Kathi’s Swiss Rail Adventure, part 2: Off to see a Swiss miss, who’s nearly 100 years old!

Posted by Kathi Kube
on Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swiss Autumn

The next morning was one I was most excited about. We were headed for Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe. The railroad to the station, which at 11,333 feet is the highest elevation train station in Europe, was built nearly 100 years ago. Specifically, Adolf Guyler-Zeller began building Jungfraubahn in 1894, and finished it in 1912. I'm impressed enough with what it takes to build a railroad these days, but tunneling up and into the Alps 100 years ago and in killer conditions to create a tourist destination is a level of determination and engineering savvy I just had to see.

As we headed out, I mused in my notebook that mornings from a train are pretty much the same everywhere. As I looked out the windows, I could see signs of people waking up and greeting the day. "If it weren't for the Alps, I could be riding the Hiawatha into Chicago," I wrote. The seats were more comfortable than Amtrak's, though, and trackside was much cleaner than in the U.S. No trash or abandoned cars rusting away; rather flowers and cows everywhere. The river beside the tracks just looked cold, glacial, and light blue.

Swiss cows



Swiss icy river

More than anything, it all looked intentional. The gardens, stacked wood, even the culverts were designed less utilitarian than we typically see here. "Everything has purpose," I wrote. "Form and function are considered equally."

The trip from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch took about two and a half hours. Shortly into our trip, our tour guide asked me if I'd like to ride in the cab. Um, yeah!

Our driver that day was Steve Riesen, who began driving trains in 2002. He spoke very good English, although he needed to verify a word here and there. (Still, it was MUCH better than my German, which is almost non-existant!)

Here's Riesen at the controls. In this locomotive, the large lever is the throttle. The smaller lever behind it is the reverser, and the button in the foreground is for the horn. The engine also has a "dead-man" pedal on the floor. The primary brake is on the throttle, and the emergency brake is on the left-hand side of the cab.

When we started out, the weather in the valley wasn't too bad. It was cloudy and a little rainy, but pretty much a typical fall day. Trains along this route are separated by just 100 meters. It sounds like a lot, but it sure didn't look like it.

Swiss Railways tunnel

Riesen tells me we're averaging about a 25 percent grade here. The trains switch from adhesion to cog automatically as we're going along, and as the grade requires. You can see the cogs in the rail between the tracks. The fencing is to help keep falling rocks off the tracks. In areas prone to avalanches, the railroad installed a warning light alongside the tracks. If an avalanche happens, the snow breaks a rope and the light turns red and the trains have plenty of time to stop before entering the danger zone.

Swiss Railways curve

The higher we went, the worse the weather got. We finally arrived at Eismeer, which is on Jungfrau, but provides a preliminary place to stop and take in the view. Once you get this close, all the travel is inside tunnels on the way to the Top of Europe. Above all else, you really need to remember you're in the Alps at this point. These warning signs are not kidding.

Swiss Railways

 

Swiss Railways

In case you did forget, a locker at the station was prepared with "SOS Material."

But before long we were back on our way to the top. Back in the coach, one of the other women on the tour demonstrates the significant grade we were on. The attendant behind her is leaning against the wall, while she's standing straight.

Swiss Railways

 

Swiss Railways

By the time we reached the top, snow was falling hard. I was surprised to find a lot of birds there, given both the elevation and the weather.

But there they were, and fairly tame, all things considered. Inside, though, conditions are much warmer and nicer where workers monitor the trains' comings and goings on train sheets as well as a dispatcher's monitor.

 

We also toured the Ice Palace, which is an amazing destination carved right out of the glacier. The floor, walls, and ceiling are shiny ice, so be sure to watch your step. Also be on the lookout for ice sculptures, a curling sheet, and even a bar with nicely - and naturally - chilled drinks.

 

The Top of Europe has so much to offer, including the Sphinx Observtory, the Ice Palace, several restaurants, and a gift shop. By next year, when the railroad celebrates is centennial, it will also offer a subway tour with stops in three caverns to learn more about the Railway to the Sky.

Before too long, the time had come to return to our train for the return trip. This time I rode in the charming coaches, which were designed specifically for this trek. Should you order some wine or chocolate - which are both delicious and in significant supply in Switzerland - you don't need to worry about it slipping off the table as you climb or descend the grade. Each table is designed with a pendulum that keeps the table surface properly oriented to gravity.


Interlaken

In almost no time at all, we were back at Interlaken Ost. And I was back to railfanning a little bit around the station. I managed to get a photo of a train on the lead into Interlaken Ost, but I didn't have time enough to position myself better for the shot. So I guess I'll just have to return and try again someday!

Swiss Railways

The next day we were headed for Harder Kulm on a funicular!

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