Dale Bechtel finds that slow motion travel is picking up steam

In terms of popularity, the old locomotive overtakes the new Keystone

Earlier this week, railway officials were celebrating that in the not too distant future it will take less than an hour to travel the 125 kilometres from Berne to Zurich. There was a similar yet very different scene unfolding in central Switzerland.

This content was published on July 22, 2000 minutes

Even though it was a cold, wet day in the alpine village of Gletsch, the rail enthusiasts weren't going to let the weather dampen their spirits. They had just finished restoring a stretch of track to considerably lengthen the short journey between Gletsch and the town of Realp, 13 kilometres away in the valley below.

They proudly announced that it would now take a full 90 minutes to cover the distance. That is if you hop aboard their train - a steam engine from the early 20th century.

It would be hard to take them seriously if one considers how much the government is investing to slash travel times. By 2005 the federal railways will have pumped about SFr1.5 billion into a 45-kilometre stretch of track between Berne and Olten. It will enable the latest high-speed trains to travel at speeds of up to 200 kilometres an hour.

The nostalgia buffs have invested their own time and money to slow the pace down. They have raised SFr11 million and donated more than 100,000 hours to restore the rack railway between Realp and Gletsch, and to refurbish the steam engines to run on it.

The line was shut down in 1982, when the 15-kilometre long Furka base tunnel was completed, linking Realp in canton Uri with Oberwald in canton Valais. The enthusiasts founded the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway to save the old line.

As the association tells the story, the difficult part was finding the locomotives. One engine was retrieved from a school in the Graubünden capital, Chur, where it had been on permanent display as a monument to days gone by.

A member of the association stumbled on half a dozen others rotting in the jungles of Vietnam. They had been sold to the Vietnamese in 1941 and remained in service there until the mid-1970s. They were brought back to Switzerland 10 years ago.

Now, for the first time in decades, these workhorses are again puffing and blowing off steam while making the steep and spectacular climb from Realp to Gletsch. The line has a maximum gradient of 11 per cent and includes about a dozen bridges and half a dozen tunnels. The light at the end of the last tunnel is a massive chunk of ice - the Rhone glacier.

It was also the light at the end of the tunnel that the rail enthusiasts, when they founded the association nearly 20 years ago, thought they may never get to see.

Still they're well ahead of the government's attempt to modernise the federal railways, which will cost a further SFr4.5 billion. If all goes well, the first stage of the mammoth project will be completed in 2004.

by Dale Bechtel

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