The Lötschberg Railway From Bern to Brig via Kandersteg

Südrampe bridge "Luogelkinviadukt" near Hohtenn

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During the 1900s it was decided that it was high time to stop travelling over the mountains and dig through them, instead. Since then the Lötschberg Railway has become one of the most panoramic routes in Switzerland that you can see if you are travelling from Bern to Brig. Find more information about stops on the route such as Kandersteg, as well as the new Lötschberg base tunnel. Photos and experiences of my trip this summer follow.

Note: The route between Bern and Brig or Zweisimmen is completely covered by the Swiss Travel Pass and Interrail. The private company running this route is ‘Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon’: BLS

From Bern to Spiez – via Lake Thun

In Bern, you board the RegioExpress Lötschberger train for Brig and Zweisimmen. In Spiez some train cars are detached. The two front compositions take the Frutigen–Kandersteg–Brig route while the rear compositions continue their journey towards Zweisimmen. It is, therefore, important to ensure that you are on the right part of the train when boarding. As the train departs from Bern, passengers on the right hand side can enjoy lovely views from their windows, namely the town with its beautiful cathedral and numerous bridges.

The crystal-clear blue waters of Lake Thun unfold from Merligen to Faulensee and are 3 km wide. The countless bays around its shores shelter small villages, modern villas and several castles. In the 17th and 18th century, the lake used to be an important transport route as goods and passengers were transported between Thun and Interlaken using little boats. In the past, anyone wanting to travel from Bern to Spiez had to bump along in horse carriages for about three hours in order to get to Thun and then take a rowing boat or a sailing ship. If you have a day off, I can assure you that you’ll have a relaxing and comforting time at Lake Thun!

 

Lötschberg North Ramp – from Spiez to Kandersteg

Between Frutigen and the North entrance of Lötschberg Tunnel, there is a height difference of about 460 meters, that needs to be climbed with a double loop. This means that the train travels a distance of about 10 km with a height difference of approximately 270m in just 3 km as the crow flies, with a maximum inclination of 27%. In Frutigen you come across the starting point of the new Lötschberg Base tunnel. This new tunnel was built in 2007 and cuts off 30 minutes travel time trough the mountains with speeds up to 200km/h. Sadly the view in this tunnel isn’t as good as the one you get when choosing the mountain track instead. I have to say that this part of the journey, with the exception of the loops of the track, is not the most exciting thing about the journey.

Getting to the Griesalp is an adventure as well. With an inclination of 28%, this is the steepest PostAuto route in Europe. This is why there are special little buses to take passengers from the station in Reichenbach up the extremely narrow, twisting and steep roads.

 

 

Kandersteg and Lötschberg

Kandersteg has been welcoming travelers from all over the world for hundreds of years. Later, the village became a popular holiday destination for adventurous English travelers and other visitors from Switzerland and elsewhere. Today, with its wide range of beautiful paths, suitable both for walking and mountain hiking, the area is a paradise for hikers and nature-lovers. The small village of Kandersteg offers a wide variety of accommodation possibilities. The most important of which for us, rail travelers, is the campsite which includes holiday apartments and the International Scout Centre, providing accommodation not only for groups but for single travelers as well.

In the old days, people would take a short break in Kandersteg before crossing the Lötschen or Gemmi Pass into Valais (Wallis) or Italy. The Lötschen pass is accessible only by foot and is 2690m above sea level. And let it be that I walked this pass by myself. On top of the pass, the Lötschenpass hut has been built in case you want to stay overnight here.

The Gastern valley is one of the most wild and romantic places I ever discovered in Switzerland in my life. You’ll find in the little place Selde only three hotels with one without any water of energy available. There is a bus (that one has to book in advance) that takes hikers to and from the valley, but I have no experience with it. I would suggest that you have a look for the Gastern Valley Bus. The normal bus (241) runs towards ‘Kandersteg, Talstation, Sunnbüel’. From there there’s another 8 km towards Selde left. I can also recommend mountain-biking this awesome route to Selde and back!
Have a look at the whole walking trail here: 
Wanderland.ch (DE) (Separated in 4 parts, where 2 Kandersteg-Gastern, 3 Gastern-Lötschen pass-Blatten/Goppenstein).

 

Through the Lötschberg tunnel – from Kandersteg to Goppenstein

The Lötschberger tunnel was completed in 1913. Please take a moment to think about this. Works on the Lötschberg tunnel began in 1906 with picks and shovels. It was not until early 1907 that pneumatic drills came into use. Whereas on the north side an already existing road led to the construction site, on the south side materials initially had to be hauled by mule up through a steep path. Men worked in three shifts round the clock, including Sundays. After each detonation, 17 to 22 men carried the waste material out of the tunnel. In this way, the tunnel progressed on average 7 meters further into the mountain every day. At certain times of the year the number of workers – mainly Italians – rose to 3300. Around 2 years later some hand diggers and more equipment arrived as well.  In 1908, around 3 km on its way, the tunnel collapsed by an explosion (as usual). They were too close to the above ground, 26 workers died on this. The section was beyond repair, so a new tunnel had to be blasted, bypassing the site of the disaster.

