(CNN) – High in the Swiss Alps, St Moritz has made its name as a place to push the limits of winter sports. By the time it hosted the second Winter Olympics in 1928, its reputation as a playground for wealthy adventurers was already well established.
On Saturday, the region continued its long tradition of pushing the limits of what’s possible with an epic world record attempt — not on snow or ice, but on rails.
To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Switzerland’s first railway, the country’s rail industry has come together to run the world’s longest passenger train: 100 cars, 2,990 tonnes and almost two kilometers long.
Made up of 25 new “Capricorn” electric trains, the record-breaking 1,906-metre train took almost an hour to travel 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) on the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Albula Line from Preda to Alvaneu in the east of switzerland
Like the legendary Cresta Run toboggan run, the Albula line is famous for its endless turns and steep descents. A world-renowned civil engineering masterpiece, the 62km line between Thusis and St Moritz took just five years to build despite requiring 55 bridges and 39 tunnels.
Before its completion in July 1904, visitors faced a perilous 14-hour journey over bumpy roads in horse-drawn carriages or sleighs.
The centerpiece of the line is the 5,866-meter-long Albula Tunnel, which passes under the watershed between the Rhine and Danube rivers.
Spirals, elevated viaducts and tunnels
The train spiraled down a switchback through the mountains.
Following part of the route taken by the world-famous Glacier Express since 1930, the world record attempt took in the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct and the extraordinary spirals that secured the line as an international heritage site.
In less than 25 kilometers, the train plummeted from 1,788 meters above sea level in Preda to 999.3 meters in Alvaneu, using a succession of spirals, viaducts and tunnels.
The record attempt was organized by the Rhaetische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway or RhB), supported by the Swiss train builder Stadler, and is perhaps even more amazing for taking place on a narrow-gauge railway.
Unlike most Swiss and European railways, which use the “standard” gauge between rails of 1.435 meters (4 ft 8.5 in), RhB rails are only one meter apart.
Combine that with a route with notoriously tight corners, steep gradients, 22 tunnels and 48 bridges over deep valleys and the challenges become apparent.
The previous holders of the record for the world’s longest passenger trains — Belgium and, before that, the Netherlands — used standard-gauge railroad tracks across flat landscapes to their advantage.
However, preparations began months before the RhB event, including tests to ensure the unique train could operate safely.
“We all know the Albula Line very well, every change of gradient, every gradient,” lead rider Andreas Kramer, 46, said before the big day. “Needless to say, we’re going through the process over and over again.”
He added: “We need to be 100% in sync, every second. Everyone has to keep their speed and other systems under control at all times.”
An initial test ended in failure before the train could move when it was discovered that the emergency brake system could not be activated and the seven drivers could not communicate with each other by radio or mobile phone in the numerous tunnels.
Kramer, assisted by six other drivers and 21 technicians, used a temporary field phone system set up by the Swiss Civil Protection organization to maintain communications as the train traveled at 35 km/h through countless tunnels and deep valleys.
Specially modified software and an intercom between the seven drivers allowed all 25 trains to run in harmony. Any misalignment in acceleration or deceleration during travel would have exerted unacceptably high forces on the tracks and power supplies, creating a significant safety issue.
RhB director Renato Fasciati said: “Switzerland is a railway country like no other. This year we celebrate 175 years of Swiss railways. With this world record attempt, RhB and its partners wanted to play their part in achieving a feat pioneer that I had never seen before.”
The train consisted of 100 cars.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
On the long descent, speed was controlled by regenerative braking, similar to that used in some electric cars, which fed current back into the 11,000-volt overhead power lines.
However, with so many trains on the same section of line, there were concerns that they could feed too much current into the system, overloading both the trains and local power grids. To avoid this, the maximum speed of the train was limited to 35 km/h and the software had to be modified to restrict the power supply.
Additional safety control cables also had to be installed throughout the train to support the standard mechanical and pneumatic connections between the trains.
On the big day, the RhB organized a railway festival in Bergün and 3,000 lucky ticket holders were able to witness the record attempt via a live TV broadcast while enjoying local food and entertainment. Normal services through the Albula Tunnel to St Moritz and beyond were suspended for 12 hours.
