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The Brienz-Rothorn Railway

15 April 2015

One of the delights of spending time in the beautiful and conveniently sited resort of Interlaken is the plethora of mountain railways that wind their way into the accessible and sometimes not-so-accessible recesses of the Alps. The Schilthorn and the Schynige Platte, to name but two, proved very popular with travellers on my recent Bernese Oberland trip, and, of course, the highlight of the whole week was the mammoth and spectacular three-stage Jungfrau Express trip though, in our case, the appalling weather virtually ruled out the prospect of any views from about Lauterbrunnen onwards.

Well, you win some and you lose some: our 'victory' appeared in the form of the wonderful Brienz Rothorn Railway which carried us (in glorious weather!) the 7.6 kilometres from the balmy and civilised Lake Brienz to the remote, rocky and decidedly chilly outcrops of the Rothorn Kulm from which fantastic views were gratefully snapped by our excited group.  We rose well over 5000 feet in less than an hour with no stops other than at a couple of passing places. For much of the time, we could see the next mile or so of line stretched out challengingly before us, some of it very steep (1 in 4 in places) and most of it curving to take advantage of the contours. Beyond Station Planalp about half way up there is nothing but wilderness: splashes of colour from the array of Alpine flowers and the ever-appealing (and indeed ever-pealing!) cowbells broke the emptiness and silence of this majestic upland, but generally speaking, the dominant presence in our pursuit of the kulm was the historic steam engine that pushed us steadily up the 2 foot 7and a half inch gauge track towards the inviting cup of coffee awaiting us at the summit.

I am reticent to refer to steam engines in an anthropomorphic way but this little squat locomotive really did seem to have a character of its own. "Get off and walk…get off and walk" seemed to emerge from its ceaseless chugging as it weaved and wheezed its way ever upwards. Great gasps, almost of despair, emanated from its funnel periodically. And the great joy of this journey was that many of us in its two packed carriages were directly facing the little engine, well over 100 years old, as it took in over 2000 litres of water and consumed goodness knows how much coal during the ascent. Unlike many of its counterparts on these Alpine cog railways, this one virtually became our companion, the one doing the hard graft while we, its guests, enjoyably but almost guiltily, were rewarded with increasingly wonderful mountain vistas. Pushing is so much more demanding than dragging, and our splendid locomotive appeared to want to remind us of this by means of a clunk here and a sigh there.

But we made it to the top and most of my group gathered around our new friend, partly to have photos taken but mostly, I sensed, to offer thanks and congratulations on yet another successful mission. The facilities at the station are surprisingly lavish. A hotel and two sizeable cafes/restaurants are connected by a rough but perfectly serviceable track that then takes the energetic traveller further to a particularly impressive viewpoint from which the majestic Eiger and Jungfrau peaks are clearly in evidence with many others besides. There is even a little museum outlining the history of the line. Constructed during the Mountain railway 'boom' of the 1890s (while British resorts tried to lure tourists with longer and better piers, so their Swiss equivalents employed railway pioneers like Roman Abt to develop ingenious ways of reaching local peaks), the Brienz Rothorn Bahn fell on hard times in the early 20th century perhaps because there just weren't enough tourists to go round. But this 4th-highest railway in Switzerland, never electrified, eventually reopened in 1931 and has for the most part never looked back. But weather conditions dictate that it can only open each year on 1st June so it is a comparatively short season.

Replenished, my group returned to the train as the clouds gathered, and, roles reversed, had the welcome if erroneous illusion that WE were pushing the engine back down to Brienz. We encountered, sometimes at very close quarters, the little chalet houses on the lower slopes (what must it be like to have tourist trains chugging through your garden for half the year?!). Before we left the station, someone pointed out to me a sentence in the publicity leaflet we had been given: "Every Wednesday on the Steam-Sausage-Laggard, you can experience joyful moments with special sausages". What a shame our journey was on a Tuesday! The Brienz Rothorn excursion is one of the very best in the Alps: all the way up in one train with an arched roof and large windows, wonderful views and an intimacy (if that isn't too strong a word) with the engine that makes the whole trip more than just a journey. It is an experience to be savoured.