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A Brief History of Zermatt-Gornergrat Railway

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A Brief History of Zermatt-Gornergrat Railway

Learn more about the origin of cogwheel mountain railways in Switzerland with this brief history of Gornergrat Railway

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Beginnings Of Mass Tourism In Zermatt

The end of the 19th century marked the beginning of mass-scale tourism in Switzerland. Counting among the British upper class, the first tourists were fascinated with this beautiful  Alpine country and believed that its fresh mountain air had nothing short of healing properties.

Around that time, Zermatt, a simple wooden village inhabited by sheep herders, became one of the most well-known summer and winter resorts. Its main sell point? The Matterhorn, of course. Its characteristic, unconquered silhouette towered over Zermatt, providing awe-inspiring views all year long and tempting generations of mountaineers to climb its uninviting slopes.

brief history of gornergrat railways

Railway from Visp to Zermatt

The increasing number of tourists created a demand for easier and quicker transportation. At the time, the railway business was booming in Switzerland. 

In 1891, the rack track railway from Visp to Zermatt line was opened, proving a massive success among tourists. The number of visitors increased every year. Mount Rigi cogwheel train had been running successfully for over 20 years, Brienzer Rothorn railway was under construction and other connections were being built.

In 1896, the works began on another rack railway, this time from Zermatt to the peak of Gornergrat aimed to bring the railway line all the way up to the summit of Gornergrat.

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Gornergrat: Peak With A View

At the time, Gornergrat had already become famous as a mountaineering destination. Notably, in 1889, Queen Margarita of Italy, herself an avid mountaineer, came to Zermatt and climbed to the Gornergrat summit on foot and on horseback. The same year, she climbed Breithorn, and two years later, she donated funds for a hut to be built in Gressoney.

Gornergrat, offering impressive views of Matterhorn and fairly easy mountain routes, became a popular climbing destination. Hence, the decision to build a railway here, to help tourists get the best views of the famous mountain.

gornergrat cogwheel train

Building Gornergrat Railway

When completed in 1898, the Gornergrat railway was the first fully electric rack railway in Switzerland and remains the oldest functional electric rack railway in the world.

The construction was completed in record-breaking time: only two years. The builders had to overcome many unforeseen challenges along the way, such as building a 70-meter-long bridge above the Findelbach Gorge.

The original plans to build a stone bridge with arches, similar to Landwasser Viadukt, were quickly abandoned due to lack of time. Instead, an iron truss bridge on pillars was constructed. Building four tunnels at the beginning of the track was also complex and significantly slowed down the works. 

brief history of gornergrat railway

Railway Arrives At Gornergrat

In the end, the Zermatt Gornergrat Railway was opened in August 1898. It starts in the center of Zermatt, directly opposite the main train station, and climbs almost 1,500 meters high to the top of Gornergrat at 3089 (10,100 ft) in 33 minutes.

From this vantage point, you see one of the most beautiful mountain panoramas in the world, with a view of the Matterhorn (14,700 ft), Monte Rosa massif with Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4,634 m); the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier; and a total of 29 mountains above 4,000 m.

brief history of gornergrat railway

The Gornergrat Peak Experience

Gornergrat Kulm (peak) has more to offer than wonderful panoramas. 3100 Hotel Kulm, built in the 1960s offers 3* lodging with one of the best views in the world. It’s the highest hotel in the world which can probably make up for any inconveniences. It also hosts an observatory. Those coming here only for a day trip can enjoy a drink and a snack at the hotel or at a bar.

At Zooom The Matterhorn, the newest addition to the location, you can experience gliding over the Matterhorn thanks to modern VR equipment. Gornergrat is also a famous starting point for various treks and, in the winter season, one of the main ski areas around Zermatt.

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A Brief History of Gornergrat Railway - The Future

Remaining Europe’s highest open-air cog railway, Gornergrat Bahn brings passengers to the summit of the Gornergrat 365 days a year.

Riding with it is always a treat: as the small mountain cogwheel train climbs up higher and higher, a new panorama appears. Zermatt is left down below, and through a thick forest, one can take the first peek at the Matterhorn seemingly on eye level.

Much beloved by tourists and Swiss alike, Gornergrat railway remains one of the most renowned highlights of the region and Switzerland at large. With renovations and correct maintenance, it will hopefully serve the many more generations of mountain lovers. 

Gornergrat Railway experience is part of our 8-day Grand Train Tour of Switzerland. Experience the best Swiss Alps with the world’s most scenic train rides. Join us for 1st class experience with luggage transfers and two nights in each location. 

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