Engineering Marvels of the Lötschberg Line
CROSSING THE KANDER. A heavy international express train leaving Frutigen for Kandersteg. In the background are the snow-
AMONG Swiss main lines there are two claimants to the distinction of possessing the most spectacular route, whether judged from the engineering or from the scenic standpoint. They are the St. Gothard Railway, already described in detail in the chapter beginning on page 139 of this work, and the Lötschberg, or, to give its full title, Berne-
The St. Gothard is much the longer of the two, but the Lötschberg crowds into its fifty-
The St. Gothard Railway forms part of the Swiss Federal Railway system, but the Berne-
There were other attractive advantages connected with the scheme. It would put the popular resort of Kandersteg on the railway. It would make the delightful holiday region of the Bernese Oberland much more accessible than before from Northern Italy. Most important of all, it would offer a new and direct through route from Paris to Northern Italy, and so stood every chance of securing a share of the lucrative international traffic as well.
Through portions of the Swiss express trains from Paris and the Channel ports were already being detached at the well-
With these favourable prospects, therefore, the Berne-
It was, however, only from Spiez, on the Lake of Thun, to Brig, a distance of forty-
The plan of the promoters was to use the valley of the River Kander from Spiez up to the southern limit of the upper basin of the valley, in which lies the village of Kandersteg. Thence it was intended to tunnel for a little less than nine miles under the main ridge of the Bernese Alps, emerging into one of the deep lateral gorges which debouch from the north into the Rhone Valley. Finally the new line was to descend along the north wall of the Rhone Valley to join the Simplon main line just outside the station at Brig.
This scheme offered a remarkably direct course, in view of the mountainous country to be traversed; but great difficulties stood in the way of carrying it successfully into effect. In particular, the level of the railway on leaving Spiez would be 2,070 ft above sea level; at Kandersteg, only thirteen miles away in a direct line, it would have to be all but 4,000 ft up; and at Brig, at the farther end of the new railway, the level would be down again to 2,215 ft. Moreover, the location would be bound to strike the Rhone Valley, on entry, at an altitude far more than a thousand feet above the valley-
And now, as in the description of previous railways of similarly spectacular description, the best way in which to appreciate the engineering marvels of the route is to take an imaginary journey over it.
Powerful Electric Locomotives
The best approach is the Delle “gateway” of Switzerland, which gives so characteristic an entrance into the country, through the wooded defiles of the Jura mountains. Immediately after the Grenchen Tunnel has been threaded, the passenger may see in clear weather, sixty miles to the east across the broad plain of the Aar, the glittering ice-
Electric locomotives of the Swiss Federal Railways haul the express from Delle to Berne, and on for another nineteen and a half miles to Thun, where the Lötschberg locomotive backs on. If this is one of the heavy international trains, one of the four enormous Sécheron locomotives will probably be attached. These remarkable machines of the 1-
From Thun the full glory of the Bernese Alpine chain, seen across the blue waters of the Lake of Thun, bursts on the view of the traveller. On the left are seen the Wetterhorn and the Schreckhorn, in the centre the familiar group of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, and on the right the shapely form of the Blümlisalp. Immediately below the Blümlisalp is the valley of the Kander, up which the railway has to pass. To the right of that, in the foreground, is the perfect cone of the Niesen, which, with its lower altitude, made accessible by a funicular railway, is the finest and most popular Alpine viewpoint in the district. On the way up to Kandersteg we shall pass the lower terminus of the Niesen line.
It is but a brief run -
In the ordinary course many of the Lötschberg trains have their Brig and Interlaken portions combined as far as Spiez, but in the height of the summer season the traffic is so heavy that independent trains have to be run from Berne to this point. The Lötschberg train probably includes in its formation through coaches for Milan, local coaches for Brig, a Swiss restaurant car, and, if it is one of the morning trains, sleeping-
Coming into Spiez the train has continued beyond the end of the Hondrich-
The Kander Valley now broadens out, and our train stops at the important station of Frutigen. It is well known to winter sports enthusiasts, for here they must leave the train for the road journey to Adelboden. This latter sports centre is at the head of the valley of the Engstligenbach, which has not yet been penetrated by railway. From Frutigen, as we look up the Kander Valley, a magnificent view is revealed; huge snow-
IN THE RUGGED LÖTSCHENTAL the Lötschberg Railway emerges from the great tunnel, the southern portal of which is seen at Goppenstein. The tunnel is over nine miles long and is bored under the main chain of the Bernese Alps.
At Frutigen the train has travelled eight and a half miles from Spiez, and has climbed just under five hundred feet without the gradient exceeding 1 in 67. But the real hard work is now to begin, and the gradient steepens to 1 in 37, which will persist over most of the next eleven miles. The observant will notice here that the method of track construction has altered. Instead of the flat-
most sharply curved sections bull-
For some distance from Frutigen the rise in the valley-
The engineer’s favourite device of spiral location has been called into play. First the railway sweeps westwards through the woods, across the full width of the valley. Doubling backwards, it regains the mountain-
PERCHED ON A PRECIPITOUS SLOPE is Luegeikinn Viaduct. Here the line is well over 1,000 ft above the Rhone Valley, into which it descends to join the Simplon main line at Brig, about eleven miles distant.
