Railroads around St. Gotthard Pass — above, below and even deeper

(June 2018)

There is probably no one who has not heard of the St. Gotthard Pass. The most famous communication route from north to south Europe led through this pass over the wide valley of the Reuss River. It was the easiest route, although it was not easy. The pass itself (on 2106), inaccessible in winter, was obviously demanding, but the worst part was that the wide and hospitable valley of the Reuss River suddenly near Andermatt falls down a very narrow and steep gorge down many waterfalls. It was traversed for a long time, but it gained in importance around the 13th century, when the Devil’s Bridge was built in the treacherous gorge.

It is called Devil’s Bridge, because apparently the devil himself was asked for help, and agreed to build a bridge in exchange for the soul of the first to pass it. The clever inhabitants, when the devil finished the bridge, sent him a goat through the bridge, which was immediately torn apart by the devil, furious for this trick, because he was counting on a human soul. The devil wanted to destroy the bridge with a large boulder, but the godly old woman had carved a cross on it when the devil was resting tired of carrying it – and so he had to abandon this boulder at the foot of the gorge, and the bridge served wanderers, armies and caravans for centuries. The bridge eventually gave way to time in the eighteenth century, but since then two new ones have been built in its place. The boulder was moved after many legal battles as part of the construction of a new road.

But this is not the only important route crossing the Reuss Valley. For centuries, people have also used it in east-west direction, not wanting to bypass mighty Alpine branches. In this direction you have to conquer two passes – the one closing the valley from the east – Oberalppass (2046) and from the west Furkapass (2436, so only available in summer).

At the end of the 19th century, it was decided to build a railway on these important communication routes. The idea, practically unreal, was implemented. In the north-south direction, of course, you had to bypass the steep gorge with the Devil’s Bridge and the pass itself – so a record tunnel of 15km was created. And yet, to get to its entrance and go down to the other side to low-altitude only Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, the trains still have to go up wide bends with the ends hidden in tunnels or in spiral tunnels in the slopes of deeply cut valleys. That is why already in the 21st century a base tunnel was built even lower in the slopes of the mountain – again a record, 57 km, with a maximum depth of almost 2500 meters under the Alpine peaks and passes, and thus with a temperature reaching 46 degrees Celsius. So now you can get through the Alps from north to south in 14 minutes! If medieval soldiers, merchants and wanderers could hear it!

However, the east-west line was build more unceremoniously. Straight through the Oberalppass (2046) and only slightly below the Furkapass pass. This could not be done by the classic method – steeper track sections were equipped with cograil. From the Oberalpass, the train descends to Andermatt by a zig-zag with magnificent views of the wide valley, and the fact that a gondola lift as an alternative to this section adds to the charm. So both lines are separated by a short but steep gorge with the Devil’s Bridge. But the Swiss decided to build a railway also in this gorge. There is no space for bends and zig-zags here, so the train unceremoniously slides down the cograil so that with a little carelessness it is easy to slide off the plastic seat.

Everything together – from the Alpine passes and gorges, to the spiral tunnels and majestic viaducts with views of the surprisingly green southern slopes of the Alps to the express passage through the base tunnel 2500 meters below the surface made for me a day of railway-mountain ecstasy.