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Railway to the sky

The building of the railway to the Jungfraujoch took about 15 years and relied on migrant labour.

(Jungfrau Railways)

The formidable world of glaciers and high peaks of the Jungfrau region, once seen only by the most adventurous of climbers, was made accessible to the general public in 1912 with the completion of the Jungfrau Railway - an unparalleled engineering feat in its day.

Like the rest of Europe, Switzerland was gripped by railway fever in the last quarter of the 19th century. But even before tracks had been laid in the valleys of the Bernese Oberland, those ambitious plans were being tabled to build a line to the summit of the Jungfrau, 4,158 metres above sea level.

There was no precedent when a hotelier and politician from Interlaken, Friedrich Seiler, proposed construction of a pneumatic railway up the Jungfrau in 1870. A cog railway was being built to the top of Mount Rigi in central Switzerland at the time, but that goal paled in comparison - the Rigi is less than half the height of the Jungfrau.

Uttering the famous words, "It should be possible....", Seiler didn't realize he would also have to overcome protests from many local residents who worried that the railways would kill their livelihoods.

Farmers expressed fears

Many people worked as coachmen and livery holders and they had a thriving trade taking tourists into the countryside. Farmers feared the railways would encroach upon their land and that the trains would frighten their cattle.

The Jungfrau project would have to wait until 1889 before it was revived. In that year, two new applications were made to the government; a third came a year later.

The proposals differed widely: one suggested an adhesion railway linked with a cog railway, covering much of the altitude over open terrain; another detailed plans for a series of tunnel funiculars; the third seemed to delve into science fiction, proposing that elevators be propelled by compressed air through vertical tubes to the summit.

The race up the Jungfrau was lampooned by a Swiss satirical magazine. It published a cartoon showing a cable car travelling between the Jungfrau peak and the top of a gigantic Eiffel Tower spanning the Lauterbrunnen Valley below.

The serious projects were criticised for failing to take into consideration how the human body would respond to a sudden 3,000-meter rise. But the projects were shelved for logistical and financial reasons.

Then along came Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a railway builder and speculator. An outsider from eastern Switzerland, Guyer-Zeller had a chance to survey the mountain during a holiday in 1893.

Envisioning the railway

In one night, he sketched the route the Jungfrau railway would take:

If the proposed railway began at the top station of the just completed Wengernalp Railway, a 1,300 metre climb would be saved. The cog railway would open in stages to ensure revenues while construction continued, and a long tunnel looping under the Eiger and Mönch mountains would give the human body enough time to adjust to the change in altitude.

The Swiss parliament granted approval a year later and construction began in 1896. Plans for the railway differed little from Guyer-Zeller's initial sketch, but technical difficulties, supply problems and extreme climatic conditions doubled his cost and completion estimates.

In winter, the workforce was cut off from the outside world, requiring that a mountain of provisions be sent up each autumn. Dynamite used for tunnelling at high altitudes had to be warmed before use. Many workers, apparently unaware of the dangers, simply placed the explosives in their pockets to warm them.

Several men lost their lives in accidental explosions, the worst occurring in 1899. In the same year, Guyer-Zeller died.

It would be another 13 years before his dream was realised, when, on the early morning of February 21, 1912, workers blasted a hole through the rock at the Jungfraujoch - 3,454 metres above sea level.

A lift never was built to the actual summit - 700 metres higher than the Jungfraujoch -- as Guyer-Zeller had planned, but that didn't detract from the accomplishment. The railway was an immediate success, and continues to be a popular draw.

Nearly 700,000 people last year made the trip to the Jungfraujoch station. It is the highest railway terminus in Europe, and on clear summer days, it can be one of the most crowded.

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