Glacier Express crashes near Brig

July 23, 2010, 3 Comments

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Just last week, after my trip to the Aletsch glacier, I was standing in Mörel station watching the sleek panorama cars of the Glacier Express rumble past towards Fiesch. It was packed, as it is most days in the summer, because this is justifiably one of Switzerland’s most popular train rides, with over 250,000 passengers a year. Quite a shock then to sit down to watch the evening news on SF1 today and discover that one of the trains had derailed, killing one person and injuring 42 others, mostly Japanese tourists. Things like that don’t normally happen in Switzerland, where trains rarely run late let alone off the rails.

The Glacier Express line recently celebrated its 80th birthday, but it’s no fusty musty old train ride. Even in second class, you get to sit in a swish modern carriage with huge windows and a glass roof – perfect for admiring the passing scenery – and can eat your lunch served at your seat. I love this train ride, not least because its actually not that fast, despite its name. In fact, I love it so much that it featured in the first chapter of Swiss Watching:

“The thing about the Glacier Express is not its 291 bridges or 91 tunnels, or even the fact that it runs all year round despite the snow. It’s that nowhere along its route is particularly big enough to warrant building such a line. The two largest towns, Brig and Chur, are connected to the rail network by mainline routes, meaning that the Express serves a few villages along the way, and tourists wanting the experience. And that’s the crucial part. Regular trains run along the same route, stopping at every hamlet, but it’s the tourist trains which make the line feasible. In high season, you have to reserve well in advance to get a seat, and there’s no standing allowed (not that you’d want to for 7½ hours).

“From the base of the Matterhorn at Zermatt the train chugs down to the Rhone valley, which is flat enough for it to practically race along to Brig. Then it’s up and over the Oberalp Pass – cue splendid craggy peaks softened by lush green meadows, or in winter a white wonderland – before dropping again to the Rhine gorge. It’s perhaps only on the last part of this epic train ride that you really notice the engineering involved. To manage the climb from Chur up to glitzy St Moritz, the line has to repeatedly curl round on itself, going up through loop tunnels blasted in the rock. To cross the ravines, it uses towering arched viaducts sitting on stone stilts, and bridges that seem to hang on thin air. All quite enough to give you sweaty hands if you look down at the tumbling waters below.”

Nine helicopters, 11 ambulances, 180 emergency service personnel – a big rescue operation made more difficult by the location and lack of road access. The line remains closed but the accident investigation has already begun. On the evening news they speculated it was possibly caused by rails being affected by the sudden air temperature change. We’ve had day after day over 30c, right up until yesterday, then a cold front swept in and the mercury dropped over ten degrees today. By the late news, this had been ruled out. Whatever the reason, I have no doubt that a normal service will resume soon. Swiss trains, unlike Star Wars sequels and new John Grisham novels, live up to their reputation: they are clean, comfortable, punctual and expensive. And safe.

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3 Comments on "Glacier Express crashes near Brig"

  1. Janie Saturday July 24th, 2010 at 07:05 PM · Reply

    I always find your blog interesting and fun to read. I have been disappointed with the book stores in my area as they do not carry your book. I could order it but that means it is not on the shelf for people to see and buy. I thought you would like to know and maybe do something. The story is Barnes & Noble and it is a chain through out the east and maybe all over the states. I hope you can get your book in these stores.
    I live in Charleston, SC if you need that information as to the location of the store.

    • swisswatching Saturday July 24th, 2010 at 08:42 PM · Reply

      Hi Janie. Thanks for the info, but I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it. Barnes & Noble have it in their online shop, bt I think they have central buyers for the real shops. Maybe you could ask in your local B&N if they can order it? Or go to an independent bookstore and they could probably order it for you? It’s certainly available in the States. I’ll send an email to my publisher’s US office and seeif they can do something about B&N

  2. swisswatching Monday July 26th, 2010 at 03:23 PM · Reply

    The Glacier Express and the normal train line from Brig to Andermatt are now both back in operation.

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