Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The MGB and Golden Pass Line to Geneva - Day 7

Matterhorn-Gotthard Bahn

The origins of the current Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) could be traced back to 1891 when the metre gauge Visp Zermatt Bahn (VZ) was opened to facilitate travel to the Zermatt region. A subsequent extension to connect the Furka Oberalp Bahn (FO) at Brig in 1930 bridged the metre-gauge gap between Visp and Brig and allowed direct trains to operate between Brig and Zermatt and the introduction of an express train between Zermatt and St Moritz (which had since been branded as the famed Glacier Express). The VZ was renamed as the Brig Visp Zermatt Bahn (BVZ) in 1962 after 32 years since the gap had been bridged and was further renamed as the BVZ Zermatt Bahn on the centenary celebration of the railway. The BVZ and FO were finally merged in 2003 to form the current Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB).

We had shifted our original plan forward by an hour as we wanted to spend additional time to spot the local buses at Spiez. By luck, our train was operated by a rack of old carriages with drop down windows which would facilitate photography. It was certainly a relief that we had managed to meet the train in time (albeit in an 'Amazing Race' fashion which saw us rushing from our hotel to the train station in record time in the hotel's electric taxi) as we noticed that next departure would be operated by the new Stadler trains which do not have any openable windows!
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Shortly after departing Zermatt station, the train entered Spissfluh Tunnel which passes under the Air Zermatt heliport. Established in 1968, the helicopter operator operates sightseeing flights of the spectacular Swiss Alps and plays an invaluable role in mounting search and rescue missions with a fleet of 4 Eurocopter EC135 Ecureuil and 4 Aérospatiale SA315B Lama helicopters.
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At the Kalter Boden crossing point which is situated approximately halfway between Zermatt and Täsch, we passed a Stadler Komet heading for Zermatt. The Stadler Komet trainsets are extensively deployed on the frequent Zermatt-Täsch shuttle trains as the low floor carriages facilitate quick boarding of passengers with their accompanying baggage and ski equipment.
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The tracks swing across to the east side of the valley after crossing the River Vispa at the Täschsand Bridge. The passing loop near the bridge was added in 2007 to increase the capacity of the line.
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Täsch is the furthest point where motorised vehicles without special permit can be driven. A three-storey garage with 2000 parking lots is provided and from there visitors have to continue their journey by train. The station is designed with two tracks for through traffic (left) and two terminating tracks for the frequent shuttle trains between Täsch and Zermatt which operate at 20mins interval (right).
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The section between Täsch and Randa runs largely alongside the River Vispa on the valley floor and passengers were also treated to a sight of the meticulously manicured lawn of the prestigious 9-hole Matterhorn Golf Club which was nestled against the rugged scenery of the region.
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The wooden station building at Randa dates back to the line’s opening in 1891.
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A quartet of horses near the tracks after departing Randa station.
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A massive landslide occurred in the centenary of BVZ's operations in April 1991 where a section of track between Herbriggen and Randa was extensively damaged. A further landslide in the following month buried 250m of railway tracks and necessitated an extensive rebuild and realignment of the railway tracks where it now runs at the extreme edge of the valley floor beside the road to avoid the area of land threatened by possible further landslides.
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Herbriggen station has a connecting track to the substation of a nearby hydroelectric power station – note the switch on the adjacent track. The original wooden station building had since been torn down and a replacement structure built in 1966.
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The size of the cowbells on the cows probably account for the sonorous cowbell sounds which could be heard for miles away!
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The train passed by the western fringe of St. Niklaus town before calling at the station which lies at an elevation of 1126m.
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St Niklaus is the terminal of the Postbus to the holiday resort of Grächen which is located on a terrace above St. Niklaus.
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After leaving St Niklaus, the train crossed over the Selli Bridge and proceeded into Kipfen Gorge which is considered to be the most scenic section of the line where the railway runs in close proximity to the River Vispa.
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The flow of the River Vispa had been increasingly regulated since the 19th century to prevent further damage of the line, resulting in a pretty sight of the clear river waters flowing over a series of carefully crafted steps in the river bed.
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Upon leaving the gorge, the Kipfen Bridge brings road and rail traffic into Kalpetran. The current 146m long concrete bridge was erected further downstream in 2007 after a succession of steel girder bridges were destroyed by avalanches in the past.
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Kalpetran is a small station which mainly serves to connect with the cable car which links the station building with the mountain village of Embd.
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Beyond Kalpetran, the Vispa increasingly disappears from view into the gorge. The bridge in the foreground leads to a roundabout junction between roads to Zermatt and Saas Fee.
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Stalden-Saas station extends in an S-shape along the edge of the village. A branch line to Saas-Fee had originally been planned but the plans were shelved with the outbreak of World War I.
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Stalden-Saas is preceded by a steep rack section at both ends of the line and the train descended along the western flank of the valley which has a maximum gradient of 12.5%. Stalden-Saas station is named as such to highlight its importance as a transfer stop for passengers who wish to continue their journey to Saas Fee on the PostAuto service. However, the name had became less relevant after the PostAuto service was extended to Brig and only call instead of terminating at the railway station.
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A PostAuto Irisbus Crossway coach operating on the Saastal-Visp-Brig route.
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After alighting from the MGB train at Visp, we caught an earlier connecting SBB-CFF-FFS IC2000 double deck train which brought us for the relatively short crossing back through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel to Spiez to continue on our journey. The Spiez-Visp-Zermatt sector was also the only rail segment of our trip where we had to backtrack as it was our only viable way to experience both the Matterhorn and the Golden Pass Line.
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Spiez & Zweisimmen

