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THE HISTORY AND ENGINEERING OF THE BERNINA RAILWAY

On this page, you can read about the history of the Bernina Railway but first there is some information about the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) of which the Bernina Line is now part . Also included on this page is a description of the journey from the Bernina Pass to Tirano, taking in the Poschiavo Valley.

There are also old and modern photographs of the railway and trains. These photographs can be viewed as stills or slideshows. You can refer to the HELP button at the foot of the gallery screen if necessary. Click on the link you require.

Ci sono anche le fotografie vecchie e moderne della ferrovia. Queste fotografie possono essere visualizzate singolarmente o come slide-show. Se necessario, premi “HELP” in fondo alla schemata.

Click here to go straight to the journey.

Rhaetian Railway

The Bernina Line is part of the Rhaetian Railway, which is one of the most famous in the world, and operates the rail network in Canton Grigione (Graubünden) in south-east Switzerland. Graubunden is the largest but most sparsely populated Swiss canton. It is a largely unspoilt mountainous region of Alpine lakes and rural villages, which became popular with wealthy tourists in the mid-19th century. However, the canton was very inaccessible, and the need for better communications was clear. A railway would bring a considerably larger stream of tourists to the famous high valley than the horse-drawn carriages and mail coaches, and there would be many other economic benefits.

Graubunden recognized the need for a modern transportation system to provide access to the 150 valleys in the region, and they had counted on the construction of a transit line from the west through the Splügen Pass. However, a more direct line for north-south traffic through the Alps, linking Berne to Milan in Italy was agreed and work on the Gotthard line was completed in 1882. In Graubunden, a large narrow-gauge system was laid out between 1889 and 1913 and by 1890 the line connecting Chur with Davos was opened, reaching St. Moritz in 1904. Through this line, connections were made with the standard gauge Swiss Federal Railways (SBB).

The various lines made up the Rhaetian Railway, which took its name from the ancient tribe which lived in this region. Thus the network covering most of South Eastern Switzerland came into existence out of necessity, to connect a remote region to the rest of Switzerland and also to Italy in the South.

In the early years, electric traction had not yet been developed to such a degree that it was usable in this mountainous environment. Thus the early engines were steam powered, and were still used on a few parts of the network until 1922. Electrification proceeded well however, and the RhB was in a position to maintain its service without restriction even during the WW1 years when coal was extremely scarce.

The Swiss are expert railway builders and they knew how to build a railway through a wild environment yet retain a harmony with the landscape. The RhB is an engineering masterpiece in its entirety, and the trains never seem out of place, blending in perfectly with their surroundings. Trains need a lot of track in order to gain height gradually and this is often hidden inside tunnels, which are sometimes almost circular. The huge railway viaducts of Graubünden, built mostly in the early 20th century, have become a tourist attraction in themselves, like the one at Brusio near Poschiavo .

The Rhaetian Railway network and is now owned 53% by the Cantonal government of Graubünden, 43% by the Swiss Confederation, and 4% is held privately. It employs about 1500 staff.

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Bernina Railway

In order to connect the Engadine to the Valtellina in Italy, the famous Bernina line (St. Moritz – Poschavo - Tirano), was built and brought into operation as a tourist railway. It has been referred to as "one of the world's wonders of engineering." The constructors were forced to seek highly technical solutions and railway would at first rise to an altitude of 2253m (7391ft) at Bernina Hospitz, then come down to 429m (1407ft) at Tirano, Italy, over a distance of only 22 km (13 miles) - the total length of the Poschiavo valley.

The work started in 1906 and approximately 2500 employees worked on the construction of the railway. Mules, horses and oxen were used for carrying provisions and builders' material. The workers included engineers, miners, bricklayers, carpenters, stonemasons, who at that time earned the equivalent of Sfrs. 3.50 to 4.00 per day, and were usually paid in gold, since each Canton had its own currency. Because of extreme climatic conditions the work stopped in winter. There are 47 bridges and 13 galleries and tunnels, the longest being over 800m. The line has a total length of 61 km, and a maximum gradient of 1 in 14 - the maximum possible without cogwheels - which makes it one of the world's steepest adhesion railways. The trains, running on a 1metre gauge, were originally pulled by steam engines, but were entirely electrified, by the time the total route was opened in 1910 .

At the beginning, the service was limited to the summer season, but was extended to the whole year in 1910. For several decades, the Bernina Railway represented the only winter connection between the Valley and the rest of Switzerland. Great efforts were made to keep the line open even under the most adverse conditions, and the equipment necessary for this can sometimes be seen in Poschiavo station, where it is serviced during the summer months. Since 1943, the Bernina Railway has been part of the Rhaetian Railway.

Today, there are tourists travelling to Alp Grum or Cavaglia for Alpine walking, and in the various cable cars in the Bernina massif, which especially in winter, attract huge crowds of sports addicts. There are also numerous goods trains carrying fuel oil and petrol, timber, fodder and grain and many other goods to and from Tirano in Italy.

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The Journey

There are many fascinating journeys available on the Rhaetian Railway, including the famous Glacier Express running from Zermatt to St. Moritz, which made its first journey on 26 July 1930, and which has been described as “the slowest fast train in the world!” We concentrate here on the Bernina Line, running from St. Moritz, via Poschiavo, to Tirano, and on which t he Bernina Express was introduced in 1973 .

The journey on this train is a truly amazing experience in this region of unspoiled nature, with its rivers, steep mountains, torrential waterfalls, lakes and glaciers, high meadows and pastures, sweeping down to the vineyards of the Valtellina in Italy. When there is deep snow on the Bernina Pass, cherry trees blossom in Tirano, 25Kms away on the Italian border.

