In a job demanding punctuality and an even temperament, Martin Horath has worked on Mount Rigi in central Switzerland for 25 years – making the 48-year-old train driver a loyal subject of the so-called “Queen of the Mountains”.
The rhythm of the speedometer is almost hypnotic, ticking along merrily as the cogwheel train shuttles to the 1,800-metre summit of Mount Rigi in central Switzerland.
“I hardly hear it anymore. I hear it if it’s not running,” says Horath. The maximum speed of the cogwheel trains is 19km/hour uphill, 16km/hour downhill. Occasionally, Horath sounds the whistle to warn hikers – or on this particular day farmers – who are too close to the track.
Early and late in the day, he often sees foxes, deer and chamois. “They don’t pay any attention to the trains; animals quickly get used to things running on a regular schedule.”
Born and raised in Goldau in canton Schwyz, Horath has always had Mount Rigi on his radar – especially as his father was a mechanic and train driver, too.
“I probably inherited it,” jokes Horath of his profession, recalling how he used to accompany his father on weekends, taking in the hilly green landscape from the driver’s cabin. Horath still lives in Goldau today.
After his apprenticeship as a mechanic, he spent two years working in a Rigi railway depot before becoming a train driver as well. In addition to operating the electric cogwheel trains, Horath also knows how to run the classic steam versions.
“Electric is much cleaner, but steam is more fun,” says Horath, a twinkle in his blue eyes. He explains that steam trains require two operators plus three or four hours of prep work; with electric trains you can just turn them on and go.
Thanks to his uniform, it’s obvious where Horath is meant to sit on the train. But the handlebar moustache topping his beard really makes him look the part.
“It’s my trademark!” says Horath, who began styling himself that way in honour of the 125th railway anniversary in 1996. Rigi’s cogwheel railway running from Vitznau to the top is the oldest in Europe, and the second oldest in the world after Mount Washington’s in the US state of New Hampshire.
A reliable host
Horath greets the passengers as they come and go, exchanging jokes with some, like the old man who seems like he wants to help with the driving.
“We get a lot of regulars, like the people who ride to Klösterli station on Wednesdays to attend church at the little chapel.”
On a typical day, Horath does three or four trips up and down the mountain – these days from Goldau, though he has also worked from the Vitznau side. Asked whether it’s not boring doing the same job for so many years, Horath counters that there’s actually a fair amount of variety. He enjoys interacting with the passengers as well as tinkering on his own, when he puts his mechanic’s skills to use in the depot.
Then there are the special days, like when wedding parties book a private ride. Or grey winter days, when he whisks sunshine-hungry guests above the fog. And once, in 1989, the Swiss federal cabinet members chose the mountain for their annual summer excursion.
Yet Horath has observed changes in how people spend their leisure time.
“Everything is more hectic these days. I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to have time anymore. They hurry up to the top and then straight back down again,” laments Horath, pointing out that visitors used to budget a whole day for a mountain excursion.
“There are more regulations as well – things have become more complicated than they were 25 years ago.” He’s noticed that there are also a lot more mountain bikes as well as hikers.
“There’s conflict potential there. But as long as people look out for each other it’s okay,” Horath says.
Horath’s passion for well-oiled machinery seeps into his leisure time, too. In addition to his work on Mount Rigi, he volunteers for the Furka-Oberalp steam railway – both as a driver and a mechanic. In addition to keeping things running smoothly, he and his colleagues repair old parts that can’t just be replaced with new ones.
Another project revolves around a steam-operated snowplough for clearing train tracks. Horath is in charge of a club of enthusiasts hoping to get it working again.
Indeed, old machines have a special place in Horath’s heart as well as his home. He estimates that he has 150 tons’ worth of vintage items like engines, steam rollers, motorcycles and other treasures that he wryly refers to as “scrap metal”. His collection is probably valuable on the antiques market, but Horath isn’t planning to part with any of it.
“Real collectors keep everything – they don’t sell anything off,” he says.
The railway authorities in Vietnam obviously aren’t collectors. In 1990, Horath went there with a team to pick up some old Furka railway locomotives that had been languishing.
“We had to buy them back, even though they were junk,” Horath says. The eight-week work trip was intense and brutally hot. They had to transport the locomotives from road to rail, and then back to the road and on to the sea. But overall, it was a good experience.
“While some of the locals wondered what we were doing there, most of the people were really kind,” remembers Horath. Some of the equipment hadn’t been used in 50 years, but back home, Horath and his colleagues were able to get everything on track again.
The Vietnamese adventure was quite an exception for Horath. Normally, he prefers to stay close to home. He appreciates the short commute – both to work and to his mountain hut.
“I had the chance to buy an old signalman’s house. It’s tiny, but it’s got everything I need,” says Horath, pointing to a wooden cottage with a glorious view of Lake Lucerne and the surrounding mountains.
A bachelor, Horath laughs when asked if he’s “married” to the mountain.
“No, no, but it’s definitely a place where I like to spend my time.” It seems he’s found the perfect work-life balance.