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Swiss Rail: On track for 150 years

The song of the rails has been heard in Switzerland for 150 years. Humming along to the cadence first of steam and then of electricity and diesel, trains have in many ways helped to define and develop the character of the country. They have provided access to high mountain valleys, allowed connections with the outside and accelerated economic development in ways almost impossible to measure. Trains have taken out exported goods and brought in tourists.

In addition to the sleek Intercity lines that connect Switzerland with all the larger cities in surrounding countries, more than 500 cogwheel and funicular railways take people up and down the mountains that are so much a part of the country. Every year Swiss rail transports 250 million passengers. Each day, all the trains combined cover a distance equal to eight times the circumference of the globe. More than 800 stations dot the country; there are 265 tunnels and 5,351 railway bridges.So, it is no surprise that the Swiss rail system is considered one of the best in the world, both for how it runs and for the scenery it passes through. The Swiss have made rail travel an art; trains are clean and attractive and run on time. Many of them run on tracks so smooth it's hard to believe they were laid down at the turn of the century. And they go everywhere; where there is a road, there is almost always a rail line.

Variety abounds. Whether your tastes run to classic, pop, country or folk; whether you like day trips, longer excursions, quick runs up the mountain, a glance at the past or just a graceful way to get from one place to another, Switzerland is playing your song.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad"

A good place to catch the scope and dimension of Swiss Rail both past and present is the Museum of Communication and Transport located on the shores of Lake Lucerne.

In addition to an IMAX theater and displays on space, television, ships and cars, three halls are devoted to rail travel.

There are trains of all description, from the old-fashioned to the ultra-modern. A model of the northern ramp of the Gotthard railway from Erstfeld to Naxberg exactly replicates the landscape, architecture and trains of the line and is a model-train buff's delight.

Of special interest is a trip into the construction of the famous Gotthard Tunnel. Visitors board a tunnel railway that takes you on a simulated journey into the heart of the mountain. Water penetrates the walls, which seem about to collapse. Laborers toil; machinery drones and visitors learn about the technical, financial and organizational work that went into the making of the tunnel, which is considered one of the world's greatest engineering feats.

For those with a more modern bent, a simulator takes you on a realistic ride in the driver's cab of a 2000 locomotive. Similar to those used to teach the engineers, the simulator shows the highly refined equipment, control and safety technology that goes into today's trains.

Either way, the museum serves up marvels.

"Life Is Like a Mountain Railway"

Rigi Kulm is one of the most spectacularly shaped mountains in the heart of Switzerland. Heavily wooded areas on the lower stretches give way to high alpine meadows filled with fat, yellow buttercups and Swiss Brown cows. On top there is a view of Lake Lucerne on one side and lakes Zug and Lauress on the other. "The Queen of mountains," it has been called. And at 5,900 feet Rigi seems high but not out of reach.

The first tourists - at least, the wealthy ones - went up Rigi Kulm by sedan chair. A man named Niklaus Riggenbach was the first to come up with the idea of a railway. "I want to take everyone up into the mountains, so they can enjoy the beauty of our glorious country," he wrote in the mid-1800s. Nice idea, said everyone, but you're not quite sane if you think it can be done. Riggenbach knew a regular railway line wouldn't work, but that didn't stop him. He patented his cog-wheel invention in 1863; the line from Vitznau opened in 1870 - and more than 60,000 passengers rode it that first year. A second line from Arth Goldeau opened in 1875.

Today the Rigi Bahn enjoys an international reputation as a premier cogwheel - or rack rail, as they are sometimes called - excursion. From Lucerne to Arth Goldeau there's a short trip by regular rail. Then you change to the cogwheel train. Most times, you ride in a sleek, modern train car (the line was electrified in 1937) that zips you to the top.

But in honor of the 150th anniversary of rail travel, two steam trains were pressed into service this year so riders could see how it was in the olden days. And it was mighty pleasant even then. The slower pace means plenty of time to watch the hills and valleys slip gracefully down and away. There is a stop to take on more water, and another to change engines for the final assault of the summit. It's not the smoothest ride, perhaps, but one of the most fun.

