Gotthard railway

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Gotthard railway
Gotthardbahn map.png
Map of the Gotthard railway
Locale Switzerland
Termini Immensee, Schwyz
Chiasso, Ticino
Opened June 1, 1882
Owner Swiss Federal Railways
Line length 206 km (128 mi) (Immensee-Chiasso)
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Electrification 15 kV 16 23 Hz AC supplied by overhead line
Highest elevation 1,151 m (3,776 ft)
Maximum incline 2.7%[1]
Longitudinal profile of Gotthardbahn incl. branchlines.[2]

The Gotthard railway (German: Gotthardbahn; Italian: Ferrovia del Gottardo) is the Swiss trans-alpine railway line from northern Switzerland to the canton of Ticino. The line forms a major part of an important international railway link between northern and southern Europe, especially on the Rotterdam-Basel-Genoa corridor. The Gotthard Railway Company (German: Gotthardbahn-Gesellschaft) was the former private railway company which financed the construction of, and originally operated, that line.

The railway comprises a main line from Immensee to Chiasso, together with branches, from Immensee to Lucerne and Rotkreuz, from Arth-Goldau to Zug, and from Bellinzona to Locarno and Luino. The main line, second highest standard railway in Switzerland, penetrates the Alps by means of the Gotthard Tunnel at 1,151 metres (3,776 ft) above sea level. The line then descends as far as Bellinzona, at 241 metres (791 ft) above sea level, before climbing again to the pass of Monte Ceneri, on the way to Lugano and Chiasso. The extreme differences in altitude necessitate the use of long ramped approaches on each side, together with several spirals.

Construction of the line started in 1872, with some lowland sections opening by 1874. The full line opened in 1882, following completion of the Gotthard Tunnel. The line was incorporated into the Swiss Federal Railways in 1909, and electrified in 1922.

The approaches to the existing tunnel continue to restrict speed and capacity on this important international route, and in 1996 it was decided to build a new lower level route on the Gotthard axis as part of the NRLA project. This route involves the construction of the new Gotthard Base Tunnel and Ceneri Base Tunnel, and it will be integrated with the existing route once completed, with some sections of the two routes in common.


Contemporary drawing showing a construction locomotive
Lower Ticino Bridge during construction phase, with its original single beam truss structure.[3]
Opening celebrations at Bellinzona
A 1984 photograph, showing the original overhead electrification gantries, along with a pair of Re 4 4 III locomotives


By the early years of the 1870s, northern Switzerland possessed a significant network of railways, with links to the adjoining railways of Germany and France. To the west, a line had reached Brigue, in the upper Rhone valley, from Lausanne. In the centre north, lines linked Olten, Lucerne, Zug and Zurich. However no line had yet reached through the Alps to southern Switzerland or the border with Italy, and all north to south rail traffic had to pass either to the west or east of Switzerland, through the Mont-Cenis, Semmering or Brenner railways.[4]

A north-south route through Switzerland had been discussed as far back as 1848, and an international conference in Berne in 1869 had decided that the best route would be via the valleys of the Reuss and Ticino rivers, linked by a tunnel under the Gotthard Pass. The selected route was an ancient one, that had been used by pilgrims and traders since at least the 13th century.[4][5]

Treaties for the construction of the line were made with the Kingdom of Italy, in 1869, and the German Empire, in 1871. The Gotthard Railway Company was incorporated in Lucerne in 1871. The Italian government eventually contributed £2.25 million, with Switzerland and Germany each contributing £1.25 million.[4]

Construction and opening[edit]

Construction of the Gotthard railway started in 1872, and the first lowland sections from Biasca to Locarno and Lugano to Chiasso were opened by 1874.

The whole line was inaugurated with festivities in Lucerne and Chiasso from 21 May to 25 May 1882. Scheduled operation started on 1 June. At the time, the 15,003-metre-long (49,222 ft) Gotthard Rail Tunnel was the world's longest rail tunnel (seconded by the Simplon Tunnel in 1906). Soon after construction, the line was secured by the army with fortresses (for instance above Airolo and at Biasca) and ways to block the tunnel in case of an invasion (among others an artificial landslide to block the southern tunnel entrance).

At the same time the Aargauische Südbahn completed the section from Rotkreuz to Immensee,[citation needed] which provided a rail link from Aarau. The additional feeder lines from Lucerne to Immensee, and from Zug to Arth-Goldau were completed in 1887.

