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Albula Railway

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Albula Railway

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List

The Glacier Express crossing the Landwasser Viaduct.
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv
Reference 1276
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 2008 (32nd Session)

The Albula Railway (German: Albulabahn; Italian: Ferrovia dell'Albula) is a single track metre gauge railway line forming part of the so-called core network of the Rhaetian Railway (RhB), in the Canton of Graubünden, Switzerland. It links Thusis on the Hinterrhein (697 m (2,287 ft) above sea level) with the spa resort of St. Moritz in Engadine (1,774 m (5,820 ft) above sea level).

Construction of the Albula Railway was begun in September 1898, the opening took place on 1 July 1903, and the extension to St. Moritz commenced operations on 10 July 1904. With its 55 bridges and 39 tunnels, the 61.67-kilometre long (38.32 mi) line is one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railways in the world.

On 7 July 2008, the Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway, which also forms part of the RhB, were jointly recorded in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, under the name Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes.

The best known trains operating on the Albula Railway are the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express.


Nostalgic train near Preda

Up until 1890, the south east of Switzerland was extremely poorly served by railways. Alpine transit traffic was drawn to the Gotthard Railway, so that the construction of transcontinental railways in Graubünden appeared not to be economically viable. Only the success of the Landquart-Davos-Bahn (LD) led to a turning point. In 1895, the LD changed its name to Rhaetian Railway (RhB). Two years later, the people of Graubünden decided, in a referendum, that the RhB would come under state ownership. These two changes created suitable conditions for a rapid construction of further RhB lines, which were intended to open up large parts of the Canton.

Albula Railway
An RhB train amidst the spiral tunnels.
An RhB train amidst the spiral tunnels.
Type Metre gauge heavy rail
System Rhaetian Railway
Status Operating
Locale Albula, Graubünden, Switzerland
Termini Thusis

St Moritz
Stations 12
Services Albula
Website Rhaetian Railway
Opened 1 July 1903 / 10 July 1904
Owner Rhaetian Railway
Operator(s) Rhaetian Railway
Line length 61.67 km (38.32 mi)
No. of tracks Single track
Track gauge 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) metre gauge
Electrification Overhead catenary,
11 kV AC 16 2/3 Hz
Highest elevation 1,815 m (5,955 ft)
above sea level
Maximum incline 3.5%
Route map

In 1890, the Davos hotelier Willem-Jan Holsboer proposed the construction of a rail link from Chur via Davos, and through a tunnel under the Scaletta Pass, to St Moritz, and then onwards via the Maloja Pass, to Chiavenna in Italy. Holsboer later had to abandon this planned Scalettabahn, in favour of a route through what was to become the Albula Tunnel. In 1895, the Zurich railway pioneer Adolf Guyer-Zeller presented the idea of an Engadine-Orient-Railway, which would have connected Chur, via Thusis and Engadine, and over the Fuorn Pass, with the Vinschgau and Trieste. Zeller planned this proposed route as a standard gauge line. It would have passed under the Albula Alps through a 12 km long tunnel from the mouth of the Val Tisch to the Inn Valley below Bever. As the Ofenbergbahn, the Engadine-Orient-Railway would also have cut a connection through to the Val Müstair. It was only on 30 June 1898 that the Federal Assembly in Bern finally decided on the construction of the Albula Railway. The Federal Assembly thereby also decided against another standard gauge transit railway, and a similarly contemplated railway over the Julier Pass.

In 1896, there were only 20 km of standard gauge railway line in Graubünden - and 90 km of narrow gauge railways. (Incidentally, the length of the standard gauge line has remained unchanged to this day, apart from the construction of a new industrial spur line from Chur to Domat / Ems.) Priority was given to the construction of a rail connection to the spa at St Moritz, which at that time was a 14 hour stage coach ride distant from Chur, the terminus of the standard gauge line.

