vol 9, issue 2

Diccon Bewes: 'Slow Train to Switzerland'

10 February 2014
By Nick Smith
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Diccon Bewes

‘Switzerland came late to the idea of trains, but has made up for that’ Diccon Bewes

Early Swiss railway

Early Swiss rail travel was popular but not particularly pleasant

Slow Train to Switzerland cover

We read it for you, Slow Train to Switzerland

The Swiss rail network's reputation for efficiency and punctuality owes much to British engineering. We talk to Diccon Bewes, whose book 'Slow Train to Switzerland' explains why.

We like to think of the British as the great railway builders of the Victorian era, yet while rail networks were being cast over the United Kingdom and its Empire, a quiet revolution was taking place in a tiny landlocked country in the middle of continental Europe. 'Slow Train to Switzerland' is Diccon Bewes' fascinating account of how, with a little help from British engineers, the country we now think of as famous for chocolate, watches and cuckoo clocks, developed its reputation for efficiency and punctuality with trains that ran like clockwork.

But does this reputation have any basis in fact? To trace the roots of such a well-entrenched national stereotype we need to travel back a century and a half to a time when Switzerland, far from being the prosperous by-word for luxury goods that it is today, was a mountainous backwater that relied on agriculture in order to eke out a living. Bewes maintains that while the Industrial Revolution was in full swing elsewhere, in Switzerland the trains definitely didn't always run on time.

Part of the problem was simply that of geography. Trains work at their best when they run in straight lines along flat, smooth surfaces, or at least very modest inclines. This doesn't describe most of the topography of Switzerland, leaving the question of how much of an engineering challenge it was to lay down the Swiss rail network.

According to Bewes, "it was a huge challenge geographically. But, also politically and economically. What would be considered mountains in the UK are mere hills in Switzerland, while outside the Alps the rest of the country has few flat stretches of land. That was one reason why in 1847 there was only one train line in Switzerland [25km from Zurich to Baden]". You can't just blame the terrain: Switzerland's decentralised administration and its comparative poverty meant that building a structured network was something of a non-starter.

But, says Bewes, once these problems had been addressed and the rail building started, there was no stopping it. "Switzerland came late to the idea of trains, but has made up for that." Today, it can boast the world's most used network, and probably the most punctual one. Within three decades the Swiss had become experts, building Europe's first mountain train at Rigi in 1871, followed by the famous Gotthard Tunnel in 1882. "In fact, the Swiss provided the technological expertise for the railway up Mount Snowdon in 1894. Quite a turnaround."

In 1850 Switzerland was recovering from a short civil war and had a new federal government. But it had no train network to speak of, prompting the Swiss government to draw up a plan for a national network. To do so they called in the experts, and in those days that meant the British, in particular Robert Stephenson, son of 'Rocket' man George. Stephenson came to Switzerland with Henry Swinburne and mapped out the network, creating a giant cross of two main railway lines (although he couldn't foresee being able to go over or under the Alps). The lines crossed at Olten and even today there is a 0 marker on Platform 12 in Olten station, showing that it was once the centre point of the whole Swiss network. That's also why Swiss trains run on the left as in Britain, not on the right as in Germany.

After the initial planning phase, the Swiss government left it up to the cantons and private companies to build the lines. But the final result was very similar to Stephenson's plan. And he wasn't the only British man involved: Thomas Brassey was the engineer for the first Swiss rail tunnel, opened in 1858 at Hauenstein near Basel.

Brave new world

Until the advent of a meaningful continental rail network, to go abroad you needed both time and money, which meant that you had to be of the leisured classes. In the days of the so-called Grand Tour it might take you a fortnight of backbreaking coach travel simply to get to Switzerland from England. The Grand Tour was vital to every wealthy gentleman's education and had been made wildly popular among the aristocracy by the writings of romantic poets such as Byron and Shelley, as well as the author Laurence Sterne. The enterprise usually involved being abroad for months, often extending the journey to a season at one of the great Renaissance Italian cities. But with the new rail network it was possible for Mr & Mrs Smith from Surrey to see the Alps, buy a watch, visit Lucerne and be back at work in two weeks.

The potential to make money from the technological breakthrough was not lost on the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook. "He made a new type of tourism possible," says Bewes. "That was partly due to the new train technology, but also thanks to his ability to secure group discounts for tickets. He also took the hassle out of travelling abroad, creating hotel vouchers, travellers' cheques and circular tickets (a bit like an InterRail pass)." In effect, Cook had opened up foreign travel to the new middle classes of doctors, lawyers and bankers, who could now consider a trip abroad for the first time. Travel became comfortable and accessible, with the idea of a foreign holiday established as the norm. The era of the modern travel industry, as we know it, was born.

One of the most interesting aspects of 'Slow Train to Switzerland' is that Bewes recreates Cook's original itinerary. "One of the participants in that first tour was a lady called Miss Jemima Morrell, who wrote a diary of her journey." With that book in hand, Bewes set off along the same route to see how continental train travel has changed in the last 150 years. "Today it is more comfortable - with toilets on the trains - and I could do nearly the whole route by train, whereas she often had to walk or ride on a mule. But the scenery is still as beautiful as 150 years ago."

Bewes says that the most pronounced changes though are in terms of tourism and Switzerland itself. "The Swiss went from being one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the richest, and travel simply got faster. For Miss Jemima, her trip was a whistle-stop tour with new technology. For me it was slow travel."

'Slow Train to Switzerland' by Diccon Bewes is published by Nicholas Brealey, £18.99

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We read it for you: Slow Train to Switzerland

'Slow Train to Switzerland' retraces commercial travel pioneer Thomas Cook's first conducted tour of Switzerland in 1863. This was the dawn of the age of tourism when trains made foreign holidays for people other than the aristocracy possible. Thomas Cook opened up continental Europe to the British middle classes. Using contemporary sources from early Victorian travellers, author Diccon Bewes sets off along the same route to see how much has changed in the past 150 years (and how much hasn't), as well as taking the chance to document train travel as it had been in the old days. The technological revolution in rail engineering also produced cultural changes:' holidays abroad and the democratisation of travel. It also helped launch the modern travel industry and started Switzerland on the road to prosperity. Fascinating stuff.

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