Friday, April 28, 2006

Glacier Express

From St Gallen I traveled to St Moritz. Considered a jet-set ski haven and brilliantly situated in the Alps, St Moritz is itself architecturally undistinguished. All the major high-brow stores have their locations here so if you wish to pick up the latest creation from renowned jewelers, Cartier in between ski runs it only takes money. Besides German you'll hear Italian which along with French and Romansh make up the four official languages of Switzerland.

St Moritz also serves as one of the starting points of the Glacier Express where I find myself this morning. Playfully called the "slowest express train in the world" it actually started rather briskly at 9:02 in the morning. A few minutes later we made our first stop reminding us that this is at its root a working train yet one provided with special "panorama cars" with picture windows for us the wide eyed tourist. As luck would have it the weather did its part and it turned out to be a beautiful day with the sun shining over snow covered alpine meadows ... a glorious day for a train ride with each turn, tunnel and bridge a new picture is presented.

Each small village begs the question, how do these people make a living and what sacrifices must be made to live in such a beautiful locale? Mother, father, sister, brother each was carrying skis or pulling on toboggans, even grandparents seemed not immune to sliding and slushing in the snow. Hills were dotted with ski lifts and pathways turned into luge runs. Feeling removed from reality in our air-conditioned cars we longed to join the crowds. Of course playing in the snow is a lot different then having to live in it but I would rather guess that you would be hard put to gather any complaints from the local people, at least none that they would admit in mixed company! We sat gape jawed at the images seen through the windows, it seemed too perfect. I have often remarked that train travel delivers you to the backyards of society. A view a little to personal, the side of a house hidden from the street was bared open to the train traveler. On the Glacier Express all that was turned on it's engine and you were presented with the best of what was on offer.

The three railway companies of that period the VZ later the Matterhorn Gotthardbahn (BVZ), the Rhatische Bahn (RhB) and the Furka-Oberalp Railway (FOB) respectively took advantage of the tourism potential at hand with the opening of the route between the Valais and Graubunden in 1926 followed by the introduction of the through coaches Brig - Chur and Brig - St.Moritz met with a lot of interest amongst the traveling public. Yet unless they wished to be snowed in during the winter the Furka alpine route would take another 50 years before it could stay open all year long.

June 25, 1930 saw the opening of the connection between Visp and Brig allowing the Glacier Express to operate between Zermatt and St.Moritz for the first time. To cater to the well healed travelers elegant salon coaches and dining cars were introduced on the route between St.Moritz and Disentis. Whilst the VZ and RhB were already equipped with state-of-the-art electric locomotives the "Crocodiles". The Furka-Oberalp Railway was still working with steam engines (HG 3/4), which were sent to Vietnam in 1947 only to be recalled back to Switzerland during the 1990s by enterprising promoters of the Furka alpine route for nostalgic steam-engine trips that today are more popular than ever.

At the beginning of the 1940s the Furka-Oberalp Railway was converted to electricity and on September 1, 1942 the through electric route Brig ? Disentis was officially celebrated. With the turmoil of the Second World War, express traffic was withdrawn from 1943 onwards to be reintroduced with slight changes in 1948.The Glacier Express also benefited from technological advancement during the 1950s and 1960s: faster engines produced shorter traveling times even for the "world's slowest express train". Construction work on the Furka basis tunnel between Oberwald and Realp began in 1973 and service could finally start through the tunnel on 26 June 1982: the Glacier Express now runs all year round! Today tourists are carried in modern air-conditioned panorama coaches.


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