I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An impressive and audacious feat of engineering allows tourists to ride a train almost to the top of the Bernese Alps. The trip by cog railway is just over nine kilometres long, and most of it takes place in a tunnel bored through the Eiger and Mönch mountains.
Mountain Railway Fever
Not many people would look at a 13,000-foot-high snow-covered mountain and think “Wouldn’t it be a great idea to build a railway to the peak?” But that’s just what Swiss businessman Adolf Guyer-Zeller did in August 1893 when he was hiking with his daughter in the Alps.
Perhaps his vision was not that extraordinary because Switzerland was going through a period known as “mountain railway fever,” and Guyer-Zeller’s plan was not the first to envisage carrying people to the top of the mountain.
Various proposals had been made starting in 1869 with a pneumatic railway. There was an idea to build a railway in five sections to a hotel at Jungfrau’s peak. Another plan called for cable cars inside a tunnel to lift passengers. But it was Guyer-Zeller’s proposal that got a licence to proceed in 1894.
However, there was opposition from the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty and the Swiss Heritage Society. They grumbled that the Jungfrau Railway and other similar lines were nothing but “destructive folly” and added “We regret that so many mountain lines have already been built, which only benefit a small number of people economically, while from the ethical point of view they are not only useless but even harmful.”
Constructing the Jungfrau Railway
Guyer-Zeller’s first obstacle was overcoming the skepticism of the money men, who thought the notion of building a railway to the top of a very tall mountain was just plain loopy.
However, as a testament to Guyer-Zeller’s marketing and persuasive skills, he raised sufficient finances to begin; ground was broken in July 1896. The work began at the 2,000-metre-high pass of Kleine Scheidegg. The first section was overland and required an army of manual labourers, mostly Italian, wielding picks and shovels.
The two kilometre open-air section ends at a station at the base of the Eiger Glacier. From there, the engineers had to dynamite their way through seven kilometres of limestone rock.
As they made their way through the Eiger and Mönch mountains, they cut holes in the sides of the mountains to dispose of debris. These openings were used as places where tourists could stop and take in the stunning mountain views. They also served as a way of generating operating income, as trains carried fare-paying passengers to the lookouts while the tunnelling carried on farther up.
Getting construction equipment and provisions for the workforce to the site was a major problem. A steam railway ran to Kleine Scheidegg but only in the summer, so teams of huskies were called in to pull sleds from Wengen.
The working conditions were horrible, and the turnover of labour was high. At the high altitudes, labourers tired quickly because of the low oxygen levels, and even in summer, the cold penetrated to the bone marrow.
The Jungfrau Railway website notes that “The workers strike six times, the construction management changes eight times and 30 construction workers pay with their lives, usually due to blasting accidents.”
To sweeten the deal, the labourers were each given a bottle of red wine per day, which conjures up visions of sled dogs on the vital mission of hauling cases of Chianti up to the worker’s accommodations.
Jungfrau Railway Motive Power
Railways at the turn of the 20th century were almost exclusively powered by steam locomotives. The idea of an engine belching smoke in a seven-kilometre-long tunnel just wasn’t going to work; crew and passengers would emerge from their journey coughing, spluttering, and covered in soot.
Guyer-Zeller’s solution was to use the relatively new technology of electricity traction, but there were no power lines anywhere near the railway, so a dedicated generating station had to be built. A stream was damned, and a hydro-electricity station was built. For the technically minded, the line uses a three-phase system of 1,125 volts at 50 Hertz.
Metal wheels on metal rails don’t make for good adhesion. As a result, regular railways are restricted to uphill climbs of five percent or less. In places, the grade for the Jungfrau Railway is 25 percent, so a cogwheel system beneath the engine and carriages gives the train the grip it needs to climb the steep gradients. Railway historian Kilian Elsasser told swissinfo.ch “The cogwheel goes into a ladder or toothed rail in the middle of the track and this allows the locomotive to climb.”
Tragedy and Recovery
In April 1899, the driving force behind the project, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, died of a heart attack; he was just 59. Then, financial difficulties caused a halt to construction. More money was raised, and the work resumed.
In the end, the original plan to go to the summit of Jungfrau Mountain by elevator was abandoned, and the terminus of the railway is now on the saddle between the Mönch and Jungfrau peaks. The railway ends at the Jungfraujoch Station at an altitude of 3,454 metres (11,332 feet) above sea level, making it the highest railway station in Europe.
The line opened for its full length on August 1, 1912, and it was an immediate success despite the rather grouchy 1923 review in Muirhead’s, a British guidebook: “the transit of the long tunnel (fully 1/2 hr.) is rather wearisome.”
Wearisome or not, there’s lots of fun to be had at the Jungfraujoch in addition to the spectacular panoramic view (weather permitting). There is an ice palace, and there are also several restaurants. Tourists can take ski lessons or go for dogsled rides. An elevator takes people an additional 111 metres (364 feet) up to the Sphinx observation platform. The train trip costs between $110 and $160 per adult. Some discounts are available.
- In 1908, about 30 tonnes of dynamite exploded accidentally at the construction site. The blast was heard almost 100 kilometres away in Germany.
- The world’s highest railway station is in Tibet. The Tanggula Railway Station is 5,068 metres (16,627 feet) above sea level.
- Numerous passengers, having spent several hours in the rarefied atmosphere of the Jungfraujoch Station fall victim to “Joch lag” on the return journey to Kleine Scheidegg; they simply fall asleep.
- If you want to do it the hard way, you can climb to the Jungfrau summit. Professional guides Kathy Cosley and Mark Houston say “The Jungfrau is considered to be a moderately difficult route, not well suited for beginners but appropriate for intermediate climbers with experience on both snow and rock.”
- Brothers Johann Rudolf and Hieronymus Meyer were the first to climb to Jungfrau’s summit in August 1811. But the mountain takes lives. In July 2007, six Swiss army soldiers were killed in an avalanche.
- “Jungfrau Railway: Rocky Road to the Project of the Century.” Jungfrau.ch, undated.
- “100 Years of Jungfrau Railway.” Valérie Andres, January 27, 2012.
- “The Conquest of the Clouds.” Mike’s Railway History, undated.
- “The Miraculous Jungfrau Railway.” Notesplesultra.com, January 2, 2018.
- “Jungfrau Railway Is still on Top.” Clare O’Dea, swissinfo.ch, July 31, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 19, 2020:
Rupert, very interesting. The scenic view the train offer will surpass any other travel. But life disappointment is so that the poiner engineer could not see the completetion of a rare work and enjoy some benefits. Thanks for sharing.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 17, 2020:
I remember travelling on this over 35 years ago. It was certainly memorable.
Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 16, 2020:
I have wanted to do this for a long time. Hopefully in the next few years. The first time I saw a photo of the weather station sitting up there I knew I had to visit someday. What an effort to just build the rail line. Thanks for sharing.
Viraj Shah from Mumbai on June 16, 2020:
I had traveled here back in 2018. It was a memorable trip for me! I've also preserved the passport kind of thing which they gave when we reach at the peak!
Lisha C on June 16, 2020:
Great article about the Jungfrau Railway—it certainly is extraordinary. This train trip seems like an incredible experience.