From this upper section of the line, looking down into the woods in the middle of the valley, the traveller sees the waters of the Blausee -
Finally we look down, from the upper level of the line, on the castle ruin of Felsenburg, alongside which we passed but a few minutes before, and which, some minutes before that, we saw from the valley-
Justly tamed as a holiday centre, Kandersteg is attracting more holiday-
South of the village the mountain chain closes in as an impenetrable barrier to any further progress of the railway. These heights are scaled by the mule-
THE BALTSCHIEDER VIADUCT on the Lötschberg main line, illustrates the heavy cost and difficulty entailed in descending the steep mountain-
Through a V-
In railway tunnelling on such a scale as this, it is always the unexpected that happens. In this particular tunnel the unexpected and the tragic were combined in a serious accident. Boring began at either end of the tunnel, in the usual way, in October, 1906. It had proceeded about three miles from the north portal when, on July 24th, 1908, without the slightest warning, a dynamite charge burst through into a deep fissure below the floor of the Gastern Valley. The workings were immediately flooded out, and debris filled the heading for a mile back. Of the twenty-
For some months the work on the tunnel was suspended. Further progress in the same direction was clearly impossible. Finally it was decided to bend the tunnel in such a way as to carry it, through hard rock for the whole distance, well to the east of the danger-
TO GUARD AGAINST AVALANCHE DANGERS in the Lonza Valley, massive galleries of reinforced concrete have been built. The sloping roofs carry the avalanches harmlessly over the railway. These photographs show exterior and interior views.
The train emerges again into daylight in a wild Alpine valley at Goppenstein. Before the coming of the Lötschberg line, the Lötschental, as the valley is called, was almost inaccessible, as it could be reached only by a stiff climb up a mule track from the Rhone Valley. Now, from the railway station at Goppenstein, at which all the trains stop, it is an easy matter to penetrate one of the most primitive and unspoiled valleys in the whole of Switzerland, green with luxuriant pastures, and hemmed in by snowy mountain summits, such as those of the Bietschhorn and Petersgrat, 12,970 ft and 10,517 ft high respectively.
The highest level of the railway, 4,077 ft, has been attained in the middle of the tunnel, with the usual downward slope towards the entrances for drainage purposes. At Goppenstein the line is 4,000 ft above the sea, and now begins the steep descent of 1,765 ft to Brig, which for most of the remaining sixteen miles is inclined at 1 in 37. Crossing the valley of the Lonza, the railway takes refuge on its precipitous left flank. But so rapidly does the bottom of the valley drop away towards the Rhone Valley that the railway is soon left high up on the mountain-
The builders of the railway had good reason to fear the power of the avalanche. A camp for the workers on the southern half of the tunnel was established at Goppenstein, and their work was constantly impeded, in winter and spring, by great slides of ice and snow which buried the tunnel mouth.
Fighting The Avalanche
But the climax of the peril was reached on a February night, when a vast avalanche hurled itself down from the mountains above the entrance, and swept the camp completely out of existence, a number of the men losing their lives in this disaster.
For a large proportion of the three and a half miles during which the railway travels down the Lonza Valley, therefore, it has been securely roofed in. Massive galleries of masonry or concrete, with sloping roofs, have been built over the line, at every point where it crosses a recognized avalanche track, and over other stretches where snowslides are prevalent, the slope of the roofs throwing the avalanches harmlessly into the valley below. Not only so, but a great deal of work has also been done at much higher altitudes, to minimize the risk. Extending up the valley sides many hundreds of feet above the line, irregular lengths of masonry walling have been built horizontally along the precipitous slopes, after the fashion of breakwaters, to break up formation of the slides as far as possible, and so to reduce their immense force as they reach the lower levels.
The railway now passes through a curved tunnel, 1,093 yards long, and on emerging from it, the traveller in the train -
THIS MAGNIFICENT STEEL ARCH carries the Lötschberg Railway across the Bietschtal Gorge line at a height of 255 ft above the valley floor. The arch has a span of 311 ft and the 432 ft length of the bridge is flanked by tunnels on either side. Over the bridge the track has a 990 ft radius. One of the powerful Sécheron 1-
Indeed, as seen from the Simplon line, it seems almost incredible that the gash high up on the mountain flank, just to the right of the opening of the Lonza Gorge, marks the site of a main line of railway. But a Lötschberg express may suddenly appear from the tunnel at Hothenn. Few experiences can be more thrilling than to be travelling on the valley-
The Lötschberg has had much the more costly task in descending from its eyrie than has the Simplon in making its way up the wide valley. All the mountain torrents, whether from the north or from the south side of the valley, make their way into the Rhone down deep gorges. Again and again the Lötschberg line has to spring across these gorges, often on viaducts of great size. Shortly beyond Hothenn there comes Luegelkinn Viaduct, a great structure of masonry perched on what appears to be a 45-
Then comes, immediately above the village of Raron, the classic bridge structure of the whole route -
Immediately beyond this tunnel we have a magnificent view up the valley of the Visp, which here rushes down to join the Rhone. Crowning the rugged ridge which separates the two branches of the Visp -
And so, after having threaded twenty tunnels -
A SPLENDID VIEW is provided for the traveller on emerging from a curved tunnel into the Rhone Valley at Hothenn. Here the Lötschberg Railway is 1,300 ft above the valley floor, and in twelve miles must descend to join the Simplon main line, which is travelling up the valley on the far side of the Rhone, seen as a white streak at the bottom of the valley.
[From part 34, published 20 September 1935]
You can read more on “Alpine Tunnels” in Wonders of World Engineering