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History of the Swiss railways

The first railway station in Switzerland was opened in 1845 - but the first Swiss train did not take to the rails until 1847, on a completely different track about 70 kilometers (43 miles) away...

How could this be?

The first station was in Basel, and was built by the French Alsace Railway to serve the trains it was already running over the border into the Swiss city. (A second "foreign" station, the Badischer Bahnhof followed in 1855.)

The first Swiss train ran between Baden to Zurich, a distance of nearly 30 km (18 miles). It was the so-called Spanisch-Brötli Bahn, or Spanish Rolls Railway, which whisked soft fresh bread from Baden bakers to Zurich customers in a mere 30 minutes. This remained the only line solely within Switzerland for the next 7 years.

The paradox reflects the careful Swiss attitude to innovation in general and the new form of transport in particular, despite the railway fever seizing Europe and the United States in the 25 years following the opening of the world's first locomotive passenger railway in 1825.

Switzerland's neighbours, France and Germany, had built several thousand kilometres of track before the Swiss laid a single rail.

It was not that the Swiss had failed to notice the momentous changes underway. The first railway company was established in Zurich in 1836, but it failed to get all the cantonal concessions it needed for its plans for a line to Basel, and it had to be wound up in the face of financial difficulties.

Plaque at Olten station, marking the original planned hub of the Swiss railway system (in new window)

Plaque at Olten station, marking the original planned hub of the Swiss railway system©

First plans

Despite this slow start, enthusiasm gradually caught on. At first it was expected that the newly centralised government would organise the service. This seemed logical: under the terms of the 1848 constitution it was busy unifying not only the postal system (whose coaches also provided long distance travel), but also weights and measures and even the currency.

Two Englishmen - one of them Robert Stephenson, the son of the locomotive pioneer George Stephenson - were invited to suggest a Swiss railway network. They proposed following the river valleys as far as possible, and avoided as much as they could the construction of bridges and tunnels. The hub of their system was Olten, between Bern and Basel. As a money-saving measure they suggested integrating the service with ferries on the western lakes, and advised against the idea of taking a line over the Alps.

The Englishmen's plan was greeted with such a chorus of dismay that the government backed off. In 1852 parliament handed responsibility over to the cantons, who then granted concessions to private companies. The state retained only a supervisory role and a general right to express its opinion over planned routes.

The rack of a rack-and-pinion railway (in new window)

The rack of a rack-and-pinion railway© Roland Zumbühl / picswiss

Private railways

Switzerland may have missed out on having a coherently planned network, but private companies sprang up and quickly got building. They did not shy away from tunnels and bridges, despite the cost - and the cost was not only in money, but sometimes also in lives. In the next three decades they built 2,500 km of track - including one of the great tunnelling feats of the century, the 15 km (9.3 mile) long St Gotthard, which opened in 1882. Thanks to the efforts of private companies, the main cities were linked together and despite initial fears, there were few competing lines. Even the agricultural areas were served by trains, which were vital for their economic development.

In the 1870s Swiss entrepreneurs embarked on a new kind of railway, thanks to the invention of the rack-and-pinion system, which enabled trains to climb steep slopes. More and more tourists were coming to enjoy the Swiss mountains, not least benefiting from the European railway system: now they could travel to the top without exerting themselves. Before this, they had been carried up in litters - like Queen Victoria who visited the Rigi above Lake Lucerne in 1868, just three years too soon for the train.

However, it was soon clear that the railways could not be self-financing. It was also clear that the railways were of immense importance for economic development. People started to take the view that they were a service, just like roads, schools or hospitals. From the beginning numerous cantons and communes had a financial share in rail construction. Not all schemes were as profitable as taxpayers would have liked: in the 1870s the Swiss National Railway, financed by the communes along the route, turned out to be an expensive disaster. Far from generating income, it left some communities with debts of millions of francs - Winterthur, for example, was still paying off its share into the 1950s.

The first locomotive of the new Swiss Federal Railways arrives in Bern, on January 1st 1902 (in new window)

The first locomotive of the new Swiss Federal Railways arrives in Bern, on January 1st 1902© SBB

The role of the federal government

The central government had always had the right to veto concessions granted by the cantons to private entrepreneurs; as time went on it gradually obtained greater powers over railway development. The idea that the railways should be controlled by the federal government had never completely died, despite the power of the private companies. In 1872 a new Railway Law took away the cantons' right to grant concessions to railway companies and gave it to the federal authorities, who also started to take an active part in determining timetables, prices and investments.

Supporters of a federal railway system saw the possibility of cutting jobs and saving money, and expected fares to come down and new lines to be built if the railways were centralised. The government, conscious of the strategic importance of the network, was also worried about the growing number of foreign shareholders in the private rail companies. It started to buy up shares itself and then to push for the outright purchase of the companies.

Promoters of a federal railway played on national feelings when the plan to take over the railways was put to referendum in 1898. The ringing slogan "The Swiss Railways for the Swiss People" won the endorsement of two thirds of the voters.

A new era opened on January 1st 1902, when the first train of the new Swiss Federal Railways puffed into Bern's main station decked with flags and garlands - and the white Swiss cross on the front of the locomotive.

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