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Rebirth of travel's golden age in Zermatt

The Riffelalp tram transports guests back to the Belle Époque swissinfo.ch

A short three-minute trip on reputedly the world's highest altitude tramway shows that the Seilers, the family synonymous with the golden age of tourism in Zermatt, are trying to recreate some of the atmosphere of the period.

This content was published on June 25, 2001 - 09:19

The two-carriage tramway brings guests and their luggage the few hundred metres between the Riffelalp railway stop above the village of Zermatt and the recently re-opened Riffelalp resort.

Today's tourists make the journey to Riffelalp for the same reason as 19th century holidaymakers. The 2,200 metre high plateau provides a commanding view of arguably Switzerland's most famous landmark - the Matterhorn.

From the open carriages of the tram, passengers catch a glimpse through a pine forest of the mighty mountain that they have travelled so far and high to admire.

Three minutes after the trip begins, the restored tram exits the forest and comes to a slow but squealing halt. Riffelalp, the place of pilgrimage, has been reached. There is no longer anything to obstruct the view of the Matterhorn, towering proudly above Zermatt.

Grand hotel in 1884

It was hotel pioneer Alexander Seiler who realised the potential of Riffelalp and built a grand hotel on the spot in 1884. The first tourists were carried up to the hotel on horseback, and 14 years later trains replaced the animals when the Gornergrat cog railway was completed.

But due to technical reasons, the engineers couldn't bring the tracks closer than 600 metres to the hotel. A solution was found in the world's shortest and highest electric tramway, which went into operation only 12 months later in 1899.

The grand hotel and its modest tram served tourists through the Belle Époque, the lean years of the world wars, the Depression and through the economic recovery of the 1950s. But just when tourism had entered a second golden age in the 1960s, a fire destroyed the hotel. The tram carriages were retired to the gardens of the Seiler family home in Zermatt - silent witnesses to a bygone era.

Like a toy

"I remember when I was only 10 or 12 years old and I was allowed to operate the tram," says Christian Seiler. "I used to go with Kreusli [the tram driver] several times a day to fetch guests. It was like a toy to me. I was very keen to get it running again."

When Seiler reopened the Riffelalp luxury resort last year on the same spot where the grand hotel once stood, it was only a question of time before the little tramway resumed its duties.

But it was no easy task. "The tram was in a desolate state, so we had no other choice but to build a replica using a few old parts," explains Hans Tribolet, the engineer from Zermatt Railway who was assigned the job.

"The tram was renovated on numerous occasions during its 60 years of operation," Tribolet adds. "We had to decide which period to replicate - the very last or the first. We decided the first was the best."

The original rolling stock consisted of one passenger carriage, one motor luggage van and one trailer. The tram was driven by a three-phase motor powered by electricity from the nearby Gornergrat Railway.

Two kilometres an hour faster

The new tram depends on a battery, which is partially recharged during the electric braking operation. Other modifications had to be made in order to meet more stringent safety regulations.

And what could be viewed as a modest concession to the times, the new vehicle reaches a speed of 10 kilometres an hour - two kilometres an hour faster than the original.

Even though the manager of the Riffelalp resort, Hans-Jörg Walther, admits the tram was rebuilt for nostalgic reasons, he says it is still the most practical way of transporting guests and goods to the hotel.

Unlike its predecessor, the tram does a loop around the hotel forecourt after arrival, allowing it to pose for tourists in front of the Matterhorn - the main reason visitors have come to Zermatt and Riffelalp in the first place.

by Dale Bechtel

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