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The construction and operation of Swissmarker railways during the 19th century was carried out by private railways. The first internal line was a 16 km line opened from Zürichmarker to Badenmarker in 1847. By 1860 railways connected western and northeastern Switzerland. The first Alpine railway to be opened under the Gotthard Passmarker in 1882. A second alpine line was opened under the Simplon Passmarker in 1906.

In 1901 the major railways were nationalised to form Swiss Federal Railways. During the first half of the twentieth century they were electrified and slowly upgraded. After the Second World War rail rapidly lost its share of the rail market to road transport as car ownership rose and more roads were built. From 1970 the Federal Government has become more involved in upgrading the railways, especially in urban areas and on trunk routes under the Rail 2000 project. In addition, two major trans-alpine routes—the Gotthard Railway and the Lötschberg approach to the Simplon Tunnel—are being rebuilt under the AlpTransit project.

Early railways

The first line was the extension of the French Strasbourg–Basel Railway (French: Chemin de fer de Strasbourg à Bâle) from Mulhousemarker to Baselmarker, which was opened to a temporary station outside Basel's walls on 15 June 1844 and to the permanent station on 11 December 1845. This company was taken over by the Chemins de fer de l'Est in 1854. The Rhine Valley Line was opened to the original Basel Baden railway stationmarker in 1855. Despite constant discussion it was some time before these line were extended into Switzerland. The first internal line was the 16km long Swiss Northern Railway (German: Schweizerische Nordbahn, SNB) opened from Zürichmarker to Badenmarker in 1847.

The subsequent railways were built by private companies was led by Swiss entrepreneurs, industrialists and bankers. In 1850 the Swiss Federal Council invited two British engineers, Robert Stephenson and Henry Swinburne to draw up plans for a railway network for the Swiss Confederation. They proposed a 645 km network along the valleys, avoiding any Alpinemarker crossings, all of which was eventually built.

Although the Constitution of 1848 gave the federal government powers in relation to railways, it initially decided to decentralise rail policy. The first Railway Act of 1852 gave responsibility for administering policy in relation to the construction and operation of railways to the cantons, including licensing of companies, coordination of lines, technical specifications and pricing policy. Railways were to be built by private limited liability companies, with contributions to be provided by the municipalities and cantons that stood to benefit from projects. Despite the lack of overall planning and the rivalry among the companies, a rail network similar to that proposed by Stephenson and Swinburne was soon established in northern and western Switzerland with the completion of a link from the Frenchmarker border in the far west near Geneva to the Austrianmarker border in the far northeast at St. Margrethenmarker on 10 December 1860.
In 1853 the Swiss Central Railway (German: Schweizerische Centralbahn, SCB) began to build the Basel-Olten line through the Hauenstein passmarker with branches from Olten to Aarau and Lucerne, Bern and Thunmarker and from Herzogenbuchseemarker to Solothurn and Biel. At the same time the Swiss Northeastern Railway (German: Schweizerische Nordostbahn, NOB) concentrated on eastern Switzerland in the cantons of Zürichmarker and Thurgaumarker; its network covered the lines from Zürich to Lake Constancemarker and to Schaffhausenmarker and later to Lucerne. The United Swiss Railways (VSB) built lines from Winterthurmarker to Rorschachmarker and from Wallisellenmarker to Rapperswilmarker, Sargansmarker and Churmarker. There were contracts for sharing the interlinked VSB line between Weesenmarker and Glarusmarker and the NOB line between Ziegelbrückemarker, Näfelsmarker, Glarusmarker and Linthalmarker.

During the same period railways were built in western Switzerland along Lake Genevamarker from Genevamarker to Lausannemarker and Bexmarker and from Morgesmarker to Yverdonmarker. A steamship connected Geneva with the line from Le Bouveretmarker to Martignymarker. The main developer in the inner part of Vaudmarker was the West Switzerland Company (French: Compagnie de l'Ouest-Suisse, OS) and in the Valais the Line of Italy (French: Ligne d'Italie, absorbed by the Simplon Company [French: Compagnie du Simplon] in 1874). The Jura–Neuchâtel Railway emerged from lines from Le Loclemarker and Les Verrièresmarker along Lake Neuchâtelmarker to La Neuvevillemarker.

