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On the Rhaetian Railway 1: along the Anterior Rhine

by DoDo Fri Jan 2nd, 2015 at 05:25:39 AM EST

Even among the many magnificent metre-gauge mountain railways of Switzerland, the Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn, RhB) is a special spectacle: a network spanning the upper valleys of three major rivers, climbing passes with innumerable bridges, tunnels, spiral and horseshoe curves, instead of rack sections. No wonder that riding the RhB is the one trip everyone with access to railway employee free tickets is advised to do. I had an inkling that I might soon lose that privilege in yet another company restructuring (though I didn't think I might lose my job along with it), so I "did the RhB" this year.

In one one-week holiday each in July and October, I travelled pretty much the entire network. Now that I had time to go through my photos (a bit over 1,850 of them), I start a mini-series portraying the RhB lines, roughly in the order of increasing spectacularity. In this first part, I show the line following the Anterior Rhine.

RhB Ge 4/4 II No. 613 "Domat/Ems" with an eastbound Glacier Express is about to reach Versam-Safien station in the Rhine Canyon

First things first: the general location. The Rhaetian Railway is also special in being the state railway of a sub-state unit: the canton of Graubünden. Graubünden is the south-eastern edge of Switzerland, at the Swiss-Austrian-Italian border tripoint. It is at a triple division geographically, too: spanning the drainage basins of the Rhine, the Inn and Poschiavino rivers (the last two being tributaries of the Danube ad the Po, respectively), it is said to be the canton of 150 valleys, 615 lakes and 937 peaks. Yet another triple division is language: German-speaking in the north, Romansh-speaking in the villages in the west, centre and east, and Italian-speaking in the south.

Map from Wikimedia under CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE & GNU FDL 1.2

Chur, the capital of Graubünden at the west-to-north bend of the Rhine in the north of the canton, is both the centre of the RhB network and the main junction with Swiss Federal Railways SBB.

Above: in a meeting of generations, Ge 4/4 II No. 627 "Reichenau-Tamins" (built in 1984) and Ge 4/4 III No. 646 "Santa Maria Val Müstair" (built 1994) wait for departure with two RegionalExpress (RE) trains for Disentis/Mustér resp. St. Moritz, with a standard-gauge IC train in the shadow to the right

Below: Another pair of RhB trains wait below the bridge of the bus station while an SBB Re 4/4 II (the standard-gauge model for the scaled-down narrow-gauge Ge 4/4 II) waits for the next assignment on a stabling siding in the distance

Frequent heritage trains also depart here.

Ge 4/6 No. 353 was one day past its 100th birthday when I photographed it with a special train to St. Moritz in July. This loco is from the first series for AC electrification

Now let's start the journey west along the Rhine. The first section is a busy one with limited-stop RE trains of two lines, suburban rapid trains (S), and even normal-gauge freight trains (using a dual-gauge three-trail track).

ABe 4/16 No. 3101 "Meta von Salis" reaches Chur-West on the three-rail track. This three-year-young four-part articulated multiple unit of the Allegra family was built for S-Bahn (suburban rapid transit) service on relatively flat sections

At Reichenau-Tamins is the confluence of the Anterior and Posterior Rhine, and also the junction of the RhB lines along the two rivers.

Above: looking east on a day in July, Ge 4/4 II No. 619 "Samedan" arrives from Chur with a westbound RE to Disentis/Mustér

Below: loking west on a day in October, Ge 4/4 II No. 616 "Filisur" arrives from Disentis/Mustér with an eastbound RE

Up along the Anterior Rhine, the landscape becomes progressively wild, and car roads disappear.

Ge 4/4 II No. 626 "Malans" left Reichenau-Tamins a few minutes ago with another westbound RE

Following the river in a spectacular tight S-curve, the rail line enters the Ruinaulta, or Rhine Canyon.

Looking west into the Rhine Canyon. The walk-path along the railway was built in 2010 only

The river cut this canyon across the rubble of the largest known Alpine mountain-slide: around 7455±25 BC, some 9–12 km³ of rock slid into the valley more than 2000 m below. This was a post-glacial mountain-slide: the valley side got de-stabilised with the loss of the support of the glacier ice. The first station in the canyon, Trin, is far from any settled area and is primarily used by wanderers, who have to signal their intention to get off or board.

A Ge 4/4 II with a westbound RE from Chur arrives in Trin

In addition to the local trains, this section is also used by the Glacier Express (GEX) luxury panoramic trains, a joint product with the neighbouring Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB). As a consequence, this is one of the RhB lines where a large part of the passengers are foreign tourists, above all from Japan. The latter is also helped by a partnership with Hakone Tozan Railway, a scenic mountain line south of Tokyo.

