Outside the village of Piotta at the southern end of the Gotthard rail tunnel is a building that blends perfectly into the local landscape.This content was published on June 10, 2008 - 09:48
The Ritom power station is unassuming - you might not look at it twice were it not for the huge pylons and cables nearby. Yet it is one of the main power generators for the Swiss Federal Railways.
"It’s a technical part of the Gotthard line that is very important. Since there was no coal [after the First World War], Switzerland had to resort to one of its natural treasures – water - to operate the Gotthard railway," explained Karl Holenstein, an architect with the Swiss Federal Railways’ department concerned with the preservation of noteworthy objects.
Built in 1920, the Ritom station in canton Ticino takes its water from the storage lake above and was brought into service with the introduction of electric traction on the Gotthard line.
"It was built from material that was on hand at the time and that it what probably makes it blend into the countryside so well," Holenstein told swissinfo.
"This stone can stand the tortures of weather and [that’s why] the power station looks today as thought it had just been built. And it can probably last for another 200 years without any problems. It was built solidly and with quality."
Some of the walls in the power station are very thick and for good reason: in 1920 there was relatively little iron around for building purposes so reinforced concrete was used.
"You can see in the Ritom power station that there are thick walls in the main [turbine] room for the crane and the tracks it uses. This is a special characteristic of the building," said Holenstein.
The history book says that it was, with Amsteg, the first power station to be built for the direct generation of single-phase current at a frequency of 16 2/3 cycles per second.
If you are, like me, no bright spark on electricity, a visit to the Ritom plant can help out.
To put it simply, water from the storage lake at the top comes down two pipes part way down the valley floor. The two split into four pipes before each feeding a turbine and a generator in the power station.
"We have four turbines and four generators. Normally they work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," explained Alfiero Martinoli, who is the head of the power station’s staff of 13.
"They carry out inspection and maintenance in the station and do the overhauls we have to do," he told swissinfo.
The power station these days is manned from seven in the morning till seven in the evening from Monday to Friday. At other times there is no one there.
"The main [energy] control centre at Zollikofen near Bern carries out the necessary controls and if there is a problem calls the person on duty by mobile phone," Martinoli explained.
The control room at the Ritom plant is an eye-opener. It is spacious, light and ultra-modern. You could eat your dinner off the floor. It is that spotlessly clean.
Martinoli, who has worked at the plant since 1981 and has been its head since 1995, said there is never a dull moment.
"I [look after] the factory, two sub-stations, the dam and I have all the contacts with the local commune. In this area, I know practically everyone," he said.
That was no exaggeration as he drove up the steep winding roads leading from the power station through the village of Altanco to the lake high above. He seemed to wave to everyone and everyone waved back.
There is perhaps no greatness about the Ritom dam compared with others in Switzerland but Martinoli likes to spend time up there in the summer months.
The water that falls from the lake, which has a volume of about 45 million cubic metres, to Piotta is not free. The Swiss Federal Railways pays cantons Uri and Graubünden because it is from these two cantons that the water originates.
Once the water has left the Ritom power station after producing electricity, it powers down the valley and is used twice more to produce energy, but this time canton Ticino pays the Federal Railways for the water.
While the power station vibrates to the sound of the revolving turbines and generators – the Swiss renowned name of Brown Boveri is on each generator – the crowd puller in this part of the world is the funicular railway, also built in 1920, which is one of the steepest of its kind in the world.
The railway, which has only one car that crawls up and down the side of the mountain with daring that defies description, carries about 40,000 people every season. At the top, flora and fauna appear in abundance.
With a gradient of 87.8 per cent, running over a length of 1,369 metres, it rises from 1,007 metres above sea level at the lower station in Piotta to 1,793 at Ritom.
Although a private company now manages the line, it is owned by the Swiss Federal Railways, which also provides the electricity from the power station a stone’s throw away.
"The funicular is important for us during the winter so that we can reach the dam. It’s the only real possibility to get there because the road is then closed," Martinoli explained.
"We can also go by helicopter but not if the weather is bad," he added.
At the top, there are countless possibilities to walk, admire Mother Nature and escape from the real world.
Lake Ritom provides electricity for the Swiss Federal Railways from up here, but it’s also a place where people can tank up on energy too.
swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Piotta and at Lake Ritom
The dam was built to raise the level of the natural mountain lake from 1,831.5 metres above sea level to 1,839 metres.
With the construction of the dam, the enlarged lake covered the Piora hotel, which had been constructed in 1877.
The station produces 155 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, 54 million in summer and 101 million during the winter.
The Ritom funicular is one of the steepest in the world, with a gradient of 87.8 per cent. It leads to a hikers’ paradise.