The railway that goes to the top of Mount Pilatus is one of the main attractions in the Lucerne region and central Switzerland. This year it is 125 years old. swissinfo.ch got aboard to discover the secrets of the steepest rack railway in the world.
The doors of the train have already closed when a Chinese family appears on the platform. Not fazed by the late arrivals, Stephan Sigrist finds room for them at the back of the carriage. “On rainy days like this, it’s mostly foreign tourists who go up Pilatus. The Swiss prefer to wait for good weather,” the driver tells us as he returns to his post at the controls.
The train makes its ascent from the station at Alpnachstad, on Lake Lucerne. It’s a steep climb at a brisk pace that takes the visitor up one of the most spectacular mountains in Switzerland – and also one of the most mysterious.
For centuries, Mount Pilatus was shunned and feared as a haunt of ghosts, gnomes and dragons. It is still the stuff of fairytales for children, says Sigrist. “Our dragons are not the bad sort, though. There are many stories of travellers in difficulties being saved by flying creatures. Maybe we’ll see one on the way…”
A particularly forbidding presence that discouraged climbers was Pontius Pilate himself, after whom the mountain is named. According to legend, the soul of the Roman governor who condemned Christ to be crucified haunted one of the lakes in the area. In 1387, fear of the ghost – which was thought capable of causing violent storms when disturbed – prompted the then governing council of Lucerne to forbid climbing of the mountain. This prohibition was in force for several centuries.
It was only in the latter part of the 19th century that the genius of a Zurich industrialist finally opened up Mount Pilatus to mass tourism. It was the time of the first Alpine railways, and Eduard Locher had the idea – for many it was a crazy idea – of building a line to the Pilatus summit. He designed a system for steep grades using a new approach – toothed wheels rotating horizontally – which was so revolutionary that it was showcased at the Paris World Exhibition of 1889.
Usually, the wheels of a rack and pinion railway are vertical like on other vehicles, as Werner Kramer, manager of the Pilatus railway, points out. “Ours is the only train in the world that has them horizontal. This maintains traction and a close fit with the rail. The system ensures stability, and can handle a very steep climb.”
Building the 4.6 km line, which reaches a record gradient of 48%, involved about 600 workmen. Many of them were Italians who had already worked on the Gotthard railway tunnel. The work was completed in only 400 working days, and on June 4, 1889, the train made its first trip with passengers aboard.
It was an immediate success. In spite of the steep price for the ascent – 10 francs, a week’s wages for the average worker – tickets sold briskly. In the first six months of operation 37,000 passengers were carried, four times more than the projected number.
Welcoming the world
Today too, despite the overcast skies, Sigrist’s railcar is full. Unlike a century ago, it is not just the rich who can now afford the panoramic journey. “Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Indians, Europeans – the tourists come from all over the world. Half of our passengers are foreign, the other half are Swiss,” he explains, before turning around to check on his customers.
“This is one of the most hazardous points in the journey,” says Sigrist when the train has got past the flowering meadows of Alpnachstad and has entered a coniferous wood. About 50 metres ahead looms a dark, narrow tunnel carved out of the rock. “I need to check that no-one has their head out the window.”
After calling to a careless Indian tourist, the 48-year-old driver reduces the train speed, rotating the wooden steering wheel. Half-way up, the section that goes through an Alpine pasture seems to have flattened out. “Flattened out? The gradient here is 19%. It doesn’t look like much. But just try doing it on foot and you’ll notice it,” he says with a grin.
Sigrist makes the journey up 2,073 metres six times a day. Up and down, up and down. Doesn’t he get bored? “Not at all! I watch nature and the animals and I keep an eye on the changing weather conditions. This morning there was snow at the top. Then I came down and got into rain. Now the sun is shining.” In winter, when the line is closed due to the danger of avalanches, the former postal employee works on the ski slopes. “I stay on Mount Pilatus, obviously.”
Still the same equipment
When the journey goes beyond the tree limit, the traveller realises just how bold the vision of Eduard Locher was. In front of us is a grey wall of rock that would discourage the most intrepid mountain climber. And yet, cog after cog, the little train advances effortlessly, just like it has since the beginning.
A large part of the railway infrastructure is the same as it was 125 years ago, and the carriages date from 1937, the year the line was electrified, explains Kramer. “The original manufacturer no longer exists. So we produce a lot of our own spare parts right here.”
About 30 minutes after leaving Alpnachstad we reach the summit. The tourists all head for the panoramic lookout. “There’s the dragon!” chuckles Sigrist, pointing upwards. The monster is portrayed on the cement ceiling of the station, and is also part of the railway’s logo. If you spend the night in one of the two hotels here on the summit you can hear the dragons call, he assures me. “Or maybe,” he admits, “it’s just the chamois.”
When the doors of the railcar have closed again, the locomotive driver says goodbye and takes off towards the other little train. The passengers are already lining up. For Sigrist, it’s time for another trip down the mountain.
Mount Pilatus by numbers
Length of the line: 4.6 km
Steepest gradient: 48%
Altitude differential: 1,635 metres
Speed: between 9 and 12 km/h
Maximum capacity: 340 persons per hour
Passengers carried: 357,162 in 2013
Cost: CHF 1.9 million ($2.07 million)
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)