On top, there are a couple of hotels and restaurants, hiking trails in abundance, glorious views and no cars.

For variety's sake, you can take the return train to Vitznau, which has been a resort area on the shore of Lake Lucerne ever since pilgrims began coming there to be cured of their ailments in the 17th century. With domed churches and flower-lined shops, it still has a lot of charm. And from Vitznau you can catch one of the restored paddle steamers for another scenic ride back to Lucerne.

"The William Tell Overture"

William Tell (the archer with the most famous apple since Eve) lends his name to an excursion that connects two of the country's most attractive regions: German-speaking Central Switzerland and the Italian-flavored Ticino area.

The William Tell Express begins in Lucerne aboard a paddle-steamer that takes you the length of the lake to Fluelen. The 31/2-hour ride takes you past secluded bays and picturesque villages, by historic landmarks and across shimmering waters.

At Fluelen you board panoramic (in first class) railroad cars that continue the journey through the impressive Reuss Valley, with its deep ravines and precipitous cliffs. Spirals, horseshoe tunnels, bridges and the world-famous Gotthard Tunnel are a continuous reminder of the remarkable engineering of the line. Just before the tunnel, part of the fun is watching for the Wassen church. You start out down, looking up. Next, you are almost eye-to-eye; finally there's a bird's-eye view from the top looking down, as the spiraling tracks finally reach the altitude needed for the tunnel.

The tunnel itself was no slouchy engineering job, blasted and chipped through the solid heart of the mountain at a time when labor may have been cheap but nothing was easy.

After the 10-minute tunnel passage, the train emerges on the Ticino side, where cantilevered bridges and charming villages have a marked Italian flair.

The William Tell Express ends at Bellinzona. From there you can choose to go on to either Locarno or Lugano for a more in-depth look at the Swiss-Italian culture. The good news is that you can't go wrong either way.

"Down in the Valley"

One of the best ways to leave Locarno is by the excursion train that takes you to Domodossola through the Centovalli.

This place of a "hundred valleys" formed by the spurs of mountains on both sides offers an abundance of what one author termed the "beauties of peculiarities and charms of strangeness."

And the best way to see it is by train, which often goes where no car could, winding around, over and through the velvet forested ravines. The train leaves the station early in the morning, when clouds are still keeping company with the mountain tops. The slow pace allows you to savor the breathtaking views that open up around every bend. The track runs at a level about halfway up the mountains, allowing a dramatic look at the small villages and quaint churches down in the valley.

The trip takes about an hour and a half, which goes by much too quickly. A stop at the border allows Italian passport officials to come on and check things out. Otherwise, it would be hard to tell you've crossed into Italy; landscape, language, signs are all pretty much the same on either side.

At Domodossola, you switch to a train for Brig; and at Brig you are back in the middle of the Swiss rail system. This was, after all, only a shortcut.

"I Will Always Love You"

When Switzerland held a weekend train exposition in honor of the 150th anniversary, roughly 200,000 people of all ages and from all over the country flocked to the switching yards at Lonay for a chance to see some of the old engines and some of the new ones. Children played on the tracks and scrambled into the cars. Old-timers reminisced. Former and current railroad employees compared notes as locomotive after locomotive made the circle around the yards.

Why is it that the song of the rails is so often a love song? What is it about trains that catches our fancy so deeply?

There's the nostalgia - we see in trains all the finer things of yesteryear. And the mechanics - we marvel at what these massive hunks of iron and steel can be taught to do. And there's something about the pace and flow of the travel - fewer hassles than driving, better scenery than flying - that appeals to our bodies and our souls.

The combination of all these things confirms the truth of the old Taoist philosophy: The journey is the reward. And nowhere is that confirmation any stronger than on the racks and rails of Switzerland.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

For information

Call Switzerland Tourism at 310-640-8900, send a written request to Switzerland Tourism, 222 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 1570, El Segundo, CA 90245-4300, fax 310-335-5982, or consult the Web at (http://www.switzer landtourism.com).