dropped to 12.5 billion passenger kilometers, but as Switzerland celebrates 175 years since the opening of the first railway line between Zurich and Baden, passenger numbers are well on their way back to pre-pandemic levels.

The expectations of public transport users in Switzerland are so high that even a small delay is a source of quiet dissatisfaction. And not without good reason; many travel in and around Switzerland’s largest cities is multimodal, relying on smooth connections between trains, trams, buses and even boats at well-organized interchanges.

In 2021, the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) operated 11,260 trains carrying 880,000 passengers and 185,000 tons of freight per day on a 3,265 kilometer network with 804 stations.

Adding the more than 70 “private” normal and narrow gauge lines, many of which are also partially or wholly publicly owned, brings that network to approximately 5,300 kilometers, the densest rail network in the world.

A highly coordinated network integrates SBB’s trains with numerous other operators, extensive narrow gauge railways such as the Rhaetische Bahn (RhB), mountain rack railways, funiculars, post boxes, funiculars, boats and more, providing reliable car-free access to every corner of the country (see www.swisspass.ch).

Decades of long-term investment have resulted in a core network of heavily used trunk lines connecting all of the country’s major cities. This is fed by high-frequency S-Bahn (city rail) systems around the major cities plus regional and local rail lines, trams and mountain railways, many of which provide vital links to the outside world for rural and mountain communities.

Despite huge investments over the past four decades, through long-term expansion programs such as ‘Bahn 2000’. The Swiss railways are a victim of their own success. While SBB’s overall punctuality still seems impressive to outsiders, there are concerns about its deteriorating performance, rising costs and its ability to fund essential maintenance and major projects after the devastating financial losses of 2020-21.

Disruptions on the SBB network are still relatively rare, but reliability has declined in recent years due to congestion, staff shortages and poor punctuality of trains from neighboring countries.

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Strategic position

BERGUEN, 29OCT22 - Impression of the world record ride of the longest passenger train of the Rhaetian Railway (1.91 kilometers) on the UNESCO World Heritage route, the alpine Albula line, in Graubuenden on October 29, 2022

The train sank nearly 800 meters in its descent from the mountains.


Located in the heart of Western Europe, between the industrial powers of Germany, France and Northern Italy, Switzerland also plays an important strategic role in the wider European economy – as it has done since the Middle Ages.

For centuries, the Alps have been a formidable barrier to travelers and trade in this part of Europe, but billions of Swiss francs have been invested over the past two decades to build the long Gotthard and Loetschberg Base Tunnels deep beneath the Alps.

While other countries are debating and hesitating about spending on public transport, the Swiss Federal Council opened consultations on its next program of long-term rail investment in June 2022. Perspektive Bahn 2050 is a detailed set of proposals with a clear focus on the development of short- and medium-haul passenger services to promote a car shift.

Improving the existing network to create additional capacity will take precedence over more large infrastructure projects. Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga says: “It’s not about saving a few minutes on a main route like Zurich-Bern. The track is already unbeatable on those types of sections. Rather, it’s about extending where the track has lagged.”

The goals of the plan, which is expected to be enacted by 2026, include increasing annual use of public transport from 26 billion passenger kilometers to 38 billion passenger kilometers by 2050, increasing rail’s share of passenger and freight markets “significantly” and ensure that rail services are even more closely integrated with other modes of transport to provide greater mobility for all.

Critics often cite Switzerland’s smaller population and relatively short distances compared to countries like the UK and Germany, arguing that it would be impossible to create similar integrated public transport networks in larger countries.

It is true that the Swiss have built something ideally suited to their geography, culture and population density, but whatever the arguments elsewhere may be, the RhB’s incredible performance on October 29 is a hugely impressive demonstration of the Swiss capabilities of world class in railway technology.

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