As train travel increased and the benefits of rail links became evident, it seemed that nothing could stop the spread of the iron road. There was no obstacle—financial, geographic, or social—that could not be overcome by the railroads. Soon mountains were being crossed or tunneled under in territories as far apart as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and India. Rivers were forded and houses demolished to make way for stations in town centers. Even disease-infested jungles were conquered, such as the swamps on the Panamanian isthmus, although only at a terrible human cost. The United States, with its vast western deserts, soon boasted not just one transcontinental railroad, but four—and Canada laid three of its own. Urban transportation, too, was revolutionized. London’s Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground line, opened in 1863, and became the blueprint for many such systems across the world.

Although trains were becoming commonplace, there was little improvement in the quality of services—largely because the majority of travelers had no other means of transportation, so their custom was taken for granted. There were exceptions, of course—prestige services such as those developed by George Pullman, who provided not only far better meals, but comfortable overnight sleeper cars—but by and large rail transportation offered few comforts. Nor was it entirely safe. At first, trains were so few and so slow that collisions were unlikely, but as the tracks filled up and trains traveled faster, accidents became inevitable.

The railroad companies soon became the dominant industry of the day. They were larger than any other business, and by their very nature operated across vast areas. Perhaps most enduringly, they liked to demonstrate their importance by building huge stations that became the cathedrals of the age—a source of pride to both the railroad companies and the communities they served.

Crossing the Alps

MANY OF THE FIRST EUROPEAN RAILROADS ran from cities to ports, so that goods could be transferred onto ships. As the network developed, however, it hit a major hurdle in the heart of the continent—the Alps. From the earliest days, the governments promoting the railroads realized that this was an obstacle that would have to be surmounted, but it posed the hardest challenge yet encountered by railroad builders. Engineers had to develop new skills and techniques, excavating tunnels far longer than any previously cut and erecting bridges over deep, inaccessible ravines.


The first railroad to cross the Alps was the Semmering. It was built over the Semmering Pass by the Austrian Empire to connect the imperial capital, Vienna, with the Empire’s only seaport, Trieste (now in Italy). A circuitous route via the Hungarian plains had been considered, but the transalpine railroad’s main backer, Archduke John of Austria, was determined to find a way over the mountains. This was a remarkable challenge and it took a remarkable man to design and build it: Carl von Ghega, an engineer with mountain-road-building experience who had engineered the Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway from Brno to Breclav (both now in the Czech Republic). In 1842, Ghega was put in charge of the entire Austrian railroad-building program. Believing that an essential part of this program was a link between Austria and the Adriatic, he traveled to the United States to learn about railroad construction methods, and how they might be applied to finding a way over the mountains. He returned convinced that a railroad over the Semmering was feasible.


The Semmering was a mountain pass that had been used by travelers on foot and on horseback since the Middle Ages. Although it was the lowest of the Alpine crossings, and so remained open longer than others in winter, the pass still rose to more than 3,000ft (900m) above sea level, and building a railroad across the range required extraordinary ingenuity and innovation. The Austrian Government backed the project because the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848 convinced the new Emperor Franz Joseph of its necessity—not only to unite the ends of his disparate Empire as they sought to fragment and affirm their national identities, but also to create employment at a time of economic depression. Establishing a connection from Vienna to the sea became both politically and economically essential.

Ghega chose a route through the Alps that started at Gloggnitz in Lower Austria and ran to Mürzzuschlag in Styria. As the crow flies, these two towns are 13 miles (21km) apart, but the railroad covered twice that distance with its curves and switchbacks, the track running across curved viaducts that arched their way over broad valleys before entering long tunnels. In all, the route required 14 tunnels, the longest of which was 4,600ft (1,400m); 16 viaducts, several with two levels; and more than 100 curved stone bridges. Avalanche sheds were built to protect the line from falling rock and snow on its perilous path along the mountainside. Even with all these structures, the ascent still rose by grades of up to 1 in 40 (2.5 percent), very steep for the locomotives of the time; the curves, too, were sharper than those on other lines. To overcome these difficulties, Ghega also worked to develop engines that could handle them. In 1851, he initiated a competition, similar to the Rainhill Trials 22 years earlier (see Rainhill Trials), to find the best locomotive. An engine called Bavaria won, but when the line opened, it proved unable to haul heavy loads up the steep inclines. A new engine, designed by Wilhelm Freiherr von Engerth, a professor of engineering at Graz University, took its place.

All the construction work was carried out by hand, with the help of gunpowder (the only explosive available at the time). The workforce, which was made up of Germans, Czechs, and Italians, as well as Austrians, was enormous—20,000 people at its peak. Perhaps inevitably, accidents occurred during construction. In the worst single incident—a rock fall in October 1850—14 men lost their lives, and in all, around 700 men died, many from diseases such as typhus and cholera. In one astonishing near miss, the building of the railroad almost changed the course of history. The young Otto von Bismarck, who later unified Germany and became known as its Iron Chancellor, represented his country at a line inspection. He was nearly killed when a gangway over a ravine broke beneath him—he survived by clinging, cartoon-style, onto a ledge as he fell.