Three satellite uplinks, 19 cameras on drones and helicopters, on the train and along the track filmed the train, providing a unique record of this once-in-a-lifetime event. This alone was a huge challenge in a remote and mountainous region with limited mobile telecommunications coverage.
A railway nation
The record attempt was organized to celebrate 175 years of Swiss railways.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
For a small country with a mountainous landscape that, at first glance, seems unsuitable for railways, Switzerland punches well above its weight in industry.
Necessity made him a pioneer in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering for a long time and his technology and knowledge are exported to the whole world.
With good reason, the Swiss are the most enthusiastic rail users in the world, traveling an average of 2,450 kilometers a year by train, a quarter of their annual total. In common with other European countries, mobility has exploded in recent decades: the average annual distance traveled by car and public transport has doubled in the last 50 years.
19.7 billion passenger kilometers were traveled by rail in 2019, the last “normal” year before the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, the figure has dropped to 12.5 billion passenger kilometres, but as Switzerland marks 175 years since the opening of its first railway between Zurich and Baden, passenger numbers are on track to return to pre-pandemic levels.
The expectations of public transport users in Switzerland are so high that even a small delay is a source of quiet dissatisfaction. And not without reason; many trips in and around Switzerland’s biggest cities are multimodal, relying on elegant connections between trains, trams, buses and even boats on well-organized exchanges.
In 2021, the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) operated 11,260 trains carrying 880,000 passengers and 185,000 tons of freight per day on a network 3,265 kilometers long with 804 stations.
Adding the more than 70 “private” standard and narrow-gauge railways, many of which are also partly or wholly publicly owned, brings that network to around 5,300 kilometres, the densest railway network in the world.
Decades of long-term investment have created a core network of heavily used main lines linking all the country’s major cities. This is influenced by high-frequency S-Bahn (city rail) systems around larger cities, as well as regional and local rail lines, trams and mountain railways, many of which provide a critical connection to the outside world for communities rural and mountain.
Despite massive investment over the past four decades, through long-term expansion programs such as “Bahn 2000”. Switzerland’s railways are becoming victims of their own success. While SBB’s overall punctuality still looks impressive to outsiders, there are concerns about deteriorating performance, rising costs and its ability to fund essential maintenance and major projects following devastating financial losses in 2020-21.
Disruption is still relatively rare on the SBB network, but reliability has declined in recent years as a result of congestion, understaffing and the poor punctuality of trains arriving from neighboring countries.
The train fell nearly 800 meters on its descent from the mountains.
Located in the heart of Western Europe, between the industrial powerhouses of Germany, France and northern Italy, Switzerland also plays a key strategic role in the wider European economy, as it has since the Middle Ages.
For centuries, the Alps represented 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 debate and argue over public transport spending, in June 2022 the Swiss Federal Council opened consultations on its next long-term rail investment programme. Perspektive Bahn 2050 is a detailed set of proposals with a clear focus on the development of short- and medium-distance passenger services to promote a move away from cars.
Upgrading the existing network to create additional capacity should be prioritized over major infrastructure projects. Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga says: “It’s not about saving a few minutes on a trunk route like Zurich-Bern. Rail is already unbeatable on routes like that. It’s more about expansion where rail has fallen behind.”
Expected to be enacted into law by 2026, the plan’s goals include increasing the annual use of public transportation from 26 billion passenger-kilometers to 38 billion passenger-kilometers by 2050, increasing rail’s share of the passenger and freight market.” significantly’ and ensure that rail services are even more closely integrated with other modes of transport to provide greater mobility for all.
Critics often cite Switzerland’s smaller population and relatively short distances when comparing it to countries such as the UK and Germany, arguing that it would be impossible to create similar integrated public transport networks in larger countries.
It is true that the Swiss have built something ideal for their geography, culture and population density, but whatever the arguments elsewhere, RhB’s incredible achievement on October 29 is a hugely impressive demonstration of Switzerland’s world-class capabilities in field of railway technology.