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Slow trains keep chugging for railway buffs

When getting there was half the fun. Swiss Federal Railways

With the opening of a new, fast inter-city rail link between Bern and Zurich, who in their right mind would choose to take the slow train?

This content was published on December 10, 2004 - 17:08

swissinfo took a nostalgic journey on a line which is being consigned to history with a man who has been an eyewitness to much of its rich past.

Alex Amstein was born in Basel 77 years ago in a hospital built on the grounds of Switzerland’s very first railway station, constructed in the heady days of great industrial advances in 1844.

“Maybe that had something to do with why I developed a passion for the railways,” laughs the man whose job it was for more than 30 years to keep track of railway history and developments.

Amstein started working for the press service of the Swiss Federal Railways in 1959, and was head of communications for the last 21 years of his working life.

The unveiling of a new fast stretch of track coinciding with the launch of a new timetable means non-stop trains can cover the 100-odd kilometres between Bern and Zurich in less than an hour.

The old line used by all trains for the past century and a half has now been downgraded to a regional service, linking sleepy towns, quaint villages and near deserted hamlets.

Slow train

We board the slowest train, which takes three-quarters of an hour just to get to Olten - the halfway mark between Bern and Zurich.

It is a journey that will also allow us to revisit the railways of Amstein’s younger years.

“Travelling was not taken for granted then. But thanks to the train, people were given the chance to travel, even if they didn’t do it very often,” he remembers.

Shortly after our halt in Burgdorf, the train twists through a moraine valley. The trees are bare but the fields – ignorant of the season - are a lush green.

Broad roofed farmhouses dot the steep slopes above the tracks. As the valley opens up, our eyes are drawn to the sun reflecting off the rocky cliffs of the Jura hills in the distance.

We cannot see the new line which skirts round the Emmental, speeding through tunnels in order to overcome the uneven and uncooperative terrain, and ambivalent to its scenery.

Changing times

Amstein regrets the loss but is not the least bit nostalgic.

“The new line is much more comfortable because the train has to go around fewer curves,” he says.

“I like the new timetable, since there are more trains and more trains means more room in the trains. And the trains don’t stop everywhere.”

But ours does.

After Burgdorf comes Wynigen where tractors are as frequent as cars on the country lanes.

We then stop in the town with the tongue-twisting name of Herzogenbuchsee, followed by Langenthal, the start of an industrial belt that reaches to Olten.

We have 30 minutes here at “kilometre zero”, designated as such by the two 19th-century British railway pioneers commissioned to draft a plan for the future federal railways network.

All trains on the two main lines passed through Olten, and the town is still a busy hub today.

Busy hub

As we stand on the platform, a Eurocity express coming from Germany and going south to Italy screeches to a halt.

Passengers stare out the windows at a place they have never heard of before, and will soon forget again.

A double-decker inter-city train loaded with commuters is headed for Zurich. It rumbles past without stopping.

“When I started working at the railways I considered staying in Basel and commuting to Bern but that was impossible,” says Amstein.

“I had to be in my office by 8 o’clock but the first train didn’t leave Basel until 8.30,” he recalls.

“It’s incredible to imagine, but commuting is a relatively new phenomenon, which first appeared only 20 or 30 years ago.”

“I remember when there were only four or five non-stop trains a day between Bern and Zurich, and now there is one every half hour.”

Castles

We board our connecting train which, departing Olten, takes us literally from A to Z, stopping in Aarau, Brugg and Baden on its 50 minute journey to Zurich.

Medieval castles crown the crags that loom above the tracks and Amstein points to an opening in the Jura hills where we can peer into Germany.

Amstein says it is not only the increase in the amount of tunnels prohibiting train travellers from enjoying the scenery but their tunnel vision as well.

He laments the preoccupation commuters have with electronic gadgets, whether listening to music or spending most of the journey talking loudly into their mobile phones.

“I have to say that going at high speeds isn’t necessarily what makes travelling a pleasure,” Amstein says as we disembark in Zurich.

“I remember once travelling from Lisbon to Madrid. The train didn’t go faster than 50 or 60 km an hour, and it was one of the nicest trips I ever made.”

But he admits “time is everything nowadays”.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zurich

Key facts

The first mid-19th century plans foresaw a 650 km Swiss railway network.
Switzerland’s network today has around 5,500 km of lines.
There are 12 per cent more trains on the newly introduced timetable.
The upgrade of the railway infrastructure cost SFr5.9 billion ($4.93 billion).
The new Mattstetten-Rothrist stretch between Bern and Zurich cost SFr1.68 billion.

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