The Lötschberg rail line turns 100 this year and as part of the birthday celebrations, passengers get to ride on its breathtakingly beautiful route through the Alps — with postcard views of jagged, snow-capped peaks — for a cut-rate price.
The line that connects the Bernese Oberland with Valais is one of the most scenic in the country. It is best-known for a twisting mountain stretch from Frutigen to Brig that climbs to a height of 1,240 metres.
Passengers on the Lötschberger excursion train can look forward to spectacular views of rugged mountains dropping to green valley floors on a journey that takes them across the imposing Kander viaduct – the route’s longest bridge at 285 metres.
BLS (Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon), the country’s second biggest rail operator, is offering a limited number of special day tickets for 25 francs ($25.75) apiece in the anniversary year. Day tickets can be used across the BLS train and bus network and on the boats that ply lakes Thun and Brienz.
Other deals include reduced fares on the funicular train that climbs the Niesen mountain, as well as lifts to the top of the Stockhorn and Niederhorn peaks.
The Lötschberg line opened on July 15th, 1913 with the first train chugging from Bern through the Alps to Brig in the canton of Valais, pulled by the most powerful engine in the world. One hundred years later to the day, BLS, which was set up by the canton of Bern to operate the railway, is running a special train service recreating that pioneering journey.
In September it will be the turn of Valais to mark a key point in railway history with a two-day festival featuring historic locomotives.
In addition, special exhibitions on either side of the Lötschberg tunnel explore the history of the line with its highs and lows, metaphorical as well as geographical.
Work began in 1906 on the 58-kilometre mountain route from Frutigen in the Bernese Oberland to Brig in Valais. An impressive feat of engineering, the line would comprise 36 tunnels and 22 bridges.
But progress was delayed by two disasters – one natural, the other manmade – that made headlines around the world. Soon after construction began, a deadly avalanche hit the village of Goppenstein on the south side. Then in 1908 the Lötschberg tunnel flooded, claiming the lives of 25 miners and causing a diversion that would add an extra kilometre to its length.
The Lötschberg line was not the first to connect north and south through the Alps – the Gotthard Railway had already done that – but it was the first mountain stretch to be powered by electricity. And it played an important role in linking the Swiss capital with Valais and urban centres with mountain valleys.
But not everyone was enthusiastic.
“Ethnologists were worried that the way of life in the Lötschental valley and its customs would be threatened by industrialization. In fact, local customs adapted and were strengthened,” says Lötschberger Museum curator Thomas Antonietti.
Another knock-on effect was the influx of around 3,000 foreign workers – mainly from Italy – who co-existed with the locals and without whose labour the tunnel could not have been built.
With the completion of the railway line, the Lötschental valley was suddenly part of a major international transit route, and the local tourist industry – attracting visitors from the region and the world – began in earnest. “It was a real breakthrough for the valley that visitors could come from Germany without the need to change trains,” Antonietti tells The Local.
“Kandersteg was already a tourist destination,” adds historian Anna Amacher Hoppler, co-author of a book to mark the railway’s anniversary. “But it could now be reached more easily and quickly. You see that on the first published timetable that shows direct connections from London to Kandersteg and Frutigen. BLS always had a very international dimension.”
In 2007, the Lötschberg base tunnel opened for passenger and freight rail traffic, cutting travel times to Italy. But BLS continues to operate its “Lötschberger” train service for those preferring to take the scenic route through the mountains.
An average of 1,500 passengers travel the Frutigen-Kandersteg stretch during the week, and that increases to around 2,000 at the weekends, according to BLS spokesman Michael Blum.
Amacher Hoppler points out that while the nature of rail tourism has changed over the past 100 years – from long stays to weekend or day trips – BLS again has an important tourist function in the Bern region, with its network of trains and boats. And in winter “you can go for a day’s skiing to Adelboden and be back in Bern by the evening”, she says.
“The Lötschberg railway is as important for tourism as it was 100 years ago,” Daniela Bär of Switzerland Tourism tells The Local. “It is probably one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world and connects all the iconic 4,000-metre Swiss peaks. From the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau you are at the Matterhorn in next to no time.”
For more information check the BLS website.