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Jungfrau Railway: Rocky road to the project of the century

The construction of the Jungfrau Railway is a pioneering project in the development of the Alps. It is accompanied by setbacks and dramas, yet it overcomes every obstacles in the end. Step by step, the visionaries fought their way, first through Eiger and Mönch, then on to Jungfraujoch.

Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau have long fascinated poets, painters and scholars. The first ascents triggered the desire to build railways through the triple peaks. This desire became a reality at the end of the 19th century. Numerous mountain railways were constructed during Switzerland's rampant "mountain railway fever". The culmination of this wave of construction is the Jungfrau Railway. The construction of the project of the century has been safely transporting passengers since 1912 on the same route to Jungfraujoch, the platform with the most beautiful lookout and adventure platform in the Alps.

Rivalry of engineers

The conquest of the Alps via railway inspired numerous engineers, politicians and entrepreneurs. As early as 1869, the restless hotelier and transport politician from Interlaken, Friedrich Seiler, planned a pneumatic railway from Lauterbrunnen all the way to Rottal at the foot of the Jungfrau. A secure mountain trail starting there was to lead to the peak of the Jungfrau. 20 years later, three simultaneously launched projects aroused controversy. They all saw Lauterbrunnental as the point of origin. The engineer Maurice Koechlin wanted to reach the peak of the Jungfrau with a staggered five-section railway and build a rock hotel. His colleague Alexander Trautweiler, from Aargau, wanted to place four independent cable cars in tunnels. And in the third project, Zurich native Eduard Locher wanted to convey carriages of 20 metres in length with compressed air in two straight tunnel sections directly to the peak. None of the projects was realised, however.

Hiking with vision

Sunday, 27 August 1893. The 54-year-old Swiss entrepreneur Adolf Guyer-Zeller is hiking above Mürren with his daughter. His gaze sweeps over Lauterbrunnental to Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau when he sees the train travelling on the brand new Wengernalp Railway in the direction of Kleine Scheidegg. All of a sudden it occurs to him. At that moment, he makes the decision to build a railway from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfrau. In room 42 of the Mürren spa hotel that night, he sketches the layout of the future Jungfrau Railway on a sheet of paper. The ingenious thing about it: his railway does not start in Lauterbrunnen but at Kulm Station on the Wengernalp Railway on Kleine Scheidegg, 2,064 metres  above  sea-level.

From idea to execution

Barely four months after his summer hike, Guyer-Zeller submits a licence application to the Federal Council. From the start, his Jungfrau Railway is planned as an electrically operated cog railway, which initially has an aerial route and runs through a tunnel at the Eiger glacier. The railway is to stop at three stations there, each of which has its own unique charm from its particular view. Guyer-Zeller not only proves himself to be a visionary railway businessman, but also a clever entrepreneur and marketer. Every station is a tourist destination of its own and allows the railway to be opened in stages. While the section in front is being built, tourists are already enjoying fantastic views on the section behind it. For the last stretch from the end of the railway to the peak of the Jungfrau, a mere 100-metre-long lift is planned. On 21 December 1894, Guyer-Zeller receives the construction licence and voluntarily pledges to help finance an observatory on Mönch or Jungfrau.

Railway construction with manual labour

On 27 July 1896, the time has come: the ground is broken and the construction of the Jungfrau Railway begins. The work initially concentrates on the open route between Kleine Scheidegg and the Eiger glacier. A stretch that demands many construction workers, mostly from Italy: there are no machines. Shovel, pick and muscle power are the only work equipment. What's more, the steam railway on Kleine Scheidegg does not operate in winter. To ensure provision in winter, a colony of huskies is therefore kept on the Eiger glacier for transport between Wengen and the railway construction site. After a good two years, the first part of the route goes into operation in September 1898. Guyer-Zeller doesn't cut any corners: he invites 450 well-to-do guests to a grand opening ceremony with a festival especially for the occasion. It's not without a hidden agenda, as Guyer-Zeller needs investors. This works out well. Within 18 months, 4,000 shares are subscribed.

