Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Swiss Spectacular, Part 12: The Top of Europe

Swiss Spectacular, Part 12: The Top of Europe

By David Lassen | September 21, 2023

Once again, clouds intervene, but getting to Jungfraujoch is still breathtaking in more ways than one

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Blue and yellow passenger trains meet
Berner Oberland Bahn trains meet on Sept. 21, 2023. David Lassen

INTERLAKEN, Switzerland — Lots and lots and lots of trains today — eight in all — to get from Montreux to Interlaken, but that’s because we didn’t take the fast route.

We took the high one, instead.

Multicolored mountain railway train
A Wengernalp train awaits departure for Kleine Scheidegg. David Lassen

On the Trains/Special Interest Tours “Majestic Switzerland” tour, the journey  from last night’s hotel to tonight’s was via the Jungfrau Railways, which takes you (as you are told many, many times) to “The Top of Europe” — the Jungfraujoch station, at elevation 11,333 feet (3,454 meters), the highest railway station in Europe. Even by the standards of Swiss cog railways, this is a particularly amazing engineering feet, because the final 4.5 miles are in a steeply inclined tunnel bored into the solid rock of the Jungfrau mountain. What’s more, this work was finished in 1912, completing a project conceived in 1893, with the beginning of construction in 1898.

Out of Interlaken, we traveled on the meter-gauge Berner Oberland Bahn to Grindelwald. From there, we switched to the 800-millimeter gauge Wengernalp Railway to Kleine Scheidegg, where we switched back to meter gauge on the Jungfrau Railway. (Pay attention, there will be a quiz later.) The latter, featuring the 4.5-mile tunnel, is a mere 5.8 miles long, with a maximum grade of 25%. The long tunnel to the top includes a brief stop at Eismeer, where short tunnels take you to viewing windows in the side of the mountain. Good thing these exist: We still had a view there, but the top of the mountain was in a cloud that limited visibility to a few yards. Plus it was 32 degrees with sleet and 27-mph winds.

This is presumably not unusual, because there are a bunch of attractions built into the mountainside, as well. Mostly tacky ones, as far as I’m concerned (although I didn’t go into the Ice Palace, a tunnel through glacial ice that includes a number of ice sculptures and other features, and was told it was actually pretty good. Beyond that, there is shopping and several restaurants. None of which really are worth the cost of the ride (which is substantial) — but even with the destination socked in, the ride offers some amazing vistas, and I can imagine that if you hit a day with a clear view at the top, the payoff must be spectacular.

Even without stepping outside, spending time at 11,333 feet was not necessarily comfortable. Just walking up or down a flight of stairs left me short of breath, and by the end of our 2½ hours at the top, I was feeling a bit light-headed. Some of our tour members were uncomfortable enough that I made sure to know where I could find emergency assistance if needed. (Which, thankfully, it wasn’t). I was told that drinking lots of fluids — particulary something sweet, like orange juice — or eating chocolate is supposed to be a good idea while you’re at the summit. It’s definitely a know-your-limitations sort of activity.

View of mountains
The view of the Jungfrau region from the Eiger Express gondola. David Lassen

Coming back, we took a much faster route, using the Eiger Express gondola ride, which does in 15 minutes what the various rail lines require about an hour to accomplish. You could obviously shave a lot of time off the trip by using the gondola (which only dates to 2020) in both directions, but since this trip isn’t sponsored by Gondolas Magazine, we wanted to experience the rail route. (A few people chose to ride the train both ways, but most of us wanted to at least sample the gondola.)

This was the second time in three cog railway trips the tour has been skunked for a view at the summit, but my sense was that the group is still glad we made the ascent. And tomorrow’s another day — with another cog railway. But I’ll tell you about that then.

One thought on “Swiss Spectacular, Part 12: The Top of Europe

  1. LOL, even if there was a Gondolas Magazine, not sure I’d subscribe.
    We took the “Golden” tour up Mount Pilatus from Luzerne back in June. It is also a little pricey, and also has some family-friendly attractions along the way that many wouldn’t find interesting. But it lived up to the spectacle (as recommended by a Swiss acquaintance). It was a bit of a hike uphill to the lower gondola terminal from the bus to Kriens, but we were treated to an urban cow pasture en route. The first gondola leg was pleasant and scenic but otherwise unremarkable. That drops you off at a mid-route family amusement center, and the terminal for the upper gondola leg. THAT leg is more interesting, as it appears to be heading straight for a rock face, then angles almost straight up near the top. At the summit, it’s about 6500 feet, and breathtaking in more ways than one. But getting the more spectacular scenic view seems to be a roll of the dice, as we were mostly above the clouds that day.
    The ride down is on the Pilatus-Bahn, which is billed as the steepest cog railway in the world. I don’t have the actual data, but I believe it. Near the top, it clings to a rock face and goes through a short tunnel or two, and I’d estimate the grade is something like 35 to 40 percent, judging from memory and the way the seats were arranged, as in a funicular. It was a much clearer view down that face of the mountain, and quite spectacular.
    At the bottom, the Pilatus-Bahn terminates behind the SBB station at Alpnach. That would have been a quick 20 minute or so trip back to downtown Luzerne, certainly fun it its own way. But we opted for the ferry ride up the lake, which was a beautiful 90-minute cruise from the pier across the highway, and were not disappointed. All of this covered by the Swiss Travel Pass (with a Golden Pass surcharge for the mountain), which I highly recommend if you spend 3 or more days traveling around Switzerland.

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