Weather conditions in the Engadine result in an enormous variety of flora, which make this area much favoured by botanists. The fauna is also rich, including the ibex, which is the heraldic animal in the crest of Graubunden, and chamois, and you may be very lucky to spot a marmot as it stands upright on its hind-legs.

St Moritz , the world famous spa town 1865m above sea level, has a permanent population of 6000, supplemented by a further 6000 hikers and skiers who visit throughout the year. There were only about 200 inhabitants in 1851 when the fame of St Moritz began to spread! The smaller town of Pontresina is the next stop – a very good centre for climbers, walkers and skiers. The train passes on towards Morterasch station, from where there is an excellent view of the icy giants of the Bernina mountain range, Piz Palu (3905m), Bellavista (3892m), and Piz Bernina (4049m), the highest peak in the Canton. Breaking down from these is the Morterasch Glacier, which has receded somewhat in the last 100 years.

Piz Bernina (centre left), from Diavolezza cable car station

After Bernina Sout, an important staging post in the old days, the train stops at Bernina Diavolezza (2085m), from where a ride in the cable car to 3000m will provide a magnificent view of what has been called “the festival hall of the Alps!” We pass Lago Nero and Lago Bianco, as the train proceeds to Bernina Hospitz, the highest railway station in the Alps. If journeying by car, this is a good place to pause for refreshment. Before the railway was built, this was a very important post where travellers rested and the horses where changed, before the descent to the Poschiavo Valley. By train and on a good day, one can travel in a panoramic carriage, and enjoy the all-round view.

From Bernina Hospitz towards Alp Grum (2091m), where there is a fascinating view of the Palu Glacier, the train descends rapidly through almost circular tunnels and galleries and around sharp bends before reaching the plains of Cavaglia (1693m). The name originates from cavallo - horse, reflecting former days when the horses were changed here for crossing the pass.

Cavaglia Station

The train changes direction 4 times, only once in the open air, as it zig-zags down the mountain, and we pass through Cadera, where there are mountain houses (munts), formerly used by the families in summer, when the cows were brought up to the higher pastures. Not all trains stop here or at Privilasco near San Carlo.

Looking down on San Carlo

One needs to be alert for the views, as these disappear rapidly on each side of the train as it descends! The great Sassalbo mountain towers over Poschiavo to the east, and Piz Varuna to the west of the town is also very prominent. On the distant horizon to the south are the Italian Bergamask mountains.

On reaching Poschiavo (1014m), some touring parties get off the train and walk through the town for a couple of hours. The population of 3650 make their living from the railway, which is the most important economic factor and employer locally, and also agriculture, handicrafts, tourism, and the various services. The cultivation of fruits and vegetables is widely evident, and a number of Poschiavini have vineyards over the border in the Valtellina where the grapes here produce a good red wine. Local cooking has a strong Italian influence, and such specialities as pizzoccheri, rissoto, gnocchi, piccata, luganigheta, tortellini al formaggio, and polenta can be found on the menus of the hotels and inns. 95% of the population speak Italian and the remaining 5% speak German. Many local people still speak Pusc’ciavin, the old local dialect, which is derived from Romansch and Italian.

Piazza Comune, Poschiavo

In the centre of Poschiavo is the impressive Piazza Comunale Photo where one can sit at the cafes and watch passers by. Here in the old days, public meetings were held. The Church of San Vittore with a wonderful carved porch dating from 1700 and gothic high altar, is where many of our ancestors have been baptized, married and buried. At the southern end of the town are the Spanish houses, built around 1850 by Poschiavini who returned from Spain where they had made their wealth in the 17/1800’s. Nearby is the colourful little baroque Italian style church of Santa Maria Assunta, although sadly, it is little used today. There is also the interesting Palazzo Mengotti, which includes a museum and traditional handcrafts centre. The Mulino Aino (Mill) at San Carlo is worth a visit, and is arranged through the Tourist Office in Poschiavo.

In 1987 a terrible storm caused a huge rock and mud-slide into the town, and some buildings were buried almost up the first floor level. Much work has since been completed to strengthen the defences against such a natural catastrophe, but the memory of this awful event remains strong.

Lake Poschiavo from Miralago

From the outskirts of Poschiavo, the train rolls through a wider part of the valley to San Antonio, and Le Prese (965m), at the northern end of Lago di Poschiavo, having never exceeded a speed of 40Kms per hour, throughout its journey. Passing the lake, which sparkles blue or emerald green, the mountains rise steeply from the opposite shore, and we reach Miralago. Here the valley narrows due to a huge rock fall many centuries ago, and a steep gradient brings us to Brusio (780m), where there is a large power plant, established in 1906. We then pass over the famous circular viaduct where, if you are in a rear carriage you can see the front of the train. Tobacco, fruit and vegetables are grown in this locality, and after Campascio, where not all trains stop, is the station at Campocologno (553m), the border with Italy. Here, passports are required, but in the old days, the smugglers transporting their contraband over the mountains found other routes!

In a few minutes, we are in Tirano (429m), passing the large renaissance church of Madonna di Tirano in the piazza, and we can see the first vineyards of the Valtellina. To the northeast is Bormio, and westward is the road to Sondrio, which eventually leads to Lake Como and Milan, or back into Switzerland near Lugano.

In Tirano - the end of the Bernina Line.

Our journey on the Bernina Railway ends here at Tirano. Along its route, many languages are spoken – German, Romansch, Pusc’ciavin and Italian. Travellers may marvel at the overwhelming achievement of those whose vision and industry built the trains that pass through this beautiful and grandiose region for all to experience.

Why not pause in Tirano for a cappuccino or espresso, but do not miss the return trip to the Bernina mountains and glaciers – you will surely regret it!

Click here for photographs


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