Swiss Federal Railways[edit]

The Gotthard Railway Company worked the Gotthard railway until 1909, when it became part of the Swiss Federal Railways. This was seven years after the creation of that state owned railway, and the Gotthard railway was the last major railway to be absorbed. In 1922, the whole line was electrified by Brown, Boveri & Cie with 15 kV 16 23 Hz AC supplied by overhead line.[4]

The mountainous nature of the Gotthard railway has always restricted speed and capacity on this important international route, and various projects have been mooted to resolve this by building lower level routes with much longer tunnels, with the earliest such proposal in 1947. In 1996 it was decided to build a new lower level route on the Gotthard axis as part of the NRLA project, and this project is currently under construction.[6][7]

The approaches to the Gotthard Tunnel are susceptible to rockfalls, regularly leading to closures of the railway line. In the worst such incident in recent times, the Gotthard line was closed to all traffic for almost one month following a rockfall near Gurtnellen on 5 June 2012, which killed one rail worker and injured two others. The closure caused massive disruption of both passenger and international freight traffic.[8][9]


Oil train just after Gurtnellen
Pfaffensprung spiral tunnel and double loop at Wassen on northern ramp.[10]
The Wassen Church in the background below the Upper and Middle Meienreuss Bridges of the Gotthardbahn seen from the Road to the Susten Pass.[11]
Entrance to the Gotthard tunnel from Göschenen station.
Freggio and Prato Spiral Tunnels on the southern ramp.[10]
The Biaschina-Loops (Pianotondo- and Travi spiral tunnels) on the Southramp.[12]
Intermodal train shortly after passing the Biaschina-Loops. The three levels of track can be identified by their associated electrification gantries. The various concrete structures carry roads.

North of Arth-Goldau[edit]

The Lucerne branch of the Gotthard railway commences in Lucerne station, facing the south shore of Lake Lucerne. From here it undertakes a 270 degree turn, heading first south, then west, north and east, as well as crossing the Aar river, to reach the north shore of the lake. From here is continues along the west shore of the Küssnacht arm of the lake to reach Immensee station. Here it meets the Rotkreuz branch, which runs from Rotkreuz to the north.[13]

Immensee station is considered the starting point of the main line of the Gotthard railway, and official distances to all points south are measured from here. From Immensee, the line follows the Lake of Zug to Arth-Goldau station, at an altitude of 510 metres (1,670 ft). Here is joined by the Zug branch of the Gotthard railways, and there is a junction with the Südostbahn route to Rapperswil and Romanshorn. Connection is also made with the Arth-Rigi-Bahn, a rack railway climbing the Rigi mountain.[13]

The Zug branch of the Gotthard railway commences in the city of Zug. It makes a junction, in Zug station, with the Zurich–Lucerne line. The line then follows the east shore of the Lake of Zug to reach Arth-Goldau.[13]

Arth-Goldau - Erstfeld[edit]

From Arth-Goldau, the line then follows the Lauerzer See and passes Schwyz, the capital of the canton of Schwyz, at an altitude of 455 metres (1,493 ft). From Brunnen to Flüelen, the line follows the Lake Lucerne (that part of it is also referred to as Urnersee). In that section, the Axen, the two tracks follow two different routes mainly in tunnel because the second track was built later (up to 1943) and on a straighter route through longer tunnels.[13]

At Flüelen station, the railway makes a connection with the steamer services on Lake Lucerne. Steamers operate a shorter, in distance, but longer, in time, service to the city of Lucerne, serving many other towns and villages along the lake shore. The William Tell Express uses this interchange to provide its tourist oriented boat and rail service between Lucerne and Locarno.[5]

Erstfeld, at an altitude of 472 metres (1,549 ft), is reached via Altdorf. The depot at Erstfeld station houses rolling stock needed for the Gotthard route, i.e. for banking service. A Ce 6/8 "crocodile" serves as a memorial for the legendary Gotthard locomotives.[14]

Northern ramp, Erstfeld - Göschenen[edit]

For the whole of the northern ramp from Erstfeld to Göschenen, the line follows the valley of the Reuss. The track now gets steeper with a gradient of up to 2.7%.[1] After Amsteg the line passes the Chärstelenbach bridge and changes the side of the valley over the Intschireuss bridge, which is, with its 77 metres (253 ft), the highest bridge in the SBB network.[14]

After Gurtnellen, at an altitude of 738 metres (2,421 ft), the first of several railway spirals is encountered; their purpose is mainly to gain height where no space is available. Two of them form the double loop of Wassen, at an altitude of 928 metres (3,045 ft), which allows the famous church of Wassen to be seen three times from different perspectives, first from below and the last time from 200 metres (660 ft) above. The line passes over the Reuss River twice, and the Meienreuss River three times in this section.[14]