The RhB station at Tiefencastel

After Thusis was reached from Chur, the construction of the Albula Railway began on 15 October 1898. Unlike the Bernina Railway, which was opened a good ten years later, and operated in fully electrified form right from the start, the Albula Railway was still a steam railway at its conception. Moreover (and again unlike the Bernina Railway), it was intended to be universally available, particularly for the transport of goods. As the steam locomotives of the time were still not particularly powerful, and in order to permit the highest possible speeds, the maximum gradients were restricted to 3.5%, and the minimum curve radius was also generously defined. Thus, the Albula Railway, in the interests of maximising its effectiveness, did not test the technical bounds of an adhesion railway. However, such an architectural style required a variety of engineering structures. So, for example, the viaducts were exclusively solidly constructed. Especially problematical was the ascent of the valley between Bergün/Bravuogn and Preda, where, in a distance of 5 km as the crow flies, a difference in altitude of over 400 m needed to be overcome. To stay within the maximum gradient parameters, the project supervisor, Friedrich Hennings, devised an intricate alignment, which lengthened the line's formation by 12 km. Two curved tunnels, three spiral tunnels, and a number of bridges overcame the engineering problem, by winding the track around like the thread of a screw. On this part of the line, the construction of the 660 m long Rugnux Spiral Tunnels in particular led to problems, because the 4 °C cold mountain water hampered the activities of the workers.

Slope diagram of the Albula Railway

Beyond Preda emerged the centrepiece of the line, the 5866 m long Albula Tunnel, which passes under the watershed between the Rhine and the Danube a few kilometres west of the Albula Pass. With its maximum elevation of 1,820 m (5,970 ft) above sea level, the tunnel is, after the Furka Tunnel, the second highest alpine tunnel in Switzerland. The creation of the tunnel was hampered by unusual problems caused by outflowing water, and these led to the bankruptcy of the building contractor. A total of 1,316 people were involved in the construction of the Albula Tunnel. Overall, there were 16 fatal accidents involving workers. At 03:00 hours on 29 May 1902, the breakthrough of the two tunnel leads was achieved, at a point 3,030.5 m (9,943 ft) from the north portal, and 2,835 m (9,301 ft), from the south portal.

Goods train between Tiefencastel and Surava

On 1 July 1903, the opening of the section between Thusis and Celerina could be celebrated. As the RhB and the St Moritz municipality were still yet to reach agreement over the site of the St. Moritz station, the inauguration of the 3 km long remaining section had to be delayed to 10 July 1904.

Shortages of coal during World War I prompted the RhB to grapple with the task of electrification. On 20 April 1919, the first section of the line to be electrified, the link between Bever and Filisur, was energised with the 11 kV 16 2/3 Hz alternating current system used on the Engadine line. On 15 October 1919, the extension to Thusis followed.

Since 1930, the Glacier Express has followed the route of the Albula Railway. The Bernina Express was added after World War II. Both of these trains have since operated as spearheads of the Rhaetian Railway's legendary reputation as a railway company amongst rail fans from around the world.

Since the line was equipped with a block safety system in 1969, remote monitoring of train traffic at most stations on the line has been possible. In 2005, the Rail Control Center in Landquart assumed the former tasks of the remote monitoring station at Filisur.

The Bever substation was modernised in 1973. Successive extensions to the passing loops at the stations has lengthened them to over 260 m (850 ft), the equivalent of an express train with 13 carriages. Since the end of the 1990s, the RhB has installed three short double track sections - at Thusis, at Filisur and below Preda - to make the hourly train crossings flow more smoothly. The remaining parts of the line are single track as before, and are still largely in their original configuration from 1904.

Accidents and incidents

  • On 13 August 2014, a passenger train was struck by a landslide and derailed at Tiefencastel, Graubünden. Eleven people were injured.

