hidden europe 63

Queen of the mountains: celebrating 150 years of the Rigi rack railway

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Climbing up above Vitznau towards the Rigi. Note the unusual vertical boiler on the steam engine. Most trains these days are operated by modern electric railcars (photo © David Gubler licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).


The slopes of the Rigi climb up above Lake Lucerne, though the mountain itself claims no great height. Its summit is at less than 2,000 metres. But the railway to the top of the Rigi claims special status as Switzerland's first mountain railway. This spring, the Rigi Railway celebrates the 150th anniversary of its opening in May 1871.

You would love the view from Vitznau. Looking out over the lake, there is a gorgeous vista across to the chunky wedge of the Bürgenstock, while off to the right the lakeshore curves away to Weggis. Closer to hand, there are handsome villas and fine gardens. But Herr Riggenbach is not so interested in the lake. He sits on a bench behind the landing stage, where the Lake Lucerne steamers come and go, his back to the lake. For a dedicated engineer like Riggenbach, there is more to admire than just the lake.

This spring marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Rigibahn, the mountain railway which climbs up steeply from Vitznau to the summit of the Rigi. Despite reaching no great elevation — its summit is at 1,897 metres — the Rigi is held in great affection by the Swiss. And with not just one but two railways climbing to the summit, there are multiple options for circular tours that include both railways, a visit to the summit and a boat trip on the lake. But the Rigi was not always so accessible, and during the greater part of the 19th century those aspiring to admire the view from the Rigi faced an arduous climb, whether on foot or horseback, though the opening of several inns on and around the mountain top meant that even in the pre-railway age there was the prospect of food and shelter at the summit.

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