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Why did Switzerland Build a 2-kilometer-long Train?

St. Moritz, located in the Swiss Alps, has a reputation for pushing the limits of winter sports. By 1928, it hosted the second Winter Olympics. Its image as a playground for affluent explorers was well-established.

Not on snow or ice, but on rails, the region resumed its long heritage of pushing the boundaries of what is possible with an epic world record attempt on October 29. To commemorate the 175th anniversary of Switzerland’s first railway, it ran the world’s longest passenger train. The 2-kilometer train has 100 cars, 2,990 tonnes, and about two kilometers in length.

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Following a portion of the track followed by the world-famous Glacier Express since 1930, the world record attempt included the stunning Landwasser Viaduct and the amazing spirals that secured the line’s classification as a world heritage site.

Spirals, soaring viaducts and tunnels

Using a series of spirals, soaring viaducts, and tunnels, the railroad descended from 1,788 meters above sea level at Preda to 999.3 meters at Alvaneu in less than 25 kilometers.
The record attempt was arranged by the Rhaetische Bahn (RhB) and supported by the Swiss train manufacturer Stadler. The fact that it took place on a narrow gauge railway makes it even more remarkable. Unlike the majority of Swiss and European railways, which utilize a “standard” gauge of 1.435 meters (4 feet and 8 inches) between the rails, RhB rails are only one meter apart.

Party atmosphere

On the long descent, the pace was controlled by regenerative braking. It is similar to that employed by certain electric vehicles, which returned electricity back into the 11,000-volt overhead power supply wires.

However, with so many trains in the same length of track. There was fear that they could feed an excessive amount of current back into the system, overloading both trains and local power grids. To prevent this, the train’s top speed was restricted to 35 km/h. And its software had to be adjusted to control the amount of power fed back.

In order to support the regular mechanical and pneumatic inter-train connections, additional safety control cables had to be installed throughout the train. On the big day, the RhB prepared a railway festival in Bergün, and 3,000 lucky ticketholders were able to watch the record attempt through live television while enjoying local entertainment and cuisine. Normal Albula Tunnel service to St. Moritz and beyond was interrupted for 12 hours.

Three satellite uplinks, 19 cameras in drones and helicopters, on the train, and along the track captured this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, creating a unique record. In a remote, hilly area with poor mobile telecommunications service, this alone posed a formidable obstacle.

Strategic position

Switzerland, situated in the heart of western Europe between the industrial powerhouses of Germany, France, and northern Italy, has played a crucial strategic role in the European economy since the Middle Ages.

For centuries, the Alps posed a tremendous barrier to travel and commerce in this region of Europe. However, over the past two decades, billions of Swiss Francs have been invested in the construction of the Gotthard and Loetschberg Base Tunnels, which run for miles beneath the Alps.

A railway nation

While other nations debate and dilly-dally over expenditure on public transportation, in June 2022 the Swiss Federal Council initiated consultations on its next long-term rail investment program. Perspective Bahn 2050 is a comprehensive set of recommendations with a strong emphasis on increasing short- and medium-distance passenger services in order to encourage a move away from the automobile.

The plan’s objectives include increasing annual public transport usage from 26 billion passenger-kilometers to 38 billion passenger-kilometers by 2050, increasing rail’s share of the passenger and freight markets “significantly,” and ensuring that rail services are further integrated with other transport modes to provide greater mobility for all.

Critics sometimes note Switzerland’s lower population and shorter distances when comparing it to countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, stating that it would be impossible to establish equivalent integrated public transportation networks in larger nations.

It is true that the Swiss have constructed something that is ideally suited to their geography, culture, and population density, but regardless of any other arguments, the RhB’s incredible achievement on October 29 is a tremendously impressive demonstration of Switzerland’s world-class expertise in railway technology.

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