Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes
A triumph of railway engineering
The line of the Rhaetian Railway between Thusis and Tirano (Italy) is a true masterstroke. It is a unique example of a railway which has been harmoniously integrated into the high-mountain landscape. Narrow radii, sophisticated engineering structures and impressive tunnels: the many gorges, mountain barriers and gradients were overcome using a range of innovative ideas, and the 122 km-long route has been slotted pleasantly into the wild natural environment. The journey is a voyage of discovery for connoisseurs. Railway enthusiasts can admire the pioneering creations at close quarters, and those with a thirst for knowledge might like to visit the Albula railway museum in Bergün. Cultural Heritage since 2008.
Several options were considered for the route through the Engadin. To provide better access to the central regions of the canton of Graubünden, the stretch from Thusis to St. Moriz, via Tiefencastel, Filisur, Bergün, Samedan was chosen for the Albula line. Constructions lasted from 1898 to 1904, and the line was electrified in 1919.
Although it was not intended as a through line, great effort was made to ensure it was built according to the specific principles required to provide the most efficient railway possible. This explains why still today, despite increased rail traffic, on large stretches trains still run along the original route. The desire to create an efficient railway also led to the same approach being adopted or the Bernina line.
Whereas the Albula line goes through the mountain, the Bernina line snakes over the crest. Inaugurated in 1910, it is 61 kilometres long, has 52 bridges and viaducts, and 13 tunnels and galleries. Financing for its construction was solely private and the intention was to complete it as cheaply as possible, something that is shown by the tight curves and sleep inclines (up to 70‰). The routing was chosen, on the one hand, to be attractive to tourists and on the other to serve as a means of transport for the power station on the other side of the pass. In 1944, the Rhaetian Railway took over this line, which had been electrified from the very beginning.
The Albula and Bernina lines are the relatively “modern part” of a much older and larger transport and cultural landscape. When the Romans conquered the area in 15 BC, their domination had an influence on the culture on both sides of the Alps. This can still be best heard in the languages: Romansh in the north, Italian in the south. These culturally distinct areas also differ in their economic systems which are strongly determined by the local topographical and climatic conditions. To the north of the Albula, an economic system developed based on farming at three levels: the village, the intermediate terraces (known as Maiensäss) and the high Alps. Due to its altitude, the Engadin developed a system based on two levels: the villages, often marked by beautiful, thick-walled houses, and the high Alps. And it ca be seen how Val Poschiavo changes from a mountain pass landscape shaped by the Alps into an area of livestock farming and agriculture, and further down in the border area into one where agriculture and vineyards predominate. The coming of the railway accelerated the growth of a new sector of the economy, tourism.
Did you know?
• The Rhaetian Railway winds its way through the Bernina Pass up a 7% gradient without the help of a rack-wheel, climbing from 429 m to 2,253 m above sea level.
• The 62 km long Albula Line was built in just six years (1898 –1904).