After a 1,570-metre-long (5,150 ft) tunnel, the line reaches Göschenen station, at an altitude of 1,106 metres (3,629 ft). Here the Gotthard line meets the Schöllenenbahn, a metre gauge rack operated branch of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn that ascends to Andermatt, where connections can be made over the Oberalppass to Chur or through the Furka Tunnel to Brig.[14]

Gotthard Tunnel[edit]

Immediately after Göschenen station, the Gotthard railway enters the Gotthard Tunnel, a 15,003-metre-long (49,222 ft), double-track tunnel, built as one tube. The highest point of the Gotthard line is within this tunnel, 1,151 metres (3,776 ft) above sea level, which makes it the second highest standard railway in Switzerland, after the Lötschberg railway line, the other main north-south axis in the country. Here the tunnel crosses the border between the canton of Uri and the canton of Ticino, and line passes from the German-speaking part of Switzerland to the Italian-speaking part.[14]

The line exits the tunnel at Airolo, at an altitude of 1,142 metres (3,747 ft) in the valley of the Ticino river, which it follows as far as Bellinzona.[15] Both north and south portals are within a few hundreds metres from those of the Gotthard Road Tunnel.

Southern ramp, Airolo - Bellinzona[edit]

After passing through Airolo station, the line crosses the river Ticino and descends through its valley in the Leventina district. Between Airolo and Biasca the line falls by no less than 849 metres (2,785 ft) in 46 kilometres (29 mi).[15]

At Piotta, the Funicolare del Ritom ascends to the Ritom dam. Beyond Rodi-Fiesso, at an altitude of 942 metres (3,091 ft), the most impressive section of the southern ramp begins. The valley narrows to the Piotta canyon, and the line passes two spirals ("Piottino-Loops") to lose 200 metres (660 ft) in height before reaching Faido. Two more spirals, known as the "Biaschina-Loops", lead the line down to Giornico, at an altitude of 391 metres (1,283 ft).[15]

By the time the line has arrived at Biasca, at an altitude of 293 metres (961 ft), the valley has widened, and the gradient reduced. From Biasca station the line continues to follow the Ticino river as far as Bellinzona, at an altitude of 241 metres (791 ft) and the capital of the canton of Ticino.[15]

Bellinzona - Luino / Locarno[edit]

Just beyond Bellinzona station, a major junction is reached at Giubiasco. Here the original main line branches off what is now considered the main Gotthard line to Lugano and Chiasso.[15][16]

What was originally considered the main line continues down the valley of the Ticino, crossing the Italian border and continuing to meet the Italian railway system at Pino on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore. The line beyond Pino to the Italian town of Luino, although Italian-owned, has always been operated as part of the Swiss system.[17]

At Cadenazzo on the line to Pino, a further branch crosses the Ticino river and runs a short distance down the western shore of Lake Maggiore to a terminus at the Swiss resort town of Locarno. Transfer can be made at Locarno station to the international metre gauge Domodossola–Locarno railway.[17]

Bellinzona - Chiasso[edit]

At Giubiasco, the line from Immensee to Chiasso reaches its lowest point of 230 metres (750 ft) above sea level. From here the line rises again to Monte Ceneri, the pass between the Sopraceneri and the Sottoceneri, and then passes through the two parallel, single-track Monte Ceneri Tunnels. It reaches the highest point on this part of the line, at Rivera-Bironico station, at an altitude of 472 metres (1,549 ft), before descending to Lugano, at an altitude of 335 metres (1,099 ft).[16]

At Lugano station interchange is made with the Lugano–Ponte Tresa railway, a meter gauge railway to the town of Ponte Tresa. Following the western waterside of Lake Lugano, the line arrives at Melide, where the Swissminiatur can be found, which shows Switzerland's best known tourist features at a 1:25 scale. Lake Lugano is crossed using the Melide causeway, a 817-metre-long (2,680 ft) causeway and bridge.[16]

The track follows the eastern waterside from the Melide causeway to Capolago-Riva San Vitale station. Here interchange is made with the Monte Generoso railway, a rack railway to the summit of Monte Generoso. The Gotthard line then continues to Mendrisio and Chiasso. Chiasso station houses the border controls and has a large international marshalling yard. Conventional trains change locomotives here due to different traction voltages and train protection systems in Italy.[16]


A Cisalpino Pendolino on an EC train at Wassen
A TILO train on line S10 alongside Lake Lugano
A preserved "Crocodile" at Erstfeld - 14270 is now protected from weather and will hopefully return as a monument to Zurich Oerlikon, its birthplace.


