December 16, 2013

Mt Pilatus Train Climb in the Swiss Alps


David Ellis


WHEN Swiss engineer Eduard Locher revealed he'd got the government's OK to build a railway from the shores of Lake Lucerne to the summit of the 2200m high Mount Pilatus in the centre of the craggy Swiss Alps, folks decided that either the government was mad, Mr Locher was mad – or they both were mad.


It was the 1880s, and while rail was the newest craze in driving the equally-newest craze of mass tourism, steam trains simply couldn't climb gradients steeper than six degrees… although in America a new-fangled invention called a cogwheel railway actually climbed at an incredible 37-degrees up Mount Washington.


But Mr Locher's railway would need to climb Mt Pilatus at an even steeper rate than this: his would need rise at an extraordinary 48-degrees.


And to achieve it he would have to re-think what the Americans had done with their cogwheel, which relied on the driving cogs of the engine engaging a "rack" of teeth cut vertically into the rails… and which Mr Locher feared at 48-degrees could simply pop out with calamitous runaway results.


After much experimentation, he ultimately came up with a wheel-and-cog arrangement that had horizontal teeth rather than vertical ones, engaging into both sides of a centre rail that made it impossible for the driving cogs to disengage while either climbing up or braking down Mt Pilatus.


But although the government had given him permission to build his railway, when he asked for a tax-payer-funded subsidiary to get his cogwheel railway on track, so to speak, he got a very firm "No." Undaunted he went to private investors who willingly gave him the money – again much to most peoples' dismay – and in June 1889, three years after starting work with 800 construction workers, the Mount Pilatus Cogwheel Railway carried its first passengers up into the Swiss Alps.


To this day it is still privately operated, has never suffered a financial loss and is still the world's steepest cogwheel railway.


The first Mt Pilatus trains were steam powered, but this was changed to electric traction  in 1937, and today ten little red railcars that each carries forty passengers, take 30-minutes to ascend the 4.6km long track from Alpnachstad on Lake Lucerne, to Pilatus' summit… compared with 1hr 20m for the original steam-drawn carriages.


The view from here, 2132m above sea-level, is breathtaking – if it's not clouded-in or fogged-over – and if you've ever wanted to do a Julie Andrews and start hollering The Hills Are Alive, this is the place to do it. Visitors gaze down from viewing platforms and picnic tables, or from two hotels on this eagles' eyrie, to Lake Lucerne and its fringing postcard-pretty villages below, fields of wild flowers in spring and summer, babbly mountain streams, the city of Lucerne itself, myriad crystal blue lakes… and in one direction, no less than seventy-three mountain peaks in a row.


There's a rope suspension-bridge playground, and the tens of thousands who ascend the mountain each year by the cogwheel train, Aerial Gondolas that went into service in 1954 and an Aerial Cableway that opened in 1956, can also rock-climb, cycle narrow trails, marvel at the nimble-footed Ibex and wonder how these mountain goats don't tumble off their lofty and often wet and icy perches, and ride sledges or toboggans over lengthy mountain runs.


But most just sit and take in the views, or dine in the hotels' restaurants and cafés…  opting for traditional Swiss cheese fondues and local specialties such as roast pork stuffed with prunes, crème caramel with whipped cream… and to sip on local Swiss wines before going back down to Lake Lucerne.


The Hotel Pilatus-Kulm (Pilatus Summit) opened with 28 rooms in 1890 and the Hotel Bellevue with 27 rooms in 1960. Each boasts extraordinary sunsets followed by the sight of Lucerne and its surrounds lighting up in the evening, and stunning sunrises from guest rooms that truly will have you wanting to do that Julie Andrews impersonation…


The Mt Pilatus Cogwheel Railway operates from May to November, and the Aerial Cableway and Gondola year-round, with both hotels on the summit open year-round as well.


GETTING THERE: See travel agents about getting to Lucerne and journeying up Mt Pilatus by cogwheel train, the Aerial Gondola or Cableway, or visit






1.YOU wouldn't want a fear of heights riding the Mt Pilatus Cogwheel Railway.

2. ROOMS with a view: the Hotel Pilatus-Kulm looks down on Lucerne from 2132m

    above sea-level.

3. THERE'S also a Cable-car ride to the top of the mountain.

4. OR even an Aerial Gondola…with equal wow factor.

5. SURE-footed Ibex amaze tourists with their agility on the rocky and often wet and icy



(All images: Mt Pilatus Cogwheel Railway)




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