(CNN) – High in the Swiss Alps, St. Moritz has made its name 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 was already well established.
On Saturday, the region continued its long tradition of pushing the boundaries of what is possible by trying to set an epic world record — not on ice or snow, but on rails.
To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Switzerland’s first railway, the country’s railway industry has come together to operate the world’s longest passenger train – 100 cars, 2,990 tons, and a length of nearly two kilometers.
Comprised of 25 new Capricorn electric trains, the record-breaking 1,906-meter train took about an hour to cover about 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) over the amazing UNESCO World Heritage Albula Line from Breda to Alfaño in eastern Switzerland.
Like the legendary toboggan run Cresta Run, the Albula Line is known for its endless curves and steep slopes. One of the world’s famous masterpieces of civil engineering, the 62-kilometre line between Thousse and St. Moritz takes only five years although it requires 55 bridges and 39 tunnels.
Before it was completed in July 1904, visitors encountered a perilous 14-hour trek over bumpy trails in horse-drawn carriages or sleighs.
The centerpiece of the line is the 5,866-meter Pula Tunnel, which runs deep under the watershed between the Rhine and Danube rivers.
Spirals, bridges and towering tunnels
The train spiraled down the tracks back up through the mountains.
swiss-image.ch/ Philip Schmidley
Part of the route the world-famous Glacier Express has taken since 1930, the world record attempt at the stunning Landwasser Bridge and unusual spiral shapes have secured the line’s international heritage status.
In less than 25 kilometers, the train dropped from 1,788 meters above sea level in Breda to 999.3 meters in Alfagno, using a series of spirals, bridges and elevated tunnels.
The attempt to score was organized by Rhaetische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway, or RhB), with support from the Swiss train builder Stadler, and is perhaps most surprising for its occurrence on a narrow railroad.
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 1 meter apart.
Combine this with a road with remarkably narrow curves, steep gradients, 22 tunnels and 48 bridges over deep valleys, and the challenges become clear.
The holders of the world’s longest passenger train record – Belgium and before that the Netherlands – have used record railways across flat landscapes to their advantage.
However, preparations began months before the RhB event, including test runs to ensure the unique train runs safely.
“We all know the Albula line well, every incline change, every mile,” lead driver Andreas Kramer, 46, said before the important day. “It goes without saying that we go through the process over and over again.”
“We need 100% synchronization, every second. Everyone has to keep their speed and other systems under control at all times,” he added.
The initial test run ended in failure before the train moved even when it was discovered that the emergency braking system could not be activated and the seven drivers could not communicate with each other via radio or mobile phone in many tunnels.
Kramer, with the help of six other drivers and 21 technicians, instead used a makeshift field phone system set up by the Swiss Civil Protection to maintain communications as the train ran at speeds of up to 35 km/h through countless tunnels and deep ravines.
Specially modified programs and intercom between the seven drivers allowed the twenty-five trains to work in harmony. Any mismatch in acceleration or deceleration during flight would have exerted unacceptably high forces on the tracks and power supplies, creating a major safety issue.
RhB Director Renato Faciate 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 a pioneering achievement like never before. “.
The train consisted of 100 cars.
Fabrice Cofferini/AFP/Getty Images
On the long descent, the speed was controlled by regenerative braking, similar to that used in some electric cars, which feeds current back into the 11,000-volt overhead power supply lines.
However, with so many trains in the same section of the line, there was concern that they could feed too much current back into the system, overloading the trains and local power grids. To avoid this, the train’s top speed was limited to 35 km/h and the program had to be modified to restrict the power being fed.
Additional safety control cables had to be installed throughout the train to support standard mechanical and pneumatic connections between trains.
On the big day, RB organized a railway festival in Bergün and 3,000 lucky ticket holders were able to watch the scoring attempt via live TV while also enjoying local entertainment and gastronomy. Regular services via the Albula Tunnel to St Moritz and beyond have been suspended for 12 hours.