The Gotthard line carries a mixture of freight and long distance passenger trains over the full length of the line. The long distance passenger trains include EuroCity (EC) trains between Zurich and Milan, and ICN and IR trains between a number of cities in northern Switzerland and various points in Ticino. Passenger trains using the Gotthard line in the past included the Trans Europ Express trains Gottardo, Roland, and Ticino.

Regional commuter rail services also operate on the northern and southern sections of the Gotthard line. To the north, line S2 of the Stadtbahn Zug operates hourly between Zug, Arth-Goldau and Erstfeld, whilst line S3 of the S-Bahn Luzern operates hourly between Luzern, Arth-Goldau and Brunnen.

To the south, the Gotthard line is served by trains on line S10 of the Treni Regionali Ticino Lombardia (TILO), which operate every half-hour between Bellinzona, Lugano and Chiasso, with some trains extending northwards to Airolo and southwards to Milan. The same operator's lines S20 and S30 also operate over the Gotthard railway in the Bellinzona area, before proceeding down the branches to Locarno and Luino respectively, with some S30 trains extended to Milan Malpensa Airport.

Besides trains operated by the Swiss Federal Railways, other railway companies have also been able to run trains on the Gotthard route since the introduction of open access in 2001. Companies that have taken advantage of this include Deutsche Bahn AG, who operate through freight trains from Germany to Italy.

Rolling stock[edit]

Most of the Swiss locomotives were originally constructed for the Gotthard line, so many of them were called "Gotthardlokomotiven", for instance C 5/6 "Elephant", Ce 6/8 and Be 6/8 "Krokodil", Ae 8/14 "Landilok", Ae 6/6, Re 620. Famous trainsets on the Gotthard route are the Trans Europ Express and the Roter Pfeil, as well as the tilting train, Cisalpino Pendolino.

Nowadays passenger trains are mostly pulled by Re 4/4 II (up to two for long trains) and sometimes by Re 460,[citation needed] freight trains by Re 6/6 and Re 4/4 III. Up to 1300 tons may be pulled by an Re 6/6 with an Re 4/4 III This combination is sometimes called a Re 10/10. If the trains are heavier, then any additional locomotives must be used as banking locomotives at the rear of the train, because the tractive effort of more power at the front of the train would exceed the capacity of the couplers within the train.

Civil engineering[edit]

Amsteg Chärstelenbach Bridge with fish-belly reinforcements.[18]
Intschi-Reuss-Bridge with fish-belly reinforcement.[19]


The Gotthardbahn and its branchlines pass over a total of 1234 bridges and open passages which span a total of 6,471 metres (21,230 ft). Arch bridges from stone were only constructed up to a clear width of 12 metres (39 ft), bridging larger distances with iron superstructures, which therefore became a frequent sight on the original Gotthard line, their iron representing a weight of 17723 tons. The construction of each bridge represented its own individual challenge, depending on the surrounding geography and geology.[20]

With the exception of three arch bridges all steel bridges consisted of very simple, straight, single beam truss constructions. These had to be reinforced already before 1914 still during steam operation of the Gotthardbahn due to quickly increasing traffic and load. Fish-belly truss structures were attached to the bridges from below where possible and an arch truss structure was added from the top, where a short clear height made this necessary, besides other measures. Eventually all original iron bridges had to be replaced with modern bridges because they had been built and were repeatedly reinforced to specifications that again and again were surpassed by increasing traffic, velocity and load.[20][21]

Notable originally single beam truss bridges on the Gotthardbahn are:[20]

  • The Chärstelenbach Bridge has two passage ways with clear widths of 50 metres (160 ft) each and rails at 53 metres (174 ft) above low water. The bridge was reinforced with a fish-belly structure. The modern replacement still uses the centre column and the stone arch abutments of the original.
  • The Inschi-Reuss-Bridge spans the widest clear width of 75 metres (246 ft), with rails at 76 metres (249 ft) above low water. The bridge was reinforced with a "fish-belly" before the iron structure was replaced.
  • The Middle Meienreuss Bridge spans 65 metres (213 ft) with rails 72 metres (236 ft) above the river bottom. The original iron construction has been replaced.

Future developments[edit]

Map of the Gotthard base tunnel

The historical route, with its long climbs and spiral routings, restricts speed and capacity on this important international route. As a result, a largely new lower level route was constructed as the Gotthard axis of the NRLA project.

