Original Glacier Express route keeps steaming in Switzerland

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Saturday, September 15, 2012

Workers repair a wood passenger car at the Furka Pass shop in Aarau, Switzerland. Jim Wrinn photo

The boilers and frames for the Furka Pass 0-8-0s rest in the shop at Chur. Jim Wrinn photo

The boilers and frames for the Furka Pass 0-8-0s rest in the shop at Chur. Jim Wrinn photo

I’m always looking for railroads that American railfans can use in comparison with some of the stars in Europe’s vibrant preservation community. Over the last two days, I’ve been visiting with Switzerland’s Furka-Bergstrecke Railway or Furka Pass Route. The corresponding U.S. line that comes to mind is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, that Perils of Pauline remnant of the Rio Grande narrow gauge empire that wanders between Colorado and New Mexico. You’ll read more about this amazing Swiss railroad in an issue of Trains in 2013, but it’s too good not to write about now.

The similarities are striking. Both railroads were rescued after their mainline counterparts abandoned them. Both railroads cross a formidable mountain pass, and both railroads owe their continued existences to the dedication of loyal volunteers. Both are ripe for natural disaster: Furka has been closed by landslides or floods three times in the last year. Fire danger has shut down Cumbres in recent years.

But both are national treasures that are too beautifully scenic and historic to ever let go. 

At 10 miles in length, the Furka is much shorter than the 64-mile-long Cumbres. Cumbres Pass rises to 10,000 feet above sea level, but Furka is close behind at almost 7,000 feet. Both are steam-powered, and in this era of homogenization, well, unique.  Both are narrow gauge: Cumbres is 3-foot. Furka is 3-foot, 3-inches (that’s one meter) with a rack and pinion system in the middle on the steepest parts. Until October 1981, Furka was a main line, the home to the famous tourist train, the Glacier Express. A major tunnel bypassed the snowy Furka Pass route that caused it to be closed in winter, but enthusiasts banded together to save it. It also features a well-known bridge that is folded up and stored every fall before avalanche season begins.

I had the good fortune to visit the Furka’s coach shop, which is in Aarau, about 60 miles away from the operating railroad. Here, steel frame and wood superstructure coaches come back to life in a 12,000-square foot shop that is a former slaughter house. I also got a good look inside the railroad’s locomotive restoration shop in Chur, where an 0-6-0 and two 0-8-0 rack engines are under restoration. Look for the smaller engine to be in service before next season and at least one of the bigger engines by 2015. Today, I will ride the steam train across Furka Pass. I got a taste of this during a visit in 2009, but the line was not complete, and the last section from Gletsch to Oberwald was finished in 2010. On Friday afternoon, I saw the diesel-powered train dropping down grade, so I am eager to see this in steam.

Please look for posts on Trains’ Facebook page and Twitter posts from me over the weekend and more blogs, Facebook, and Twitter next week from Germany and InnoTrans 2012! 

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