(CNN) – High in the Swiss Alps, St Moritz has made its name as a place that pushes the boundaries of winter sport. When it hosted the second Olympic Winter Games in 1928, its reputation as a playground for wealthy adventurers was already in place.
On Saturday, the region continued its tradition of expanding the boundaries of what’s possible with an epic world record attempt on tracks, not snow or ice.
To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Switzerland’s first railroad, the country’s rail industry teamed up to operate the world’s longest passenger train – 100 railcars, 2,990 tons and almost two kilometers long.
The record-breaking 1,906-metre train, consisting of 25 new “Capricorn” electric trains, took about an hour to traverse the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Albula Line from Preda to Alvaneu in eastern Switzerland, some 25 kilometers (about 15 miles).
Like the legendary Cresta Run toboggan run, Albula Line is famous for its endless sloping curves and steep descents. A world-renowned masterpiece of civil engineering, the 62-kilometer line between Itsis and St Moritz took just five years to build, although it required 55 bridges and 39 tunnels.
Before its completion in July 1904, visitors faced a risky 14-hour journey on rough roads in horse-drawn carriages or sledges.
The most important part of the line is the 5,866 meter long Albula Tunnel, which runs under the basin between the Rhine and Danube rivers.
Spirals, ascending viaducts and tunnels
The train jolted down the reversal of the tracks through the mountains.
Following part of the route taken by the world-famous Glacier Express since 1930, the world record attempt was made on the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct and the extraordinary spirals that secured the line’s international heritage status.
In less than 25 kilometers, the train dropped from 1,788 meters above sea level at Preda to 999.3 meters at Alvaneu and used a series of spirals, towering viaducts and tunnels.
The record attempt was organized by Rhaetische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway or RhB), backed by Swiss train manufacturer Stadler, and perhaps even more surprisingly it took place on a narrow gauge railway.
Unlike most Swiss and European railroads, which use “standard” gauge between 1,435 meters (4 feet 8.5 inches) rails, RhB rails are only one meter apart.
Combine that with a route that includes famous narrow bends, steep inclines, 22 tunnels and 48 bridges over deep valleys and the challenges become obvious.
Previous holders of the record for the world’s longest passenger train – Belgium and before that the Netherlands – used standard gauge railways to their advantage on flat terrain.
However, preparations, including test runs, began months before the RhB event to ensure that the unique train could be operated safely.
“We all know the Albula Line very well, every slope change, every slope,” 46-year-old lead driver Andreas Kramer said ahead of the big day. “It goes without saying that we go through the process over and over.”
“We need to be 100% in sync every second. Everyone needs to keep their speed and other systems in check at all times.”
The first test drive failed before the train departed when it was discovered that the emergency braking system could not be activated and that in many tunnels the seven drivers could not communicate with each other via radio or mobile phones.
Supported by six other drivers and 21 technicians, Kramer instead used a makeshift field telephone system set up by the Swiss Civil Protection organization to maintain communication as the train ran at speeds of up to 35 km/h through numerous tunnels and deep valleys.
Specially modified software and the intercom between the seven drivers allowed 25 trains to work in harmony. Any mismatch in acceleration or deceleration during the journey would put unacceptably high forces on the rails and power supplies, creating a major safety issue.
Renato Fasciati, Director of RhB, said: “Switzerland is a railway country like no other. This year, we celebrate the 175th anniversary of Swiss railways. With this world record attempt, RhB and its partners wanted to play their part to achieve a pioneering achievement that has never been seen before. ”
The train consisted of 100 wagons.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Speed on long descents was controlled by regenerative braking, similar to that used in some electric cars, which fed the current back into the 11,000-volt overhead power lines.
However, with so many trains on the same section of the line, there was a concern that they could feed too much current into the system and overload both the trains and the local power grids. To avoid this, the train’s top speed was limited to 35 km/h, and the software had to be modified to restrict the feedback power.
Additional safety control cables also had to be installed throughout the train to support standard mechanical and pneumatic connections between trains.
On the big day, RhB held a rail festival in Bergün and 3,000 lucky ticket holders witnessed the record attempt via a live TV broadcast while enjoying local entertainment and gastronomy. Normal services to St Moritz and beyond via the Albula Tunnel have been suspended for 12 hours.