Ge 4/4 II No. 622 "Arosa", in special livery advertising the Hakone Tozan Railway, with a westbound GEX is briefly stopped at Trin to await a train from the other direction

Most of the rubble of the mountain-slide is finely ground chalk-stone, which was washed away easily by the river and was laid bare by secondary landslides west of Trin.

Above: Ge 4/4 II No. 631 "Untervaz" with an eastbound RE will soon stop in Trin

Below: an hour later, Ge 4/4 II No. 621 "Felsberg" arrives with the next eastbound RE

The most spectacular part is at an S-curve of the river further west, before the station of Versam-Safien, which is a starting point for masses of rafters, canoers and fans of other river sports.

Above: an eastbound GEX

Below: a double-headed long westbound RE

Sadly, it rained when I climbed the valley side for the above two photos. But the Sun shone again when I climbed down to the bridge over the Rhine.

Ge 4/4 II No. 621 "Felsberg" with a late eastbound GEX

On the other side of the short tunnel beyond the bridge, I met upon an elderly rail photo enthusiast with his wife. I have never seen as many 'camera colleagues' on holidays elsewhere as here.

Beyond the canyon, the line continues in a typical glacier valley with gentle slope and a lot more signs of human habitation, until it gets narrower again at the village of Tavanasa. I got here one late afternoon cold from rain and sweat, but found a restaurant where I was warmed up again from the inside by an especially tasty house-made onion soup. The cook/owner was an old Romansh man who other than his mother tongue only spoke a few French words, but we managed and he showed me a book with old photos of the river-ravaged history of his village (more in the seed comment).

Ge 4/4 II No. 624 "Celerina/Schlagrina" with a westbound combined RE+GEX just left Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels station

Beyond Tavanasa begins the only steeper section of the line, which climbs the northern valley side to the end station in Disentis/Mustér.

I observed on several occasions that small children are especially loud in this region. The pinnacle was on my trip to Disentis, in a car with a class of first- or second-grade elementary school kids (I probably ignored a group reservation sign): their high-pitched voices weren't simply loud but caused physical pain to my ears, making me wonder how they can bear it themselves.

As for Disentis, it is a town built around a Benedictine abbey founded almost 1300 years ago (the present baroque form of the building is only 300 years old, though).

Ge 4/4 II No. 615 "Klosters" is leaving Disentis with a long eastbound RE

Disentis/Mustér is also the junction station with the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB), a section of which I visited last year (see Rack railways above the Gotthard tunnels). Unlike the RhB, the MGB has rack sections for very steep grades, the first right after leaving Disentis.

MGB HGe 4/4 II No. 107 left Disentis/Mustér with a local train for Andermatt

The next diary in the series will take you on a trip along the Inn river.

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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Here are some non-rail photos I took during my trips along the Anterior Rhine line.

First, the Poststrasse, the main stropping street in the middle-age core of Chur. I still find it incredible that such a touristy part can be this empty as late as 09:20 on a Sunday morning.

The confluence of Anterior Rhine (middle left, the main river: narrow but deep) and Posterior Rhine (lower left, the tributary: wide but shallow) at the castle of Reichenau, as seen from the RhB rail bridge.

Punt Ruinaulta, a suspension walkbridge inside the Rhine Canyon, was opened along with a walk-path along the river only in 2010

A forest road on the edge of the Rhine Canyon in the autumn.

Cliffs of the Rhine Canyon, with with view in the direction of the origin of the one-time mountain-slide, near Versam-Safien.

The bridges of Tavanasa. Two successive road bridges have been washed away by the Anterior Rhine in the early 20th century (bridgeheads to the right), that's why the current one is this high (left).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Dec 27th, 2014 at 10:30:52 AM EST
yet another excellent diary. Thank you so much for documenting your travels

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Dec 28th, 2014 at 04:54:05 AM EST
Thank you for this.  


The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Dec 31st, 2014 at 01:11:15 AM EST
Again DoDo a wonderful and well written piece. It's one of the reasons I keep coming back to Eurotribune. Please keep it up.

Just crossed the USA on the Southwest Chief and to Indianapolis on the Hoosier State.

All the best,


Paul Gipe

by pgipe (pgipe(at)igc.org) on Wed Dec 31st, 2014 at 10:47:00 AM EST
Any photos?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Dec 31st, 2014 at 12:37:06 PM EST
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