The mutual difference between the two tubes was 25.7 cm in width of the tunnel and 10.2 cm in height, despite the bypass. And I have to say that this difference is absolutely a miracle as a civil engineer, in this time. The triangulation was repeated several times by different surveyors, this in order to prevent measuring errors. They had to climb more times over the mountain pass for the best measurements.

After leaving Kandersteg, you can see the loading facilities for the car transport to Goppenstein on the right. There’s 2 per hour service between Kandersteg and Goppenstein with the car transport. You may not take this as a single traveler, you need to take the RE.

 

 

Southern Lötschberg ramp – from Goppenstein to Brig

In order to descend 562 meters from Goppenstein to Brig, the line had to be cut into the steep cliff face with a maximum inclination of 27‰. This requires countless tunnels, embankments and bridge structures. There have always been natural hazards on these steep mountain slopes, and not only due to the snow. That is why BLS planted approximately 10 million trees along the route and over 1100 protective walls. Nowadays, there is a team of foresters working to look after the forest that is protecting the railway line.

I drove this part of the route more than once and I really loved it! Make sure you get a seat on the right (towards Brig). The views into the valley are just wonderful, when you look over the industries….  Along the whole Südrampe BLS created a really good quality path. You can walk these stages with different times and length between there stops. When you start your walk to the last station called Hohtenn, you find one of Switzerland’s differences. This station is called a “Halt auf verlangen”. When you want the train to stop, press before the station the button to open the door, the stop sign will come up on the information screens (just like a bus!). When you are at the station, on the platform you can find buttons that you can press to choose which train and in which direction you want to stop (waving isn’t allowed).



Lötschberg Base Tunnel – the fast route

In 1992 the Swiss citizens voted for the construction of the New Railway Link through the Alps, including the two new base tunnels through the Lötschberg and the Gotthard massif. Eventually, with a few cutbacks, the Lötschberg Base Tunnel was completed and inaugurated on 9th December 2007.

Passenger trains run approximately 200 km/h while tilting trains up to 250 km/h through the tunnel. At only 828 m above sea level, the Lötschberg Base Tunnel is the lowest crossing of the Alps and is one of the safest, most modern and technically complex railway tunnels in the world. Being the ‘lowest’ tunnel is a huge plus for the electricity use. All freight crossing the alps used an immersive electricity to climb towards the old Lötschberg tunnel. Good detail to know, the tunnel is ‘incomplete’. The west tunnel has been completed by 75%, but trains run only on 25% of the west tunnel. So the last part to Frutigen is single track. The reason for this, of course, is money… (2015)

Since 2007, the Lötschberg Base Tunnel allows fast travelling towards Visp. All IC/EC use this tunnel towards Visp. The traditional mountain route via Kandersteg hasn’t still changed in that time. That is why every railway and nature lover leaves the route through the 34.6 km long base tunnel to people who are in a hurry, and instead take the RegioExpress Lötschberger train to enjoy the unique views, for example into the Rhonetal near Visp.

 

 

Tips and Timetable  BLS Lötschberger

Round trip tip! Bern-Spiez-Kandersteg-Brig-Montreux-GoldenPass-Zweisimmen-Spiez-Bern


BLS offers a round trip “Experience two classic railway trains”, the Lötschberger and GoldenPass. This route is free with a 
SwissTravelPass or Interrail! Bear the timetable below in mind, the RE Lötschberger does not run the whole day! Seat reservations are available but not needed. RE Lötschberger Bern-Brig is CHF 5, seriously not needed…. GoldenPass Montreux-Zweisimmen is CHF 8.
Ideal Roundtrip timetable:
Bern 08:39 – 10:23 Brig with RE Lötschberger
Brig 10:27 – 11:47 Montreux with IC to Geneva
Montreux 13:44 – 15:32 Zweisimmen with GoldenPass train
Zweisimmen 16:00 – 17:20 Bern with R Lötschberger

Timetable BLS Lötschberger

Bern–Spiez–(Zweisimmen)–Kandersteg–Brig
Bern dp 07.39 every hour until 19.39
Brig ar 09.23 21.23
Brig dp 06.36 17.36
Bern ar 08.20 19.20

When leaving from Bern, be careful in which part of the train you board. The train consists of 4 parts. When you enter at the Bern or Thun just take note of the destinations shown on the train. The RE Lötschberger normally travels with three or four sections (the four-section trains mainly travel during the morning and evening rush hours as well as on weekends and public holidays). The front section of the train travels to Brig, while the rear section goes as the Regio train to Zweisimmen.


Layout of a 4 part Lötschberger: Zweisimmen – Zweisimmen (Direct) – Brig – Brig   (Front ->)
If you realise that you are in the wrong section of the train during your journey, you can change at Spiez. If there are 2 sections going to Zweisimmen one will be classified as Direct. Some platforms are too short so the doors stay closed at this part of the train.

Trains

It began with an old steam loc. Today it has changed to a modern and good quality BLS Lötschberger. 

 

Happy traveling!

Update: January 2017

Wouter
I'm a railway engineer living in the Netherlands and in love with Switzerland.
Wouter
- 2 weeks ago
Wouter
Wouter

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