A train about to pass over the north portal of the Gotthard Base Tunnel.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel, running from a point near Erstfeld to a point near Biasca, opened to traffic on 1 June 2016, with full service set to start in December of that year. With a route length of 57 km (35.4 mi), this is the world's longest rail tunnel, surpassing the Seikan Tunnel in Japan. Its maximum altitude of 550 metres (1,800 ft) is less than half the altitude of the current Gotthard Tunnel, and obviates the need to haul trains up long approach grades. Although given its name because it bypasses the Gotthard Tunnel, the base tunnel's route is actually some 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) to the east, passing under Sedrun, rather than the Gotthard Pass.[1][22]

Still under construction is the Ceneri Base Tunnel, from Camorino to the south of Bellinzona, and Vezia to the north of Lugano. This tunnel will have a route length of 15.4 kilometres (9.6 mi) and will allow trains to bypass the steep grades of Monte Ceneri.[1][6]

The Gotthard Base Tunnel opened in 2016, and the Ceneri Base Tunnel is now set to open in 2020. After they have opened, all rail traffic will still need to use the existing route north of Erstfeld, between Biasca and Bellinzona, and south of Lugano. The bypassed sections of the existing route will be retained for local passenger services, for general capacity and as a diversionary route.[6][23]

Further bypasses have been planned as part of the Gotthard axis of the NRLA project, including a new largely tunnelled route from Arth-Goldau to Erstfeld, and an extension of the existing Zimmerberg Base Tunnel on the route between Zurich and Zug. No commitment to construct these sections of line has yet been made.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Eisenbahnatlas Schweiz. Verlag Schweers + Wall GmbH. 2012. p. 76. ISBN 978-3-89494-130-7. 
  2. ^ Dietler, H.: Gotthardbahn in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 5. Berlin, Wien 1914, p. 356 on
  3. ^ Braun, Adolphe: Photographische Ansichten der Gotthardbahn, Dornach im Elsass, ca. 1875
  4. ^ a b c d Allen, Cecil J. (1958). Switzerland's Amazing Railways. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons. pp. 4–6. 
  5. ^ a b Allen, Cecil J. (1958). Switzerland's Amazing Railways. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons. p. 31. 
  6. ^ a b c d "The Project". AlpTransit Gotthard AG. Archived from the original on 2 November 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  7. ^ "History". AlpTransit Gotthard AG. Archived from the original on 2 January 2013. Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  8. ^ "Gotthard train line cut off for one month". 6 June 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  9. ^ "Gotthard rail link reopens after landslide". 2 July 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Dietler, H.: Gotthardbahn in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 5. Berlin, Wien 1912, p. 356 and 357 on
  11. ^ Keckstein, Jan: -> Bildergalerie -> frame12 ->2nd row 4th from the left as of August 22, 2009
  12. ^ Dietler, H.: Gotthardbahn in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 5. Berlin, Wien 1912, p. 356 and 358 on
  13. ^ a b c d Eisenbahnatlas Schweiz. Verlag Schweers + Wall GmbH. 2012. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-3-89494-130-7. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Eisenbahnatlas Schweiz. Verlag Schweers + Wall GmbH. 2012. pp. 34–35. ISBN 978-3-89494-130-7. 
  15. ^ a b c d e Eisenbahnatlas Schweiz. Verlag Schweers + Wall GmbH. 2012. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-3-89494-130-7. 
  16. ^ a b c d Eisenbahnatlas Schweiz. Verlag Schweers + Wall GmbH. 2012. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-3-89494-130-7. 
  17. ^ a b Allen, Cecil J. (1958). Switzerland's Amazing Railways. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons. p. 37. 
  18. ^ Dietler, H.: Gotthardbahn in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 5. Berlin, Wien 1914, p.359 & 360 on
  19. ^ Dietler, H.: Gotthardbahn in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 5. Berlin, Wien 1914, p.359 on
  20. ^ a b c Dietler, H.: Gotthardbahn in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 5. Berlin, Wien 1912, p. 359 &360 on
  21. ^ Milan: Verstärkung der eisernen Brücken in Röll, V. Freiherr von: Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens, Band 10. Berlin, Wien 1923, p. 151 on
  22. ^ "Project data – raw construction Gotthard Base Tunnel" (PDF). AlpTransit Gotthard AG. Retrieved 15 October 2010. 
  23. ^ "Gotthard Base Tunnel, Switzerland". SPG Media Limited. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Schueler, Judith (2008). Materialising identity: The co-construction of the Gotthard Railway and Swiss national identity. Technology and European History Series, no. 1. Amsterdam: Aksant. ISBN 9789052603025. 

External links[edit]