As one of us set about his task of finding a replacement tripod in Spiez, we decided to camp for the PostAuto and STI buses that call at the railway station. In addition to the regular citybuses, we also spotted one of the ubiquitous 'trams' which was operating a city sightseeing service.
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Spiez is a major hub for both cargo and passenger railway services as it lies at the northern end of the Lötschberg Base Tunnel and on the trunk line which links Interlaken with Bern. With the extensive and reliable rail network in Switzerland, it is sometimes more feasible for trucks to make use of specialised roll-on roll-off cargo trains operated by BLS to traverse through the mountainous Bernese Oberland region. Graffiti adorns the side of a sleeper carriage which accommodates the truck drivers during the cross-country journey (insert).
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The RBDe 565 EMUs are manufactured by SIG Neuhausen for BLS and are often deployed on Bern S-Bahn routes as well as regional routes to Interlaken Ost. The fleet had been refurbished since 2009 which saw climate control units being installed in the control car and a reconfigured first class compartment. Photographed at Spiez, 565 738-2 'Kerzers/Ried' await its next departure to Interlaken Ost.
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A new BLS RABe 535 'Lötschberger' EMU negotiating the numerous points and switches at Spiez. Manufactured by Vevey Technologies and Bombardier, the 62m long four car trains are primarily deployed on the RegioExpress Lötschberg route between Bern and Brig through the Lötschberg tunnel.
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It was hard to contain our excitement when our connecting train to Zweisimmen pulled into the platform and noted that it was hauled by a vintage BLS Re 4/4 electric locomotive which was more than 45 years old.
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Well maintained interior of the aged EW I coach which also featured half-height drop down windows that we made full use of to enjoy the cool mountain breeze and for photography. The second class interior were fitted with the older bench type seats.
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The adjacent first class compartment had comfortable seats which were laid out in a 2+1 arrangement.
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The section between Spiez and Zweisimmen is part of the second section of the Golden Pass Line which spans between Interlaken and Zweisimmen and are serviced by BLS trainsets that run on standard gauge rails.
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Departing Spiez, the train headed into the Simmental region which lies in the heart of the Bernese Oberland. The valley is dotted with the characteristic richly decorated chalets that are typically associated with the Simmental farming communities of the region.
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Although this section of the Golden Pass Line was less scenic than the Brünigbahn and MGB line that we had experienced earlier, it remained a joy to take in the rugged mountainous scenery and the fresh mountain air.
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MOB (Chemins de fer Montreux-Oberland Bernois) ABDe8/8 EMU awaiting its next departure as a local train (Regio 2429) to Saanen at Zweisimmen. These 2 car EMUs were built in 1968 and an additional partially low floor carriage would be added in the centre to improve accessibility for physically disabled passengers.
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Our first task at Zweisimmen was to purchase the class upgrade ticket for our next leg of the journey to match our second class Swiss Passes at the station rail travel office for CHF20 per person. Next, we proceeded to find dinner, but there were unfortunately no dining options available in the station or its immediate vicinity.