Three satellite uplinks, 19 cameras in drones and helicopters, on the train and along the track, photographed the train, providing a unique record of this once-in-a-lifetime event. This alone was a major challenge in a remote mountainous region with limited mobile communications coverage.
The record attempt was organized to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Railways.
Fabrice Cofferini/AFP/Getty Images
For a small country with a mountainous landscape that at first glance seems unsuitable for railways, Switzerland far outperforms its weight in industry.
Necessity has always made it a leader in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering and its technology and expertise are exported worldwide.
For good reason, the Swiss are the world’s most enthusiastic train users, traveling an average of 2,450 kilometers each year by train – a quarter of their total annual total. Similar to other European countries, mobility has exploded in recent decades – the average annual distance traveled by car and public transport has doubled in the past 50 years.
They traveled 19.7 billion passenger kilometers by rail in 2019, the last “normal” year before the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, this fell to 12.5 billion passenger kilometers, but as Switzerland celebrates 175 years since the opening of its first railway between Zurich and Baden, passenger numbers are on the way back to pre-pandemic levels.
The expectations of public transport users in Switzerland are so high that even the slightest delay is a source of quiet discontent. And not without good reason; Many journeys in and around Switzerland’s largest city are multimodal, relying on connections between trains, trams, buses and even boats at well-organized intersections.
In 2021, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) operated 11,260 trains carrying 880,000 passengers and 185,000 tons of freight per day on a 3,265-kilometre network with 804 stations.
Adding more than 70 “private” standard and narrow-gauge railways, many of which are partly or wholly owned by the public, takes that network to some 5,300 km, the densest rail network in the world.
Decades of long-term investment have resulted in the creation of a core network of extensively used main lines that connect all major cities in the country. This is fed by high-frequency S-Bahn (city rail) systems around the largest cities as well as regional and local rail, tram and mountain railways, many of which provide an important link to the outside world for rural and upland communities.
Despite huge investments over the past four decades, through long-term expansion programs such as “Bahn 2000”. The railways of Switzerland became a victim of its own success. While SBB’s overall punctuality remains impressive to outsiders, there is concern about deteriorating performance, rising costs and its ability to fund essential maintenance and major projects after the devastating financial losses of 2020-2021.
Disruption is still relatively rare on the SBB network, but reliability has declined in recent years due to congestion, staff shortages and poor punctuality of trains from neighboring countries.
The train dropped nearly 800 meters on its descent from the mountains.
Located in the heart of Western Europe, between the industrial powers of Germany, France and northern Italy, Switzerland plays a key strategic role in the broader European economy – as it has since the Middle Ages.
For centuries, the Alps have been a formidable barrier to travelers and trade through this part of Europe, but over the past two decades, billions of Swiss francs have been invested to build the long Gotthard and Lewichberg base tunnels deep in the Alps.
While other countries are arguing and hesitating about spending on public transport, in June 2022 the Swiss Federal Council opened consultations on its next program for long-term investment in railways. Perspektive Bahn 2050 is a detailed set of proposals with a clear focus on developing short and medium distance passenger services to promote the shift away from cars.
Strengthening the existing network to create additional capacity should be prioritized over more major infrastructure projects. “It’s not about saving a few minutes on a major road like Zurich-Bern,” Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga says.
Expected to be passed into law by 2026, the plan’s goals include increasing annual public transport use from 26 billion passenger kilometers to 38 billion passenger kilometers by 2050, “significantly” increasing rail’s share of passenger and freight markets and ensuring rail services It integrates more closely with other modes of transportation to provide greater mobility for everyone.
Critics often cite Switzerland’s smaller population and relatively short distances when compared to countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, claiming that it would be impossible to establish similar integrated public transport networks in larger countries.
It is true that the Swiss have built something ideally suited to their geography, culture and population, but whatever the arguments elsewhere, the RB’s stunning achievement on October 29 is a hugely impressive display of Switzerland’s world-class capabilities in rail technology.
Main image source: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images
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