Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes

Since 2008 • Cultural

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes, brings together two historic railway lines that cross the Swiss Alps through two passes. Opened in 1904, the Albula line in the north western part of the property is 67 km long. It features an impressive set of structures including 42 tunnels and covered galleries and 144 viaducts and bridges. The 61 km Bernina pass line features 13 tunnels and galleries and 52 viaducts and bridges. The property is exemplary of the use of the railway to overcome the isolation of settlements in the Central Alps early in the 20th century, with a major and lasting socio-economic impact on life in the mountains. It constitutes an outstanding technical, architectural and environmental ensemble and embodies architectural and civil engineering achievements, in harmony with the landscapes through which they pass.

Historical context

Human settlement in this region of the Alps certainly dates back to the Neolithic period. The Bronze Age was an important settlement stage, and was linked to the presence of mines. Communities were then present in the Upper Engadin. Transalpine routes existed for commercial exchanges, which continued in the Iron Age, between the Etruscans and the Celts, and then after the Roman conquest (15 BCE).

In the Middle Ages, the transalpine route was an important element of identity for mountain-dwelling communities, who participated in transport across the passes and who were in charge of maintenance, in return for toll charges.

In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the control of the future Canton Graubünden (Dreï Buden) extended over the two passes of Albula and Bernina, particularly from the Veltin valley to the south-east of the Bernina pass. However, the Albula/Bernina route was not one of the main Roman roads, and it is first mentioned in the High Middle Ages, in connection with the mines. Other transalpine routes then existed to link the Upper Engadin to the lower valleys.

The Albula/Bernina road did not really exist until the 16th century, in connection with the French post, to maintain a safe route between Paris and Venice. The construction of roads across the Alps, in the modern sense of carriageway with even slopes and crossings made safe by engineering works, appeared at the start of the 19th century, subsequent to the Italian campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte, including in particular the Saint- Bernard pass in Switzerland (completed in 1820). The Bernina pass road was completed in 1842 and the Albula pass road in 1866. A veritable staging post was built in 1871 (Ospizia Bernina).

The first hotel was built at Saint-Moritz in 1857 and in the same year another at Lake Poschiavo, directly linked to the road. Summer tourism then developed, providing new leisure activities for the aristocracy and the upper middle class, particularly under the influence of the British elites. There were four 'Grand Hotels' at Saint- Moritz in 1900. The necessity of increased and more regular transport services, particularly in winter, became a prerequisite for the economic future of the mountaindwellers and the development of a promising tourism activity.

The creation of a steam traction branch line to connect the metre-gauge network already existing in the Canton Graubünden in the Upper Engadin was considered during the 1890s, departing from Thusis via a tunnel under the Albula pass. Significant economic and cultural stakes were involved, for the future of this mountainous region and for the cultural and linguistic cohesion of the Canton Graubünden. The construction of the railway began in 1898, and it was opened in 1904, under the responsibility of the Rhaetian Railway, under the control of the canton. The upper valleys were then linked to each other by a veritable regional metre-gauge network, of which the nominated property forms the most spectacular part. It joins up with the canton capital Chur, where it is connected to the general standard-gauge Swiss railway network.

The rapidly growing levels of traffic were initially handled by steam traction, particular thanks to the excellent mountain steam engines of the world-renowned Swiss manufacturer Anatole Mallet. The efficiency of electric traction had however demonstrated its value in the mountains by 1900-1910, in both Switzerland and elsewhere. A single-phase AC electrification programme was drawn up for the Albula line in 1913, and was implemented in 1919.

The Bernina pass railway was planned slightly later than the Albula pass line, but it is based on different technical conceptions (see Description of Property) and it was built by another company. They use the same gauge, but the power cars and the trains were not compatible at the time: DC for one and steam followed by AC for the other, while radii of curvature and vehicle gauge are smaller on the Bernina line.

As a result of the economic difficulties resulting from World War Two, the Bernina line came under the control of Rhaetian Railway in 1944. The DC power supply was then raised from 750V to 1000V; the gauge was widened; then, recently, power cars and trains capable of operating on both electrical systems were introduced, belatedly bestowing a genuinely transalpine function on the two historic lines. Further gauge widening is under way, resulting in changes to engineering structures (See Section 3 - Authenticity).

The opening of the railway lines accompanied and supported a remarkable increase in tourist activity, particularly in the development of winter sports, of which Saint-Moritz may be considered one of the great founding sites.

A second hotel boom took place in the period preceding World War One.

The remarkable role played by the region of Saint-Moritz in the creation and development of winter sports was recognised when the first Winter Olympic games were held there in 1928, and subsequently in 1948.

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