Gornergrat Railway

125 years of excellent, loyal services

Claude Hervé-Bazin
Gornergrat Bahn
Winter 2023-2024

Over the course of the 19th century, the Alps have gradually become less hostile and terrifying. The first tourists began to appear on the slopes, getting ever closer to the summits and glaciers. In 1898, the first electric cogwheel train in Switzerland broke the 3,000 m mark to stand alongside the Gorner Glacier’s seracs and is now celebrating its 125th anniversary.

“I had a magnificent view of Monte Rosa, and apparently all the rest of the Alpine world, from that high place. All the circling horizon was piled high with a mighty tumult of snowy crests. […] there is no such tremendous «layout» of snowy Alpine magnitude, grandeur, and sublimity to be seen from any other accessible point as the tourist may see from the [Gornergrat],” wrote Mark Twain in 1878, during his hike from Zermatt to the great Gorner Glacier. Before his eyes the ice snaked royally for 15 km through the valley, beneath the watchful eye of the Matterhorn and over two dozen other Alpine peaks surpassing 4,000 m.

As the years passed, the number of summit conquests increased, popularized by the media and geographical societies. Soon there were thousands of curious, high society visitors each year, coming to see the Gornergrat panorama for themselves, mounting the summit by foot, on the back of a horse, or in a sedan chair. The Swiss Federal Council sensed an opportunity, and a train was built to Zermatt in 1891. But why stop there?

Ever closer to the sky
A publisher in Bienne had already submitted a licence application for reaching the Gornergrat and the Matterhorn, but that was too ambitious, so the contract was awarded to Haag & Greulich. Despite initial opposition from locals who wanted to protect their mountain guide industry, work began in May 1896. While they could only build in the summer months, and were slowed down by the construction of two bridges and five tunnels, work advanced quickly thanks to the help from thousands of Italian workers who were called in. Before them lay the monumental task of laying 9,029 m of rails. To power the line, a hydropower station was built on the Findeln River.

On Saturday August 20, 1898, at 10:00, a motorcar and two wooden wagons left Zermatt for the first ascension by train beneath a radiant sun. The trip, three times slower than today’s journey, took an hour and a half at an average speed of 7.2 km/h. When the train arrived at the 3,018 m terminus (today at 3,089 m), a grand picnic took place, complete with skirts, corsets, and wide-brimmed hats. Europe’s highest, open-air electric train (to this day!) was officially inaugurated! “Everyone who took the train was enchanted with the new line, which will certainly be a great success,” wrote the Le Confédéré newspaper.

Time only served to confirm the prediction, as evidenced by the construction of the Kulmhotel above the highest train station, at 3,100 m (a Swiss record). While it initially only ran from June to September, the train began winter trips in 1927-28 to Riffelalp, where most skiers disembarked, and then to Riffelboden. Finally in 1941, the train reached the Gornergrat in the snow. And contrary to initial fears, it has only served to increase tourism for the people of Zermatt. The train’s historical charm is still a strong pull to this day for visitors who are fascinated by the unique Alpine panoramas the journey offers.