The first freight train traveled over the pass in October 1853 and passenger traffic began the following July. By 1857, the all-important connection between Vienna and Trieste was complete. While the line cost four times its original estimate, it proved its worth as a vital trade link for the Austrian Empire in what turned out to be its declining years. Moreover, the railroad blended so well into the landscape that it has today been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the double-layered viaducts singled out as a particularly distinctive feature.


After the success of the Semmering, other routes were soon being planned through the Alps. A route under the western Alps was proposed in 1848, but the revolutions of that year and the Italian Wars of Unification delayed its progress. Once Italy was unified in 1861, interest revived and a plan was laid to build a line under Mont Cenis, connecting Bardonecchia on the Italian side with Modane in Savoy, which had been annexed to France in 1860 and, more widely, linking Milan and Turin in Italy with Grenoble and Lyon in France.

Going over the Mont Cenis pass was considered out of the question given that it reached a height of 6,827ft (2,081m). However, a temporary rack railroad (see Climbing Mountains) capable of climbing steep grades, the Mont Cenis Pass Railway, was opened alongside the pass road in 1868. The 50-mile (80-km) line was used to speed up the carriage of mail between Britain and India via the Italian port of Bari. Worked by British locomotive engineers, it was the first ever rack railroad based on the Fell mountain railway system, named for British railroad engineer John Barraclough Fell. The system used a toothed third rail to propel the locomotive up steep hills. However, it proved short-lived and was dismantled in 1871, when the more efficient Fréjus Tunnel replaced it.

The 8½-mile (13.6-km) Fréjus Tunnel, built at a height of 4,000ft (1,200m), was at the time of its construction the longest in the world. Initially, tunneling techniques were still primitive: they involved drilling a hole and placing explosive charges in it. Progress was slow at first. Five years after work had started in 1857, less than 1 mile (2km) had been completed. Then the engineer, Germano Sommeiller, invented a pneumatic rock-boring machine, the pace increased and, with teams working from both ends, the tunnel broke through on December 26, 1870. Thanks to a new method of determining the route known as indirect triangulation, which involved teams of surveyors taking bearings on many points on the mountain, the two ends of the tunnel were less than 2ft (half a meter) out of direct alignment when they met up. The Mont Cenis Railway—the first international railroad linked by a tunnel at the frontier—opened for traffic in October 1871.

The second major tunnel under the Alps was the Gotthard Tunnel, which was also immensely difficult to construct due to the geology of the region. It took from 1871 to 1881 to build and, at 9½ miles (15km), was slightly longer than the Fréjus Tunnel. Work was faster thanks to the use of dynamite, invented by Alfred Nobel in 1867, but it still took an outstanding man, the Swiss engineer Louis Favre, to work out a way of getting through the mountain. Favre devised an innovative way to reach the tunnel mouth, at an elevation of more than 3,600ft (1,100m). He created tunnels that circled around at a gentle grade through the rock, so that the route spirals up the mountain to reach a point above itself. At Wassen, for example, passengers heading south can see a church spire from below then, a few minutes later, they find themselves viewing it from above. These loops add considerably to the journey time—the line between Lucerne and Chiasso on the Swiss-Italian border is 140 miles (225km) long, and around a fifth of the route is made up of loops.


Sadly, Favre did not live to see his creation completed. In 1879, he suffered a heart attack—very likely brought on by the strain of the project—during a tour of inspection of the tunnel, and died at the age of 54. He was not the only one to die: more than 200 tunnel-builders died in accidents—many drowned when drilling hit underground streams, others were killed by rock falls and collisions with the cars used to take out the stone.

After the Gotthard Tunnel opened in 1882, other rail routes were soon carved through the Alps via tunnels including the Simplon, which at 12 miles (19km) became the world’s longest when completed in 1906, and the Lötschberg, which opened just before the start of World War I. The Swiss developed electric locomotives to pull trains through these tunnels, which would otherwise have filled dangerously with smoke from steam engines (see Electricity Lightens the Load).


Today, Switzerland is constructing a series of ambitious railroad tunnels through the Alps in order to reduce road traffic over the mountains. The aim is to bypass the old Gotthard Tunnel’s slow, winding route, which is already operating at full capacity. To achieve this, the massive AlpTransit project aims to increase rail capacity through these huge new tunnels. The longest—indeed, it will be the longest in the world, surpassing the 14½-mile (23-km) Seikan Tunnel in Japan—will be the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Due to open in 2016, it will have two tunnels, each 35½ miles (57km) long. The new Gotthard rail link, consisting of the Zimmerberg Base Tunnel (for which no completion date has been given) and the Ceneri Base Tunnel (due to open in 2019), along with the Gotthard Base Tunnel, will mean trains can cross the Alps by rail at just 1,805ft (550m) above sea level. This lower elevation will make it possible to create a high-speed link for passenger trains as well as for freight, reducing the travel time between Zurich and Milan from the current 4 hours to 2½ hours. The AlpTransit project also includes the 22-mile (35-km) Lötschberg Base Tunnel between the cantons of Bern and Valais in Switzerland, which opened in June 2007.

All these routes through the Alps represent one of the heroic achievements of the railroad builders. Moreover, they have proved remarkably safe since completion, with accidents a rarity despite the harsh conditions in which the trains operate, especially in winter.

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