Fri Jan 2nd, 2015 at 05:25:39 AM EST
Even among the many magnificent metre-gauge mountain railways of Switzerland, the Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn, RhB) is a special spectacle: a network spanning the upper valleys of three major rivers, climbing passes with innumerable bridges, tunnels, spiral and horseshoe curves, instead of rack sections. No wonder that riding the RhB is the one trip everyone with access to railway employee free tickets is advised to do. I had an inkling that I might soon lose that privilege in yet another company restructuring (though I didn't think I might lose my job along with it), so I "did the RhB" this year.
In one one-week holiday each in July and October, I travelled pretty much the entire network. Now that I had time to go through my photos (a bit over 1,850 of them), I start a mini-series portraying the RhB lines, roughly in the order of increasing spectacularity. In this first part, I show the line following the Anterior Rhine.
RhB Ge 4/4 II No. 613 "Domat/Ems" with an eastbound Glacier Express is about to reach Versam-Safien station in the Rhine Canyon
First things first: the general location. The Rhaetian Railway is also special in being the state railway of a sub-state unit: the canton of Graubünden. Graubünden is the south-eastern edge of Switzerland, at the Swiss-Austrian-Italian border tripoint. It is at a triple division geographically, too: spanning the drainage basins of the Rhine, the Inn and Poschiavino rivers (the last two being tributaries of the Danube ad the Po, respectively), it is said to be the canton of 150 valleys, 615 lakes and 937 peaks. Yet another triple division is language: German-speaking in the north, Romansh-speaking in the villages in the west, centre and east, and Italian-speaking in the south.
Map from Wikimedia under CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE & GNU FDL 1.2
Chur, the capital of Graubünden at the west-to-north bend of the Rhine in the north of the canton, is both the centre of the RhB network and the main junction with Swiss Federal Railways SBB.
Above: in a meeting of generations, Ge 4/4 II No. 627 "Reichenau-Tamins" (built in 1984) and Ge 4/4 III No. 646 "Santa Maria Val Müstair" (built 1994) wait for departure with two RegionalExpress (RE) trains for Disentis/Mustér resp. St. Moritz, with a standard-gauge IC train in the shadow to the right
Below: Another pair of RhB trains wait below the bridge of the bus station while an SBB Re 4/4 II (the standard-gauge model for the scaled-down narrow-gauge Ge 4/4 II) waits for the next assignment on a stabling siding in the distance
Frequent heritage trains also depart here.
Ge 4/6 No. 353 was one day past its 100th birthday when I photographed it with a special train to St. Moritz in July. This loco is from the first series for AC electrification
Now let's start the journey west along the Rhine. The first section is a busy one with limited-stop RE trains of two lines, suburban rapid trains (S), and even normal-gauge freight trains (using a dual-gauge three-trail track).
ABe 4/16 No. 3101 "Meta von Salis" reaches Chur-West on the three-rail track. This three-year-young four-part articulated multiple unit of the Allegra family was built for S-Bahn (suburban rapid transit) service on relatively flat sections
At Reichenau-Tamins is the confluence of the Anterior and Posterior Rhine, and also the junction of the RhB lines along the two rivers.
Above: looking east on a day in July, Ge 4/4 II No. 619 "Samedan" arrives from Chur with a westbound RE to Disentis/Mustér
Below: loking west on a day in October, Ge 4/4 II No. 616 "Filisur" arrives from Disentis/Mustér with an eastbound RE
Up along the Anterior Rhine, the landscape becomes progressively wild, and car roads disappear.
Ge 4/4 II No. 626 "Malans" left Reichenau-Tamins a few minutes ago with another westbound RE
Following the river in a spectacular tight S-curve, the rail line enters the Ruinaulta, or Rhine Canyon.
Looking west into the Rhine Canyon. The walk-path along the railway was built in 2010 only
The river cut this canyon across the rubble of the largest known Alpine mountain-slide: around 7455±25 BC, some 9–12 km³ of rock slid into the valley more than 2000 m below. This was a post-glacial mountain-slide: the valley side got de-stabilised with the loss of the support of the glacier ice. The first station in the canyon, Trin, is far from any settled area and is primarily used by wanderers, who have to signal their intention to get off or board.
A Ge 4/4 II with a westbound RE from Chur arrives in Trin
In addition to the local trains, this section is also used by the Glacier Express (GEX) luxury panoramic trains, a joint product with the neighbouring Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB). As a consequence, this is one of the RhB lines where a large part of the passengers are foreign tourists, above all from Japan. The latter is also helped by a partnership with Hakone Tozan Railway, a scenic mountain line south of Tokyo.
Ge 4/4 II No. 622 "Arosa", in special livery advertising the Hakone Tozan Railway, with a westbound GEX is briefly stopped at Trin to await a train from the other direction
Most of the rubble of the mountain-slide is finely ground chalk-stone, which was washed away easily by the river and was laid bare by secondary landslides west of Trin.
Above: Ge 4/4 II No. 631 "Untervaz" with an eastbound RE will soon stop in Trin
Below: an hour later, Ge 4/4 II No. 621 "Felsberg" arrives with the next eastbound RE
The most spectacular part is at an S-curve of the river further west, before the station of Versam-Safien, which is a starting point for masses of rafters, canoers and fans of other river sports.
Above: an eastbound GEX
Below: a double-headed long westbound RE
Sadly, it rained when I climbed the valley side for the above two photos. But the Sun shone again when I climbed down to the bridge over the Rhine.
Ge 4/4 II No. 621 "Felsberg" with a late eastbound GEX
On the other side of the short tunnel beyond the bridge, I met upon an elderly rail photo enthusiast with his wife. I have never seen as many 'camera colleagues' on holidays elsewhere as here.
Beyond the canyon, the line continues in a typical glacier valley with gentle slope and a lot more signs of human habitation, until it gets narrower again at the village of Tavanasa. I got here one late afternoon cold from rain and sweat, but found a restaurant where I was warmed up again from the inside by an especially tasty house-made onion soup. The cook/owner was an old Romansh man who other than his mother tongue only spoke a few French words, but we managed and he showed me a book with old photos of the river-ravaged history of his village (more in the seed comment).
Ge 4/4 II No. 624 "Celerina/Schlagrina" with a westbound combined RE+GEX just left Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels station
Beyond Tavanasa begins the only steeper section of the line, which climbs the northern valley side to the end station in Disentis/Mustér.
I observed on several occasions that small children are especially loud in this region. The pinnacle was on my trip to Disentis, in a car with a class of first- or second-grade elementary school kids (I probably ignored a group reservation sign): their high-pitched voices weren't simply loud but caused physical pain to my ears, making me wonder how they can bear it themselves.
As for Disentis, it is a town built around a Benedictine abbey founded almost 1300 years ago (the present baroque form of the building is only 300 years old, though).
Ge 4/4 II No. 615 "Klosters" is leaving Disentis with a long eastbound RE
Disentis/Mustér is also the junction station with the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB), a section of which I visited last year (see Rack railways above the Gotthard tunnels). Unlike the RhB, the MGB has rack sections for very steep grades, the first right after leaving Disentis.
MGB HGe 4/4 II No. 107 left Disentis/Mustér with a local train for Andermatt
The next diary in the series will take you on a trip along the Inn river.
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