Steam on the Brienz Rothorn
A day out to remember in the heart of the Bernese Alps
Many visitors travel to Switzerland and base themselves in or near Interlaken. Not all however take full advantage of the city’s location to some great opportunities for a day’s excursion in the region of the lakes between which Interlaken is optimally situated.
One example of an excursion ideal for couples, families and groups is just 20 minutes by train or car from Interlaken, in the small town of Brienz, nestling on the shores of Lake Brienz. The town is well known to the Swiss as being the country’s recognized center for woodcarving, interestingly though it is the home of Switzerland’s only steam rack railway that commences in Brienz and climbs in a tortuous 7.6 km to the peak of the towering Rothorn Kulm Alp 2250m above sea level.
The Swiss are great day-out-excursionists and hikers. They account for the majority of passengers on this railway and they know a good thing when they see it. The railway might be a tourist railway but most of these tourists’ are in reality Swiss ‘locals’. Few trains are without a group speaking in the Swiss-German dialect with at least one dog between them on an afternoon adventure.
The Brienz Rothorn Bahn (Railway), (BRB), opened in 1892 following just 18 months construction. Built to attract the new booming tourist trade in the region initiated incidently by Thomas Cook, the railway has remained very much as it was conceived 120 years ago. It prides itself on being the only railway in the world running three generations of steam locomotives with their original coaches. Original 1891 engines are still in daily use together with sister locos from the 1930s and more modern ones dating from 1991.
The railway is really a working museum, it just doesn’t realise it yet!
Visitors to Brienz finds the BRB adjacent to the BLS mainstation in turn next to the quayside serving ferries from Interlaken. The original quaint station building, provides the entrance to a day to remember…
The BRB timetable provides an hourly service to Rothorn Kulm, a journey although being only 7.6 km in length, takes 58 minutes, the reason for this becoming very obvious as the train pushes off from Brienz, (all trains are pushed on the BRB). Once the driver has the loco ‘notched up’ and the exhaust has synchronised with the rocking of the coaches, passengers soon notice that the train is ascending in a very serious manner. Chalet rooftops appear and the Brienz lake drops below. The line ascends 1700 m to the peak, and has a ruling gradient of 1 in 4, (25%) which, as any railwayman will confirm, is a feat that only rack adhesion can achieve. The BRB is therefore 100% rack adhesion, also a rarity.
Departing the gardens and back lanes of Brienz the train enters the dense forests above the lakeside. This section brings the visitor to the first passing loop at Geldreid where a descending train may pass. Soon thereafter the first tunnel is entered and the travellers are deafened by the locomotive exhaust beat as it bites into the winding route through the rockface. The first tunnels are in fact a series of four, with short windows through which the alert passenger is able to capture a glimpse of the turquoise lake far below. Following the tunnel section the forest thins out giving way to the meadows of the alpine pastureland and 25 minutes after leaving Brienz , the first stop in Planalp is reached. This pause is necessary, the loco has already used 900 Litres of water climbing the first 800 m and requires an additional 1000 Litres to reach the summit, another 900 m higher.
Following oiling and mechanical check, departure is brisk up into the upper reaches of the meadows. The ascent to the next passing loop, Oberstaffel, takes the traveller into the rocky open alpine reaches. Snow in winter, (November – April) reaches up to 15m in depth here and vegetation is correspondingly tough and limited, although this is the section with the best to offer in Alpine flora and fauna. Leaving Oberstaffel the temperature starts to drop, even in high summer, and the serious work is underway for both the steam locomotive and fireman, who now has the job of firing at over 6000’ above sea level! Traversing the upper ravine the train is now well into the last change of terrain, a fresh nip to the air reminds us that we are now approaching 7000’ above sea level and the valley is now a breathtaking vertical mile below us.
Arrival at the Rothorn Kulm Station presents a short walk up to the Railway’s Mountain Restaurant and Hotel where the terrace presents a stunning panorama across the range of the Bernese Alps. A few hundred meters further one reaches the marker indicating the highest point of the Rothorn and the vantage from which the entire chain of the Swiss alps with the Eiger North Face and Jungfraujoch may be admired.
The high point of any vacation has been reached, thanks to a vision realized 120 years ago and engineering that has stood the tests of time and mother nature ever since.
For a ‘typically Swiss’ day out this is the trip to plan into your vacation itinerary!
The Brienz Rothorn Railway is open from May until October and operates 7 days a week. Further details are available under www.brb.ch