Power station for the railway

In order to operate the first section of the route from Kleine Scheidegg to Eiger glacier as planned, the cog railway needs power. Part of the construction project therefore includes the building of power stations in Lauterbrunnen and Burglauenen near Grindelwald. In autumn 1896, the construction of the plant begins in Lauterbrunnen. The first priority is the power lines to Kleine Scheidegg. The power is transferred to the individual stations, where transformers generate the required voltage for operation.

Colony at Eiger glacier

The Eiger glacier station, from which the tunnel construction is carried out, develops into a colony: a large station building with a restaurant, a grocery shop with winter stocks for seven to eight months, four large, electrically heated and lighted houses for officials and workers, workshops, an engine shed, a transformer station, powder stores, an ample sick room... An oven delivers fresh bread daily. In winter, the community obtains water from the snow. In summer, pipes conduct melt-water in the tunnel to the houses.

Rotstock: stopover with a view

While Guyer-Zeller is doing everything to ensure the financing of what he had once called the "memorable keystone of the development of the rail-road", the workers drive the tunnel construction forward, now with somewhat improved equipment. The next objective is the first tunnel station, Rotstock, which is to go into operation after less than one year of construction. An artificially laid rock trail invites travellers to board at Rotstock, with its amazing vistas. It offers "a beautiful view to the North over the Lauberhorn far over the many lakes of the midland and the Jura mountain chain", gushes the travel brochure of 1903. Today, a 260-metre fixed-rope route with the ambience of the North wall provide the early 20th century experience.

Centre of the North Wall of the Eiger

Guyer-Zeller's death in April 1899 and financial difficulties put the brakes on the further construction of the Jungfrau Railway. The Eigerwand station is only inaugurated in summer 1903, offering travellers a view across the chasm from the middle of the famous Eiger North Wall. In between lies the Stollenloch, which enables the disposal of loosened rocks. 

Eismeer (Sea of Ice): glittering alpine world

From the Eigerwand station, the tunnel bends towards the South side of the Eiger and reaches the Eismeer station at a height of 3,160 metres. It is used from 25 July 1905 as a temporary final station and is managed accordingly. In addition to a waiting room and restaurant, the station also provides bedrooms for tourists. A special highlight is the main room, with its window-like balcony openings. They make a previously hidden glittering world of ice and snow accessible to the growing number of tourists. A short set of stairs brings you to the Grindelwald-Fiescher Glacier, which is riven by fissures. This is, according to the promoters, "created as a racecourse for skiers, dog-sled runners, mainly for all kinds of snow sports". Touring skiers actually start here for the legendary Eismeer ski runs down to Grindelwald.

Conditions as hard as rock

After the opening of Eismeer station, the construction of the Jungfrau Railway runs into difficulties. There ia a lack of money. Not least because the construction management changes Guyer-Zeller's original plans and, instead of the Jungfrau summit, plans the Jungfraujoch as an end station at 3,454 metres above sea-level. Despite this change to the plans, the construction does not go so well. The rock provides more resistance than expected; in summer, the profitable passenger transport has priority and, in winter, the water used to produce the power for the railway and machines in the valley runs dry every now and again. In addition, the working conditions wear out the workers, causing a high turnover of staff and leading to worker conflicts. The workers strike six times, the construction management changes eight times and 30 construction workers pay with their lives, usually due to blasting accidents. The employers attempt various measures to create a better mood, for example with a guaranteed bottle of red wine per worker per day.

Triumph: Top of Europe

Despite all the adversity, the breakthrough occurs on 21 February 1912 - the Jungfraujoch is reached. "A grand work, a triumph of modern engineering is consecrated," cheers the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" newspaper. Only five months later, 16 years after the start of construction, the first festively decorated train, laden with tourists, travels up the 9.3 kilometre route. On the Jungfrau plateau, the company celebrates the amazing work in the company of splendid scenery and a no less spectacular view. Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe, the high point of all high-altitude mountain trips, is born.