Three satellite links, drones and 19 cameras on helicopters filmed the train on and along the track, providing a unique record of this once-in-a-lifetime event. That alone was a huge challenge in a remote, mountainous region with limited mobile telecommunications coverage.
a railroad nation
The record attempt was held to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Swiss railways.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
For a small country with a mountainous terrain that doesn’t seem fit for railroads at first glance, Switzerland punches well above its industry weight.
Necessity has long made it a pioneer in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, and its technology and expertise are exported all over the world.
The Swiss are the world’s most avid rail users, traveling an average of 2,450 kilometers by train each year – a quarter of their annual total. In common with other European countries, mobility has exploded in recent years – the average annual distance traveled by car and public transport has doubled in the last 50 years.
In 2019, the last “normal” year before the Covid-19 pandemic, 19.7 billion passenger kilometers traveled by rail. In 2021, this fell to 12.5 billion passenger kilometers, but as Switzerland celebrates 175 years of the opening of the first railway between Zurich and Baden, passenger numbers are on their way back to pre-pandemic levels.
The expectations of public transport users in Switzerland are so high that even a small delay is a quiet source of dissatisfaction. And not without good reason; Many journeys in and around Switzerland’s largest cities are multimodal and depend on slick connections between trains, trams, buses and even boats at well-organized junctions.
In 2021, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) operated 11,260 trains carrying 880,000 passengers and 185,000 tons of freight per day on a network of 3,265 kilometers with 804 stations.
The addition of more than 70 “private” standard and narrow gauge railways, many of which are partially or fully publicly owned, makes this network the world’s busiest rail network of approximately 5,300 kilometers.
Decades of long-term investment have created a core network of heavily used trunk lines that connect all of the country’s major cities. High-frequency S-Bahn (urban rail) systems in most major cities and regional and local rail lines, trams and mountain railways, many of which provide a critical link to the outside world for rural and upland communities.
Despite huge investments over the last four decades through long-term expansion programs such as “Bahn 2000”. Swiss railways are victims of their own success. While SBB’s overall punctuality still looks impressive to outsiders, there are concerns about worsening performance, rising costs and ability to fund essential maintenance and major projects after devastating financial losses in 2020-21.
Downtime in the SBB network is still relatively rare, but reliability has declined in recent years due to congestion, staff shortages and poor punctuality of trains from neighboring countries.
The train fell about 800 meters as it descended from the mountains.
Located in the heart of Western Europe, between the industrial powerhouses of Germany, France and northern Italy, Switzerland plays an important strategic role in the wider European economy, as it has since the Middle Ages.
For centuries, the Alps have posed a formidable barrier to travelers and trade in this part of Europe, but over the past two decades, billions of Swiss Francs have been invested in building the long Gotthard and Loetschberg Base Tunnels deep in the Alps.
While other countries debated and hesitated over public transport spending, in June 2022 the Swiss Federal Council launched consultations for the next long-term railway investment programme. Perspective Bahn 2050 is an elaborate set of proposals with a clear focus on developing short and medium-haul passenger services to encourage a shift away from automobiles.
Upgrading the existing network to create extra capacity will be given priority over larger infrastructure projects. Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said, “There is no question of saving a few minutes on a main line like Zurich-Bern. The railway is already unrivaled on such routes. It is more about the expansion that the railway is left behind.”
The goals of the plan, which is expected to become law by 2026, include increasing the annual use of public transport from 26 billion passenger kilometers to 38 billion passenger kilometers by 2050, “significantly” increasing the share of rail in the passenger and freight markets, and the integration of rail services with other modes of transport to provide greater mobility for all. even more closely integrated.
Critics often refer to Switzerland’s smaller population and relatively short distances when comparing it to countries like the UK and Germany, claiming that it would be impossible to create similar integrated public transport networks in larger countries.
It is true that the Swiss are building something that is ideally suited to their geography, culture and population density, but whatever the arguments elsewhere, RhB’s incredible success on 29 October is an extremely impressive demonstration of Switzerland’s world-class capabilities in rail technology.
Lead image credit: FABRIC COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images