Description of the railway

The Albula Railway begins in Thusis, where it connects with the Landquart - Chur railway, built in 1896. Behind Thusis station, the line crosses the Hinterrhein, as well as the A 13 Autobahn, and enters the Albula Valley, which, east of Thusis, is known as the Schinschlucht. Even at this early stage, it passes many bridges and tunnels. After Solis station, 8 km (5.0 mi) from Thusis, the line crosses the Albula for the first time, on the 89 m (292 ft) high Solis Viaduct, which is both the highest bridge on the Rhaetian Railway, and the broadest span viaduct on the Albula Railway.

Some of the new Panorama cars, introduced in 2006, on the Landwasser Viaduct near Filisur

Between Tiefencastel and Filisur, the train crosses the 35 m (115 ft) m high and 137 m (449 ft) long Schmittentobel Viaduct. Shortly before Filisur, it reaches one of the trademarks of the Albula Railway - and often also the Rhaetian Railway in general - the 65 m (213 ft) high Landwasser Viaduct, which in a curve of only 100 m (330 ft) radius leads directly into a tunnel through the cliff face at the opposite end.

At Filisur station is the junction between the Albula Railway and the branch line from Davos Platz. Between Filisur and Bergün, the train ascends 292 m (958 ft), and runs through the first spiral tunnel. The next section, between Bergün and Preda, is the most demanding example of rail technology on the Albula Railway: in order to overcome the height difference of 417 m (1,368 ft) between Bergün and Preda – in only 6.5 km (4.0 mi) as the crow flies – without requiring excessive slopes or radii, the route is extended by 12 km (7.5 mi) by various engineering structures (including three spiral tunnels, two curved tunnels and four valley crossing viaducts). Soon after departure from Bergün station, where an RhB Crocodile stands as a locomotive monument, the train climbs once again at a rate of 3.5%. By means of the various structures just identified, the line crosses over itself twice. Rail fans can also view the Bergün-Preda section from a rail history nature trail adjacent to the line.

At the hamlet of Naz, near Preda, the line crosses a brief plateau, where, for several years now, there has been a double track section about 1 km (0.62 mi) long. Soon after the Preda station, which, at 1,789 m (5,869 ft) above sea level, is the highest stopping point on the Albula Railway, is the north portal of the Albula Tunnel. After passing through the tunnel, and the Spinas station at the southern portal, the train descends at a slope of up to 3.2%, to arrive in the Oberengadine at Bever, in the Val Bever. Here there is a junction with the Engadine Railway from Scuol-Tarasp. At the next station, Samedan, the line to Pontresina branches off. The Bernina Express takes this branch, which connects the Albula Railway with the Bernina Railway to Tirano. On the other hand, the Glacier Express follows the main line, via Celerina, to the terminus of the Albula Railway at St. Moritz.

Map of the Bergün-Preda section

Originally, it was planned to extend the Albula Railway via the Maloja Pass, to Chiavenna in Italy. At the terminus of the extension, there was to have been a connection with the Italian railway line that runs along Lake Como to Milan. In light of those plans, the St Moritz station was, and still is, laid out as a through station. Whereas on the Swiss side plans for a line through the Bergell reached an advanced stage, there were, on the Italian side, only vague statements of intent, for a line proceeding onwards from the border at Castasegna. World War I, and the subsequent economic recession, prevented any implementation of the plans. Today, the Majola Pass route is served by a cross border post bus line.

Train traffic

On the Preda-Bergün section, a downhill bound train leaves the Toua curved tunnel, shortly after crossing the Albula Viaduct III.

Between Chur and St Moritz, there are fast trains every day at regular hourly intervals. These trains have been officially known as RegioExpress services since December 2004. For the section Thusis - St Moritz, the fast trains require 1 hour 34 minutes, and therefore travel at an average speed of 39 km/h (24 mph). Only the so-called fast train stations are served by these trains. At the other stations, trains have no longer stopped since the 1990s. In Surava and Alvaneu, only some trains still stop, and only then in off peak times. In the high summer season, there are also special tourist oriented express trains with [[:de:Panoramawagen|panorama cars

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