The Canton of Fribourgmarker delayed the construction of the line from Bern to Lausanne in a bid to have it run through the city of Fribourgmarker rather than on flatter land further west; in 1857 the Swiss government, the canton of Vaudmarker and the West Switzerland Company gave in, allowing construction to commence on the line, which was opened in 1862. The Canton of Bernmarker attempted to make its own policy in relation to its railways railway. At the initiative of its Federal politician Jakob Stämpfli the Swiss East–West Railway (German: Schweizerische Ostwestbahn, OWB) started building a line in 1857 to compete with Swiss Central Railway between La Neuvevillemarker (on Lake Bielmarker) and Zürich via Bern, Langnau im Emmentalmarker, Luzern and Zugmarker without raising sufficient finance to guarantee its completion. In June 1861 it went bankrupt and the completed section from La Neuveville and Langnau was taken over the Canton of Bern and was incorporated as the Bern State Railway (German: Bernische Staatsbahn, BSB), which continued building the line to Lucerne. The missing section from Langnau to Entlebuchmarker and Lucerne was not completed until 1875. The concession for the Zürich–Lucerne line via Affoltern am Albismarker was taken over by the Zürich–Zug–Lucerne Railway (German: Zürich–Zug–Luzern-Bahn, ZZL), a subsidiary of the NOB.

Financial difficulties led to a series of mergers and increased foreign investment in the rail companies. French investment in Switzerland was also stimulated by an interest in Alpine crossings. Many of the original companies were consolidated into the Swiss Northeastern Railway (German: Schweizerische Nordostbahn) and the United Swiss Railways (German: Vereinigte Schweizerbahnen, VSB) in the east and the Jura–Simplon Railway (French: Compagnie du Jura–Simplon, JS) in the west. Despite the financial difficulties by 1860 a continuous line had been created from Geneva to Lake Constance, and by 1870 other main routes were completed. Steamers connected to the railways across several major lakes: Genevamarker, Neuchâtelmarker, Thunmarker, Lucernemarker, and Constance. Connections to the networks of neighboring countries were made at Romanshornmarker by ferries to Lindaumarker and Friedrichshafenmarker, and by rail at Basel to the Baden Mainline and the French Chemins de fer de l'Est, at Schaffhausen with the Baden Mainline and at Les Verrièresmarker with the line to Pontarlier and Paris.


The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) showed up problems of the private railway to cope with the need to move troops quickly, leading to the second Railway Act of 1872. This transferred control of construction, operation, tariffs and accounting of the railways and the licensing of railway companies from the cantons to the federal government. The possibility of federal government nationalisation of the railways also became part of the political agenda.

Johann Jakob Sulzer (1806-1883), a Democratic Party politician from Winterthurmarker, founded the Lake Constance–Lake Geneva Railway (German: Bodensee-Genfersee-Bahn), later renamed the Swiss National Railway (German: Schweizerische Nationalbahn, SNB) to overcome shortcomings of the existing railways in providing an adequate and co-ordinated network. It planned to build a line from Lake Constance and Singen to Lausanne via Winterthur, Aargaumarker, Solothurnmarker, Lyssmarker, Murtenmarker and Payernemarker. Construction started in 1875 but it went bankrupt in 1878 and its assets were acquired by the NOB and SCB.

Alpine railways

Before the construction of the Gotthard Railway there were no north-south rail connections to Italy. The railroad lines ended at the foot of the Alps - the VSB reached Churmarker in 1858, the SCB reached Lucerne and Thun in 1859, and in 1878 the Simplon Railway (part of the Western Switzerland–Simplon Company from 1881) reached Brigmarker. The Swiss railway companies and regions competed to build a railway though various Swiss Alpine passes: the Lukmaniermarker, the Splügenmarker, the Gotthardmarker and the Simplonmarker. In view of the completion of the Brenner Railway to the east in 1867 and the commencement of construction of east and the Fréjus railway line in 1857 (completed in 1871) in the west, it was decided to build the Gotthard railway and contracts were signed with Swiss, German and Italian contractors in 1869. Despite financial difficulties the line was opened in 1882.

In 1878 the Swiss approved in a referendum federal subsidies for an eastern and a western Alpine rail crossing. In 1913 a western Alps was completed, the Lötschberg railway line, but it was not a federal project, but instead it was an initiative of the canton of Bernmarker. No eastern rail crossing has ever been built. Instead the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) opened the Albula line in 1903 and the Bernina Railwaymarker completed the Bernina linemarker in 1910, providing a link to Italy. These lines were initially built for tourists, but they were later also used for freight.