Zweisimmen street scene. The bright sunshine which we had enjoyed when we departed Zermatt had been replaced by a depressing late afternoon shower upon our arrival at Zweisimmen.
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We were eventually drawn by the fragrance of a mobile grilled chicken kiosk named 'Natura Güeggeli' which was parked around a street corner. Despite the presence of mouth-watering racks of grilled chicken on display, we were only able to grab a grilled chicken leg each and share a box of grilled potatoes as the stall owner informed us that they had been reserved in advance for a party. It might not be the most scrumptious meal, but it was truly a meal to remember as we hungrily devoured the meal in the comfort of the train.
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Golden Pass Line Panoramic VIP (Zweisimmen > Montreux)

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While tourist trains along the four scenic railway lines usually feature large panoramic windows (at least in first class), the Pininfarina designed Golden Pass Panoramic VIP trains between Zweisimmen and Montreux takes it one step further by offering Grande Vue seats at the front of the train. The push-pull locomotive of such trains is placed in the middle, while driver’s cabins on the driving trailers are elevated, thus leaving the ends of the carriage open for passengers to enjoy the view. These special train trips are differentiated from the normal Golden Pass Panoramic trips in the Swiss Official Timetable as (avec places VIP).
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The special 'Grande Vue' seats at the front of the train. Although it is classified as a first class seat, 8 seats are crammed into the limited space in a 4 abreast layout with a stadium style seating arrangement. However, the front row is definitely more appealing and we had made our reservations on the Golden Pass website five months in advance to avoid disappointment.
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The rest of the train is configured as the Golden Pass Panoramic service where passengers are able to enjoy the scenery through large picture windows. Part of the roof is also glazed over to further enhance the experience. The second class cabin is configured in a comfortable 2-2 seating arrangement.
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A spacious and well-appointed toilet is located at the end of every alternate carriage. (left)
Headrest cover on the Grande Vue seats. (top right)
The carriage number plate at the side of the carriage is labelled in French, German, English and Japanese which reflects the diverse ethnic background of the passengers who travel on this renowned sightseeing train. (bottom right)
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From Zweisimmen, the train climbed up the horseshoe curve out of the Simmental valley to the Saanenmöser Pass which forms the watershed between the Simme and Saane rivers. The wet weather and poor lighting conditions posed significant challenges in obtaining clear photos of the surrounding scenery and put the accuracy of the AF systems on our cameras to the test.
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Following which, the train descended to call at the skiing and summer resort of Gstaad which lies at the boundary between the French and German speaking regions of Switzerland. The station is also a major PostAuto hub with the distinctive yellow buses await to ferry passengers to the numerous resorts and villages in the region.
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After bidding auf Widersehen to the German speaking region and bonjour to the French speaking region, we noticed the accompanying change of the station platform signs from the familiar "Gleis" to "Voie".

We were fortunate to chance upon a Golden Pass Panoramic train at Rougemont station which was hauled by an attractively decorated locomotive that stood out in the gloomy weather with its striking gold paint. This locomotive usually heads the special 'Train du Chocolat' service and ferry passengers in period “Belle Epoque Pullman” deluxe carriages or panoramic carriages from Montreux to the Cailler chocolate factory at Broc and the medieval Gruyères village where the Gruyère cheese dairy is situated.
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Emerging from the dense forested Sarine valley, our train emerged into the wide and open plains of the Pays d'Enhaut which is well known for its cattle and cheese making industries. In comparison to the lavishly decorated chalets of the Simmental Valley, the chalets in this region are decorated in a more subtle shade of browns and blacks and their unique wide overhanging eaves lend a distinctive character to the landscape.
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The Zweisimmen-Montreux segment of the Golden Pass Line is equipped with narrow metre gauge rails to allow the trains to negotiate the numerous turns with ease. The wet weather also generated spectacular misty conditions in the mountain valleys and we soon shifted our focus to admire the view which unfolded before us as obtaining good photos in such conditions proved to be too challenging a task to enjoy.
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The railway track is tightly hemmed in by chalets which flank both sides of the track as the train approaches Château d'Oex, which is often regarded as the European centre for the sport of hot air ballooning. Needless to say, the abysmal weather meant that we were unsurprisingly unable to catch a glimpse of the colourful hot air balloons that adorn the skies in summer.
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A branch line is located at Montbovon which leads to Gruyères. A TPF (Transports Publics Fribourgeois) Be 4/4 'La Gruyère' narrow gauge EMU was photographed laying over at one of the station platforms and would later operate the Montbovon-Gruyères-Bulle-Palèzieux service.
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After waiting for another MOB Golden Pass Line train to clear the sector ahead of us, we proceeded into the long summit tunnel under the Col de Jaman and called at the picturesque town of Les Avants.
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We were greeted with a vista of the French Alps after exiting from the valley but the waters of Lac Léman below were obscured by the thick mist. The train continued on its descent towards Chamby where we eventually passed another MOB ABDe8/8 EMU while being encased in light fog.
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The final descent to Montreux was the closest a railway can get to a mountain road, with a series of hairpin bends in tunnels that repeatedly switch the direction of travel. The dismal weather had cleared up significantly at this point and we were able to catch a glimpse of the city of Montreux which is located by the shores of the largest lake in Switzerland, Lake Geneva.
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A GN Bhe4/8 SLM/Siemens railcar at Montreux station. Operated by MVR (Transport Montreux-Vevey-Riviera), these railcars were initially delivered to Chemin de fer Glion-Rochers-de-Naye (GN) in 1983 to operate the Abt rack railway to the mountain resort town of Rochers-de-Naye. GN was renamed as MVR in 2001 after the merger of four separate private rail companies in the region and the operator had since tied up with MOB to market the Rochers-de-Naye service as part of the Golden Pass Line. In addition, the platform of the 800mm narrow gauge rack railway is not located in the station proper but at the basement of the adjacent MOB/MVR headquarters which is also known as the Golden Pass Centre.
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Although the less than favourable weather conditions meant that we were not able to experience the full splendour of the Golden Pass Line's flagship service, it remained a remarkable experience to be able to ride at the front of the train and enjoy a 'driver's view' of the scenery and tracks which unfolded before us throughout the 107 minute long journey.

