(CNN) – High in the Swiss Alps, St Moritz has made a name for itself as a place to push the boundaries of winter sports. By the time it hosted the second Winter Olympics in 1928, its reputation as a playground for wealthy adventurers had already been cemented.
On Saturday, the region continued its tradition of pushing the limits of what’s possible with an epic world record attempt on rails, not snow or ice.
To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Switzerland’s first railway, the country’s rail industry has come together to operate the world’s longest passenger train – a 100-car, 2,990-tonne, almost two-kilometre-long passenger train.
The record-breaking 1,906-metre train of 25 new “Capricorn” electric trains took about an hour to travel some 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) on the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Albula line from Preda to Alvaneu in eastern Switzerland.
Like the legendary Cresta Run toboggan run, the Albula Line is famous for its endless bends and steep descents. Despite requiring a world-renowned masterpiece of civil engineering, 55 bridges and 39 tunnels, the 62 kilometer line between Suchis and St Moritz took just five years to build.
Before it was completed in July 1904, visitors faced a risky 14-hour journey over rough roads in horse-drawn carriages or sleighs.
The central part of the line is the 5,866-meter-long Albula Tunnel, which runs under the watershed between the Rhine and Danube rivers.
Spirals, flying viaducts and tunnels
The train rolled down through the mountains with a switch of tracks.
Following part of the route taken by the world-famous Glacier Express since 1930, a world record attempt was made on the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct and the unusual spirals that have secured the line’s international heritage status.
In less than 25 kilometers, the train descends from 1788 meters above sea level in Preda to 999.3 meters in Alvaneu using a succession of spirals, rising viaducts and tunnels.
The record attempt was organized by the Rhaetische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway or RhB), backed by Swiss train builder Stadler, and is perhaps more astonishing that it took place on a narrow-gauge railway.
Unlike most Swiss and European railways, which use a “standard” gauge of 1,435 meters (4 ft 8.5 in) between rails, RhB rails are only one meter apart.
Combine this with the route’s famously tight turns, steep gradients, 22 tunnels and 48 bridges over deep gorges, and the challenges are obvious.
The previous holders of the record for the world’s longest passenger train – Belgium and, before that, the Netherlands – used standard railways through flat landscapes to their advantage.
However, preparations began months before the RhB event, including trial runs to ensure safe handling of the unique train.
“We all know the Albula line very well, every gradient change, every incline,” lead driver Andreas Kramer, 46, said before the big day. “Of course, we go through the process again and again.”
He added: “We have to be 100% synchronized every second. Everyone has to constantly monitor their speed and other systems.”
An initial test run failed without the train moving when it was discovered that the emergency braking system could not be activated and the seven drivers in many tunnels were unable to communicate with each other by radio or mobile phone.
Kramer, with the help of six other drivers and 21 technicians, used a temporary field telephone system set up by the Swiss Civil Defense to communicate as the train moved at 35 km/h through countless tunnels and deep ravines.
Specially modified software and an intercom between seven drivers allowed 25 trains to work harmoniously. Any inconsistency in acceleration or deceleration during travel would impose unacceptably high forces on the roads and power supply, creating a major safety problem.
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 pioneering achievement. It has never been seen before.”
The train consisted of 100 cars.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Speed on the long descent 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 was concern that they could overload both the trains and the local power grid, putting too much current into the system. To prevent this, the train’s top speed was limited to 35 km/h and the software had to be changed to limit the power fed back.
Additional safety control cables also had to be installed throughout the train to support standard mechanical and pneumatic connections between the trains.
On the big day, RhB organized a railway festival in Bergen and 3,000 lucky ticket holders witnessed the record attempt via live TV while enjoying local entertainment and gastronomy. Normal services from the Albula Tunnel to St Moritz and beyond were suspended for 12 hours.
Three satellite links, 19 cameras on drones and helicopters, filming on the train and along the tracks, provide a unique record of this once-in-a-lifetime event. This alone was a major challenge in a remote, mountainous region with limited cellular telecommunications coverage.
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 has long made it a pioneer in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, and its technology and expertise are exported around the world.
For good reason, the Swiss are the world’s most avid rail users, traveling an average of 2,450 kilometers per year by train, a quarter of their annual total. Like other European countries, mobility has increased in recent decades — the average annual distance traveled by car and public transport has doubled in the last 50 years.
They traveled 19.7 billion passenger kilometers by rail in 2019, the last “normal” year before the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, that fell to 12.5 billion passenger kilometers, but ridership is on track to return to pre-pandemic levels as Switzerland celebrates the 175th anniversary of the opening of the first railway between Zurich and Baden.
The expectations of public transport users in Switzerland are so high that even a small delay is a source of quiet dissatisfaction. And without good reason; Much travel in and around Switzerland’s largest cities is multimodal, relying on neat connections between trains, trams, buses and even boats at well-organized junctions.
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 of 3,265 kilometers with 804 stations.
The addition of more than 70 “private” standard and narrow-gauge railways, most of which are partly or wholly state-owned, brings the network to 5,300 kilometers, the densest railway network in the world.
Decades of long-term investment have created a core network of intensively used highways connecting all the country’s major cities. High-frequency S-Bahn (city rail) systems around the largest cities, plus regional and local rail lines, tramways and mountain railways, many of which provide critical connections to the outside world for rural and mountain communities.
Despite huge investments over the past four decades through long-term expansion programs such as “Bahn 2000”. Swiss 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 major maintenance and major projects after the devastating financial losses of 2020-21.
A breakdown on the SBB network is still relatively rare, but reliability has declined in recent years due to congestion, staff shortages and trains from neighboring countries not running on time.
The train fell about 800 meters while descending 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 have been a major barrier to travelers and trade in this part of Europe, but in the last two decades billions of Swiss francs have been invested in the construction of the long Gotthard and Loetschberg base tunnels deep in the Alps.
While other countries have debated and hesitated over public transport spending, in June 2022 the Swiss Federal Council opened a consultation on the 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 the move away from cars.
Strengthening the existing network to create additional capacity should be prioritized over larger 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 such routes. It’s about expanding where rail is lagging behind.”
The plan, which is expected to be passed into law by 2026, aims to increase annual public transport use from 26 billion passenger-kilometres to 38 billion passenger-kilometres by 2050, “significantly” increase rail’s share of the passenger and freight markets and provide rail services includes. more closely integrated with other modes of transport to provide greater mobility for all.
Critics often compare Switzerland to countries such as the UK and Germany, citing its smaller population and relatively short distances, arguing that it would be impossible to create similar integrated public transport networks in larger countries.
It’s true that the Swiss have built something ideally suited to their geography, culture and population density, but regardless of arguments elsewhere, RhB’s incredible achievement on October 29 is a pretty impressive demonstration of Switzerland’s world-class capabilities in rail technology.
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