Branch lines

In the 1870s branch lines began to be built. Two thirds of them were built as narrow gauge lines to reduce costs. Fifty branch lines were built in the period from 1874 to 1877, including the Gäu Railway (German: Gäubahn) between Solothurn and Olten (completed in 1876) and the Broyemarker valley lines near Freiburg (1877), both originally planned by the SNB. Also built during this period were the Emmental railway (German: Emmentalbahn) from Solothurn to Burgdorf and Langnau im Emmentalmarker (opened 1875-81) and the Wädenswil–Einsiedeln Railway ("pilgrim railway", opened 1877). Also opened between 1874 and 1881 was the Aargau Southern Railway, from Rupperswilmarker to Rotkreuzmarker, which later became a freight feeder line to the Gotthard railway. The Lake Constance–Toggenburg Railway (from Romanshorn to Nesslaumarker and Swiss Southeastern Railway (German: Schweizerische Südostbahn) connected the east-central to southern Switzerland.

The Railway Act of 1852 mandated standard gauge ( ). The reform of 1872 allowed local and mountain railways to be built with different gauges. The Swiss Company for Local Railways planned a narrow gauge network in the Alpine region, but only succeeded in building the Appenzeller Bahn (Appenzell Railway) because of financial problems. In the Jura region of the Canton of Bern, the Jura Bernois Railway (JB) constructed a railway with massive financial assistance from the Canton of Bern. Between 1873 and 1877 the Jura line with the main railway line between Delle and Basel and the lines from Biel to Sonceboz-Sombevalmarker and Delémontmarker and La Chaux-de-Fondsmarker. In the 1880s narrow gauge lines were built to isolated factories and villages in Vaud and the Jura region.
By 1880 railways had been built in the Alpine regions to a few valleys and tourist areas. In the Graubündenmarker the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) was founded in 1889 had developed lines by the outbreak of World War I along the valleys of the Hinterrheinmarker, Vorderrhein, the Albulamarker, the Engadinemarker and the Poschiavomarker. In the Bernese Oberlandmarker, railways were built to connect to the tourist region around Lake Thunmarker. Narrow gauge lines were built in the western Alps, such as the Montreux-Oberland Bernoismarker railway (MOB), the Furka-Oberalp-Bahn (FO) and the Gruyère-Fribourg-Morat Railway (GFM). The tourist-oriented Domodossola–Locarno line—also called the Centovalli (Italian for "100 valleys") railway—was completed in 1923, connecting Ticinomarker and the Valaismarker via Italy.

Early twentieth century


The 1872 Railway Act gave the federal government broad powers in the railway sector. In 1879 the federal government established a new Department of Post and Railways its powers over the railways together with the postal sector. The bankruptcy of several railway companies during the 1870s, rail strikes and opposition to foreign ownership of the railways led to support for the nationalisation of the railways. In 1891 the nationalisation of the SCB was rejected in a referendum, but it was approved by the Federal Council in 1897. A referendum in 1898 was strongly contested, obtaining the highest level of voting participation to that date, and won a two-thirds majority. Between 1900- and 1909, the Swiss Confederation acquired, the five big railway companies, Jura–Simplon Railway (JS, 937 km), Swiss Northeastern Railway (NOB, 771 km), Swiss Central Railway (SCB, 398 km), United Swiss Railways (VSB, 269 km) and the Gotthard Railway (273 km), forming the Swiss Federal Railways (SFR). In 1903 the SBB network took over the metre gauge Brünig Railway (German: Brünigbahn) opened in 1888 and the Swiss shipping line on Lake Constance. It acquired another four small private railways between 1913 and 1948.

The negotiated purchase price of more than Swiss Francs 1 billion was criticised, especially as the owners had stopped investing when the debate over nationalisation started. The cost of the nationalisation was not charged directly to the federal budget, but was instead a debt of the SFR. As a result of the high debt burden, the SBB was significantly impeded in its development of the railways until 1944 when it was relieved of the debt resulting from its nationalisation.