Stately looking buildings opposite Montreux station. The lakeside city was awarded the Wakker prize in recognition for the development and preservation of its architectural heritage in 1990.
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Montreux is the only station in Switzerland to have tracks of 3 different gauges - a standard gauge track used by SBB-CFF-FFS mainline trains, a 1000mm narrow gauge track used by MOB services and a 800mm narrow gauge rack railway used by MVR for the Rochers-de-Naye service. After proceeding down the ramp to utilise the underpass to cross over the next platform for our connecting train to Geneva, we were greeted with an unpleasantly steep flight of stairs at the opposite end. French chauvinism was apparent from the lack of platform announcements in English and was a stark contrast to the bilingual (German and English) announcements at other train stations we had been to for the past week.
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We could barely contain our excitement when a sleek SBB-CFF-FFS ETR 610 New Pendolino high speed tilting train pulled into the platform as EuroCity service EC36 from Milan.
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Modern and classy interior of the ETR 610 New Pendolino which was built by Alstom Ferroviaria and introduced into revenue service in 2008. Overhead LCD screens provide real time information about the location of the train and the amenities available in the train formation. One main feature of the Pendolino is the tilting capability, where the train body is tilted using electro-hydraulic actuators at angles up to 8 degrees to allow the train to travel faster around a bend without causing instability or unnecessary discomfort to the passengers. The tilting function was put to good use as the train smoothly negotiated the numerous curves along the northern shore of Lake Geneva. It was an amazing experience as the tilt was barely perceptible and was only apparent by the vertical shifting of the horizon outside the window when the train tackled a bend.
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EuroCity EC 36 after arrival at Geneva Gare Cornavin. The ETR 610 Pendolino covered the 84.8km journey from Montreux in 48mins with an intermediate stop at Lausanne. It takes 3hr 58mins for the entire journey from Milan to Geneva - making it an extremely attractive proposition for travellers as it allows for a comfortable point to point journey between the 2 city pairs and taking into account the high air ticket prices between Italy and Switzerland.
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Geneva Stopover

We planned Geneva to be only an overnight stop between the Golden Pass Panoramic train and the TGV train to Paris the following morning, so proximity to the train station was the major consideration in our choice of accommodation. City Hostel Geneva is located one tram stop away from the main station building and fits the bill in terms of both location and budget.
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City Hostel Geneva is located in a side street off Rue de Lausanne beside the railway yard. The hostel had provided a complimentary one-day Geneva travel card with our stay but we could only add it to our growing pile of tickets and souvenirs since we were unable to make use of it given our tight schedule and our Swiss Passes were still valid then.
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We were rather enthused with the hostel lift with a manually operated door. We would eventually experience more authentic examples of such lifts later in our trip during the Italy segment. (left)
The quad sharing private room at City Hostel Geneva was noticeably smaller than the one which we occupied at Lucerne Backpackers for a comparable price but it was clean, well maintained and sufficient for a brief one night rest before continuing on our journey (right). The hostel also features electronic keycard access and a clean shared toilet with shower facilities is available at each floor. In addition, guests could also surf the internet at the internet room at a rather affordable rate of CHF3 or EUR2 per hour, and shorter durations are available by inserting pro-rated amount of coins into the machine.
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The Jet d'Eau is the most recognisable landmark of Geneva and five hundred litres of water per second are jetted to a height of 140 metres with an exit velocity of 200km/h. The fountain is lit every night until 11pm and after much deliberation, we decided to head out in the evening rain to pay a visit to this imposing monument. It was certainly one of the more memorable moments of our trip as we tested the waterproofing of our equipment while taking timed exposure photos amidst strong winds and heavy rain.
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Das Matterhorn II - Day 6 & 7

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