Swiss Tour Day 4: Volunteers make memories on the Furka Pass excursion

Posted by Steve Sweeney
on Monday, September 17, 2018

ZERMATT, Switzerland — The headline is plain so you know where I want to go with this blog post. But I really wanted to write: “The importance of being Kurt and Tony.”

These two men, you see, are volunteers with the Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke (DFB) or Furka Cog Railway. I’ll just call it the Furka train from here on out. 

We met Tony first. He is a tour guide and interpreter for the Furka train who met the Trains 2018 Swiss tour group in Andermatt. After a stop to get paperwork in Realp, Tony followed us to Oberwald to give us interesting insights about the railroad, its construction, the politics of building it, etc. He traveled four hours from his home in northern Switzerland just to meet us and give us a shop tour afterward. It was one of two tours he’d do this year. And it was his pleasure — after all, Tony is a volunteer. 

He told us that the cows on the mountainsides of the Furka Pass are environmentally necessary since they help keep vegetation in check, which — when short and stubby — lessens the effects of avalanches on nearby villages and the railroad itself.

I’d have never guessed. 

Also, the red passenger coaches we were riding in were original to the Furka train from before World War I. They have been refurbished, but they have always operated on this line. Any other colored coaches — blue, for instance — are from other rack railroads in Switzerland.

Tony explained in detail about the folding bascule bridge on the route that comes down every autumn to allow avalanches to pass freely through without destroying it. Until later in the 20th century, the bridge was moved and packed by hand with ropes. Now, motorized winches do most of the work. 

About half-way through our journey over the Furka Pass, we met Kurt. Kurt is a volunteer who’s been with the railroad since the 1990s and worked in mechanical and maintenance-of-way departments, and helped actively raise money for restorations. Today, he’s in his mid-80s and still providing information to tour groups. But on Friday he came down for one reason: to meet with Trains’ Swiss tour.

Kurt has an affection for the U.S. and us, having worked in Wisconsin and California earlier in his life. He took on mountain steam railroading in his retirement years. Oh, and the stories he can tell: of 40-foot snow packs, restoring locomotives repatriated from Vietnam, and the difficulties in obtaining copper-arsenic-alloy firebox material, just to name a few. 

After our turn on the Furka train, we departed for Zermatt and Kurt rode with us most of the way. During that time, he’d point out geological features, the place where Mr. Ritz of Ritz Hotel fame was born the last of 11 children; and he answered all of our questions about railroads, railroading, life in Switzerland, and his outlook on Switzerland itself (tourism is a pretty good thing).

He left us in Brig to return home to Basel. It was 6 p.m.-or so already and he believed he would be home by 11 p.m.

He and Tony are dedicated and thoughtful. It reminds me that without them — and women and men like them — the steam train we rode and loved so much would not exist very long.

To them we say, “Thank you.”

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