Scale the heights to reach the best views on Europe’s historic mountain railways.
If you’ve stayed in the mountains, you’ve probably swooped up to the highest peaks in a gondola or chairlift. These dot-to-dots of cables and pulleys string out across our mountain ranges, taking visitors up to the prettiest views and paths. But they’re a relatively recent sight. Europe’s mountain railways were clack-clacking us up to the rocky heights long before the first lift pylon was drilled. There’s a local railway in or close to most resorts in Austria and Switzerland and a railway trip is a must on any mountain holiday.
One of Europe’s most photographed mountain railways is also the steepest cogwheel in the world. When the original plans for the Pilatus Railway were deemed too expensive to build, engineer Eduard Locher designed a new system that halved the line’s length and doubled its steepness to a dizzying 48 per cent. It opened in 1889 and was shown at the Paris World’s Fair as a marvel of engineering.
The 30-minute journey takes you past Alpine meadows and striking rock faces to the top of the Pilatus Kulm, said to have been the roost of dragons and haunted for centuries by the ghost of Pontius Pilate.
Take a trip on the Pilatus Railway when you stay in Lucerne in Switzerland.
Mountain railways may have been built to take people up to the peaks, but the journeys themselves are often the main attraction. Never more so than on the Schafberg Railway. Starting beside the shores of Lake Wolfgang in Austria, its bright red cars are chugged up the mountainside by steam engines on some journeys and diesel railcars on others. You’re met at the top by still mountain air, spectacular 360-degree scenery and Austria’s oldest mountain inn, the Hotel Schafbergspitze – a typical Austrian chalet building teetering on a jutting peak. On the return journey, the engine car acts as a braking system, guiding the passenger cars back down.
The Schafberg Railway was designed for artists and wealthy Viennese tourists in the 1890s, who’d long been inspired by St Wolfgang and its captivating legend. It’s said that the site of the village was chosen by St Wolfgang himself. Tired of searching the slopes of the mountain for the right spot on which to build his church, he threw an axe down the mountainside and it landed on the edge of a lake. There he built his church and the village was born around it.
Switzerland is known for its clocks, its chocolate and its beautiful railways. They’re clean, they run precisely to schedule and they glide past some truly magical scenery. What’s more, our Swiss holidays include self-transfers by Swiss Rail, so your scenic holiday starts right from the airport.
The highest railway station in Europe sits at the summit of the Jungfrau, one of the main peaks of the Bernese Alps. Much of the route travels through a tunnel, but you stop at mid-station viewing points along the way, including one that looks out over the infamous North Face of the Eiger. And it’s more than worth the ride when you reach the summit. The Jungfraujoch is known as ‘the top of Europe’ and sits at the source of Europe’s largest glacier, the Aletsch. It’s home to the Sphinx Observatory, whose observation deck gets some truly staggering views across the crisp air to the surrounding peaks. Unexpectedly, it’s also got an Indian restaurant. The Jungfraujoch has become a popular filming location in Bollywood, so you can tuck in to your favourite rogan josh at 3,450m.