Furka Steam Train
Rene’s Furka Steam Train Story
When I think of the Furka steam train story it echoes a combination of Swiss pioneer engineering ingenuity, history, beautiful landscape, fierce determination, volunteerism of time & money, and an unforgettable train experience.
The Furka Railway train continues to offer schedules: June 23 to October 7.
This is on a partially rack and pinion-operated line across the Furka Pass, between Realp in the Canton of Uri and Oberwald in the Canton of Valais to an altitude of 7,087 ft), on the old mountainous section of the Furka Oberalp Bahn (FO) that was abandoned after the construction of the Furka Tunnel.
This was the original route when the Glacier Express service was launched back in 1930.
Some of the highlights include going over a number of steel girder bridges.
The “Steffenbachbrücke” bridge is formed in three parts so it can be lowered during the Winter months. This prevent it from being destroyed by a notorious avalanche path that destroyed older stone bridges.
There are a number tunnels the steam train goes through.
At the 7086 ft summit, the train stops for 20 to 30 minutes so you can get off and check out the beautiful alpine scenery.
My first Furka steam train experience was in 2011 with a Swiss media group who were one of the first groups to ride on the newly opened tracks and renovated Steam engine #1.
I recall the chugging of the steam train, through beautiful wooded pine forests and riding past the village of Gletsch with it’s over 145 year old Hotel Glacier du Rhone. It’s a charming place to see even though you can’t see the Rhone Glacier anymore.
The Swiss pioneer engineering stems from 1925 when the Furka line first started running under steam power – offering visitors stunning Alpine scenery views up to 2,160 metres (7,087 ft), above sea level; one of highest rail lines in Switzerland.
This segment was part of the original Glacier Express route because you could see the large Rhone Glacier from your window. The Rhone Glacier extended all the way down to the village of Gletch. The guests staying in the Hotel Glacier Du Rhone could actually see and walk out to the glacier. This is what you saw from the train back in 1930.
But it wasn’t until someone told me the story about how Swiss rail buffs tracked down old Furka steam engines in the jungles of Vietnam that I learned of the fierce determination of volunteers putting time and money to get the Furka steam running back on its original tracks in Switzerland.
As I understand the Furka line closed in 1981 because a new Furka base tunnel was opened allowing the Glacier Express route to run year round and the original Furka pass route was no longer used.
In 1983 a number of Swiss railroad retirees conceived an idea to re-activate this historic railway line Furka cogwheel line and started a Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway Club. One of the first steps was to start gathering funds to refurbish the track and rolling stock.
The financial support, came pouring in, especially from nostalgic Swiss expatriates living in the United States.
But a major challenge was the disappearance of most of the locomotives. By going into the archives, the Furka Club found several of the old Swiss-built engines had been sold to French-ruled Vietnam.
The steam and rack locomotive SLM HG 4/4 No. 40-308, seen here in the 1960s on the line Krong Pha – Da Lata, was delivered by Schweizerische Lokomotiv und Maschinenfabrik Winterthur in Vietnam in 1930.
However when the Swiss went to look for the locomotives in the 1980’s this is what they found.
The challenge was to negotiate with the North Vietnamese to purchase and transport back to Switzerland.
What I heard it was a laborious process and took millions of dollars to finally land the rusty steam engines back in Switzerland. Now more millions of dollars were needed to bring the steam engines back into working order.
Eventually the club attracted thousands of members, from across Europe, who invested their own time – about 200,000 working hours – and millions of Swiss francs. The actual work took many years and all done by Swiss volunteers.
Today the most all of the people associated with the running of the Furka Steam Train are volunteers. The ticket prices do not cover all the operating expenses of the Furka train line so there is a Foundation Furka Mountain Line providing the additional funds to keep the rail line open.
Currently ECHO Rails & Trails is the sole US based company offering the Furka Steam engine, Furka pass experience.