Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Swiss Spectacular, Part 13: Steaming up the mountainside

Swiss Spectacular, Part 13: Steaming up the mountainside

By David Lassen | September 22, 2023

Brienz-Rothorn Bahn is a 4.7-mile cog railway gem

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Steam locomotive and one car on curving line on mountainside, as seen from above
A Brienz-Rothorn Bahn train makes its way uphill on Sept. 22, 2023. David Lassen

LUCERNE, Switzerland — We went up another mountain today. Once again, our view from the top was almost completely obscured by clouds. And once again, no one minded much.

This time around, the Trains/Special Interest Tours “Majestic Switzerland” tour made its way up the Brienz-Rothorn Bahn, a 7.6-kilometer, 800-mm gauge, steam-powered rack railway (that’s 4.7 miles and 2-feet, 7½ -inch gauge) that climbs from the lakeside town of Brienz to the summit of Brienzer Rothorn. The railway, which dates to 1892, climbs some 1,678 meters (5,505 feet) to reach its summit at 2,244 meters (7,362 feet). As has been the case with all these things, it does with an outlandish combination of pretzel-bend curves, surreal grades (the maximum here is 25%), and a liberal use of tunneling.

Black steam locomotive with green cab
Brienz-Rothorn No. 16, built in 1992, at the station in Brienz. Hard to tell how askew this engine is to deal with the 25% grades …

It’s the steam that makes this railroad stand out; it and the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway, which we visited earlier in the trip [see “Swiss Spectacular, Part 10 …,” Trains.com, Sept. 18, 2023], are the only regularly scheduled steam operations in Switzerland. Like the Furka Pass line, this one is seasonal, although the lower altitudes allow it a longer operating season — this year, it runs to the summit from June 3 to October 22. Even more unusual, while the Furka line was a main line into the 1970s and then reborn as a heritage railroad, the Brienz-Rothorn has essentially been a heritage line since the 1930s — it shut down in 1914, was saved from dismantling only because of a lack of funds, and was reborn as a steam-powered line in 1931, at a time when most of the rest of Switzerland had been or was in the process of being electrified. It avoided another shutdown threat in the 1970s with the introduction of diesels, but new steam locomotives were built for the railroad beginning in 1992.

Green and black locomotive with two red cars on steep grade
… but this shot of sister locomotive No. 14, coming into the station in Brienz, might provide a better idea. Two photos, David Lassen

Currently, the locomotive roster includes two engines dating to 1891, two from the 1930s, and four built between 1992 and 1996. There are three diesels on the premises, mainly for maintenance work, although they do handle some passenger trains; we saw one today on our way down the hill. More information on all of this is available at the BRB website, which does offer a version in English.

I have fewer pictures of this leg of the trip than some of the others, because the car design does not lend itself to moving around, and I ended up in one of the middle seats on the way up. (One of the aspects of being a worker bee on this trip is helping to make sure our 19 paying guests are all on board and accounted for; this is often not conducive to seat selection). Still, I do have some nice shots of another train — a one-car dining train, it appeared — that followed us up the mountain. And, of course, the “vistas” at the top were once again comparable to having a white sheet draped over your head.

Steam locomotive exits tunnel as seen from train
Our Brienz-Rothorn train exits one of the several tunnels on the 4.7-mile cog railway. David Lassen

But this was a getting-there-was-most-of-the-fun trip. The sound the little tank engine made on the way up was music to the ears of any railfan; as hard as it was working, shoving two cars up the hill — the locomotive pushes the train up the hill and leads on the way down — it seemed like we should have been going about 90 mph instead of actual pace, which was more like a brisk walk. (That 4.7-mile trip takes 55 minutes to an hour, depending on the train.) And for the vast majority of the trip, the views were outstanding, as we climbed high above Lake Brienz. I know I marvel about the views just about every day, but it’s Switzerland. The views really are amazing every day.

Once we made it back down the hill, we continued on to Lucerne, our penultimate stop. We’re here for two nights and have two more cog railway trips planned before wrapping things up in Zurich on Sunday night. Monday, I fly home. Getting a little low on steam myself after 18 days — especially since I now have a cold — but I’ll try to get in at least one more entry in the next two nights, and then wrap things up during the flight home.

— The Majestic Switzerland Tour is also being offered in 2024. More on that here; more on other Special Interest Tours offerings here.

View of mountains, lake, and clouds
Obligatory Swiss scenery shot, from the Brienz-Rothorn Bahn (note the tracks at right, which we’ll be on momentarily.). David Lassen
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