The majority of the railway network was single track and its equipment and rolling stock was mostly in poor condition and unable to cope with increasing traffic. The difficult financial situation during the first half of the 20th century limited the modernisation of the Swiss rail network. The main work carried out was electrification, duplication and safety improvements. Electrification started on an experimental basis in 1888 and was completed in1960, it was accelerated as a result of coal shortages during the two world wars. Of particular note was the early electrification of the Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon line, which was opened in 1913 with single-phase operation. At the beginning of the World War II, 77% of the Swiss rail network had been electrified, while other European railways had a level of electrification of 5%.

The construction of tunnels shortened distances and improved gradients, allowing the improved handling of traffic growth. The Simplon tunnel between Brig and Iselle, Italy was opened in 1906. The Mont-d'Or tunnel was opened between Vallorbemarker and Frasne, France in 1915 and forming part of the route of the Orient Express between Parismarker and Istanbulmarker from 1919 to 1962. The Hauenstein base tunnel was opened between Olten and Basel in 1916.

Private railways

Private railways were built to connect cities with suburbs, beginning with the metre gauge Bern-Muri-Worb Railway opened in 1898, now part of Bern-Solothurn Regional Transport. Additional standard gauge suburban lines were built to connect Bern with Thun via the Gürbe Valley (the Gürbetal Railway) and with Schwarzburg and the metre gauge lines were extended to Zollikofenmarker and Solothurnmarker. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit the private railways hard, leading to operating deficits which prevented the renewal of equipment and rolling stock. Under the 1939 Private Assistance Act, the federal government provided financial support to the private railways in return for technical renewal and electrification and the reorganization of the private railways into regional networks.

Post World War II

After years of heavy investment in roads in the postwar years the share of rail in the total passenger market in Switzerland had been significantly reduced by the end of the 1960s. At this time Swiss Federal Railways decided that changes were necessary to increase rail patronage. More trains were operated in order to increase frequencies; this lead to a 75% increase in passengers between 1971 to 1983 on the Bern–Zürich route. In the 1970s the Swiss government and SFR decided to make further improvements in rail services. In 1972, the SFR introduce a regular interval timetable (German: Taktfahrplan). Under this timetable trains arrive and leave each station at the same minute past every hour. Services at Zurich stationmarker were reorganised so that trains arrived on each line before the hour or half-hour and left after the hour or half-hour, making it easier to change to trains on other lines.

Rail 2000

In the late 1960s the SFR developed a proposal for a new east-west trunkline (German: Haupttransversale, NHT). This was considered by the Swiss Transport Commission (German: Schweizerischen Gesamtverkehrskommission, GVK). In 1977 after almost six years work, the GVK submitted a 400-page report, which recommended the construction of a new railway between Genevamarker and Lake Constancemarker and between Basel and Olten. On these routes, a total of 120 kilometres of new line would allow operation of trains at up to 200 kilometres per hour, similar to the French TGVs. A Federal Government committee supported SFR's proposal but considered that investment should be initially concentrated on the sections of route between Basel, Olten and Bern. This proposal was widely seen as too narrow in its benefits and in mid 1984 the SFR established an expert group under the name Rail 2000 to develop a broader approach. This group developed a plan to improve rail transport throughout Switzerland based on the approach of co-ordinated regular interval trains. The federal parliament voted to approve Rail 2000 in May 1986. In particular, it granted CHF 5.4 billion for the Mattstetten–Rothrist new line between Olten and Bern and for a connection from near Herzogenbuchseemarker to Solothurnmarker. This was endorsed by a referendum in 1987 with a majority of 57.0%.

Zürich S-Bahn

After years of debate a referendum of Zürich Canton agreed on 29 November 1981 to the borrowing of CHF 520 million for the construction of the main lines for the Zürich S-Bahn, based around a tunnel from the Zürich main stationmarker (connecting to the west, south and north) to Zürich Stadelhofenmarker station (connecting to the southeast) and Dietlikonmarker (connecting to the northeast) and Dübendorfmarker (connecting to the east). On 27 May 1990 the S-Bahn was put into operation and then expanded in several phases into the current 380 kilometre long network.

Alpine crossings

In 1996 funding was approved for the upgrading of the two major alpine rail crossings, the Gotthard Railway, including the 57 km long Gotthard Base Tunnel and the Lötschberg Base Tunnel on the approach to the Simplon Tunnel. The Gotthard Base Tunnel is due to be completed in 2015. The Lötschberg Base Tunnel was opened in 2007, but most of its second line has been indefinitely deferred.

See also



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