BRIENZ, SWITZERLAND. Tucked across the Lake of Brienz, on the opposite shore from Interlaken, nestles the tiny woodcarvers’ village of Brienz. And just at the edge of town, a few hundred feet from the boat landing, is the home of Switzerland’s Brienz-Rothorn train. This unique train offers one of the most picturesque rail journeys in Switzerland.
For 127 years, since June 17, 1892, Switzerland’s Brienz-Rothorn train has puffed and chuffed passengers 4.7 miles into the mountains of the Bernese Oberland to a height of more than 7,000 feet. Today, it remains the fourth highest railway in the country.
What makes this little Alpine journey so special? It has never been electrified. That means most of its narrow gauge cogwheel rail journeys are still powered in the old fashioned way: with steam.
On offer: A dizzying trip to a Swiss mountain high
It takes nearly an hour for the open-air Brienz-Rothorn train to traverse its serpentine route to the summit of the Brienzer Rothorn. But strangely, at numerous places along the trail it appears that the train and its passengers can’t go any higher.
Passing through five small tunnels along the way, the scenery is typically “Swiss perfect.” Every twist and turn produces a new photo-op that seems to surpass the last one. The views of the Bernese Alps, Lake Brienz and the Grimsel areas are magnificent – as are those of Mount Pilatus and Mount Hogant.
As the extraordinary “Toonerville” train wends its way up the mountain, it passes through thick forests and crosses serene meadows where cowbells are the only sounds that disrupt the silence.
The mid-station of Planalp is where the forests yield to alpine meadows, rocks and sharp ridges. Here, the vistas become the most breathtaking with each turn in the tracks.
More on the train
Originally, the line connected at Brienz with the Brünig railway. That line opened in 1888 from Brienz eastwards to Lucerne. Since the Swiss did not extend the Brünig line westward to nearby Interlaken until 1916, many early travelers to the Rothorn first arrived by boat on Lake Brienz.
Combined with competitive tourist traffic from the opening of Schynige Platte Railway in 1895 and the Jungfraubahn in 1898, the Brienz-Rothorn train struggled financially in the earliest years of operation. The train was further strapped economically due to World War I. Service was suspended on 1 August 1914 and did not re-open until the war ended, some four years later.
Unlike other Swiss mountain railways, since Switzerland’s Brienz-Rothorn train was never electrified. It remained the only steam-operated line in the country from 1953 to 1990.
Today, while other Swiss mountain trains do offer special “steam” trips, the BRB is the only line that offers a full steam service, with diesel locomotives only occasionally employed for additional trains and for light traffic periods.
The other unique feature of the Brienz-Rothorn train: The engine actually pushes its coaches up the mountain rather than pulling them in the traditional manner.
Switzerland’s Brienz-Rothorn train also takes you to lofty fine dining experiences
As with all Swiss mountain excursions, there are restaurants at the summit. The Mountain Lodge Rothorn Kulm offers newly refurbished rooms that practically guarantee spectacular sunsets and sunrises.
Plan for at least 4 1/2 hours for a round trip, which still leaves much of the day for additional sightseeing.
Touring Brienz and Meiringen and encountering the ghost of Sherlock Holmes
With a multitude of wood carving shops throughout Brienz, the tiny lakeside community is a great place to begin your on-the-ground excursion. You can find carving demonstrations everywhere purveying a myriad of unique souvenirs in virtually every price range.
Just down the tracks is the Sherlock Holmes town of Meiringen. As Sherlock’s many fans know, Conan Doyle’s master sleuth’s and famed consulting detective had his apparently fatal encounter at Reichenbach Falls with his notorious arch-enemy, Professor Moriarity. The nearby village is small but well worth a stroll to take in all the delicious Holmesian ambiance.
Enjoying the lakes
If you arrived in Brienz by train, one option for more sightseeing is to cross the tracks and take a boat on the Lake of Brienz. Among the stops, about halfway, is Giessbach Falls. Here, some visitors like to get off the boat and take the tiny train to Grandhotel Giessbach for coffee, drinks, afternoon tea or even dinner.
Return to another boat at your leisure and continue on to Interlaken or cruise back to Brienz. For a faster return, it’s easy to take a train back to Brienz from Interlaken if time is an issue.
If you have more time to spare, it’s also easy to take a different boat on Interlaken’s sister lake, the Lake of Thun. In a country where castles are relatively sparse, Thun’s castle is not only picturesque but worth a short visit.
From Thun, there is regular rail service to the beautiful arcaded UNESCO capital city of Bern or simply take another boat back to Interlaken.
Lucern, Berne and the Brunig Pass
Travelers based in Lucerne will quickly discover that the rail journey from Lucerne to Brienz and the Rothorn train through the Brunig Pass is an unexpected bonus.
Others may wish to base themselves in Bern to take full advantage of the Schynige Platte, the Schilthorn and/or the train to Europe’s highest railway station on the Jungfrau.
Switzerland’s outdoor museum called Ballenberg is also in the area.
For traveler’s using a Swiss Travel Pass most of the transportation services are free. On some of the private moutaintop railways such as the Brienz-Rothorn train, rail pass riders are entitled to substantial discounts.
Switzerland’s Brienz-Rothorn train only operates in summer months from May to October. Even then it’s always a good idea to check the weather at the summit before setting out. Conditions may prove quite different at the top than they are in Brienz.
Otherwise, just remember, when “push comes to shove,” the tiny, steam-driven Brienz-Rothorn train remains a uniquely marvelous but little-known panoramic outing for everyone.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world.
Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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