Rhaetian railway

A quaint, red, narrow-gauge railway trundling over vertiginous bridges and breathtaking gorges is a familiar image that graces the cover of many a Swiss tourist brochure. Built at the turn of the century in response to Switzerland’s burgeoning tourist industry, the railway has been one of the main drivers of this Alpine region’s economic, social and cultural development.

Rhaetian railway in the Albula/Bernina landscapes ©Presence Switzerland
Facts & figures

What

Albula and Bernina lines of the Rhaetian Railway and surrounding landscape. The lines were completed in 1903 and 1910 respectively.

Where

From Thusis (canton of Graubünden, Switzerland) to Tirano (Italy).

UNESCO inscription

2008

Why

Outstanding example of a technological ensemble or landscape. Exhibits an important interchange of human values on developments in architecture and technology (Criteria 2 and 4 of UNESCO Operational Guidelines).

Background

The Albula and Bernina railway lines are an exquisitely preserved example of the development of mountain railways at high altitudes. Still in operation today, the Rhaetian Railway is the third railway to be accepted on the UNESCO World Heritage List; the other two are the Semmering Railway in Austria and the Mountain Railways of India (including the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka Shimla Railway) in India. The line (196 bridges and 55 tunnels) is a masterpiece of engineering which, from the outset, was designed to attract tourists and to make the most of the scenic landscape. It would also lead to the development of existing winter sports resorts. The railway therefore is a living record of the growing popularity of Swiss alpine tourism between the mid-1800s and the early part of the 20th century.  

World Heritage and Swissness

Switzerland is a nation of train lovers. The Swiss rail network is incredibly dense and complex, although not all of its many lines are quite as spectacular as the Albula-Bernina one. Switzerland has a total of 22,000km of public transport network, of which the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) owns around 3,000km. This is complemented by another 2,000km run by the private railways. There are also 150km of mountain railway lines. With around 122km of rail per 1,000km2, Switzerland has the densest rail network in Europe. In the course of the last 150 years they have helped make Switzerland what it is today. The love affair between the Swiss and the train began when the first Swiss train – the “Spanisch-Brötli Bahn” – ran between Baden and Zurich. It owes this moniker to the fact that it would whisk soft fresh bread from Baden bakers to Zurich customers in a mere 30 minutes. To find out more, have a look at the Swiss Specials section on our website.

Virtual tour

UNESCO world heritage - Rhaetian railway in the Albula/Bernina landscapes
Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA