No. 159: 12:30 to Zermatt

Over the recent fourth of July weekend I took my family to Grachen, Switzerland for a week of Alpine hiking. Grachen is a mountain-top village a few miles away from the highest peak in the Swiss Alps, the Matterhorn.  The hiking was hard but there were breathtaking views in every direction.

Above. One of my daughters a thousand feet above Randa, which we’ll visit later. Below, the fam and I are taking a break from a hard hike up the mountain before crossing the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world, about 7,700 feet above Randa. The bridge is 494 metres long on the Europaweg trail.

Later, below, a Swiss Ibex on the trail. We saw many on this day. He moseyed along after a peaceful standoff.

Below. A few miles from Grachen is one of Switzerland’s most well-known ski destinations, Zermott.  We spent two days hiking from town, and after our hikes we ate, toured, shopped, and enjoyed a some of the local ambiance.

Zermott is a “car-free” town.  To get there, one takes “The BVZ”—the Brig-Visp-Zermatt Railway.  We caught the 12:30 to Zermatt here, at Randa. The Randa station is the oldest station on the BVZ–it was built in 1891.

The BVZ is a 44-kilometer-long, 3.3-meter (1000-mm) gauge electric railroad that connects the main Swiss railroad system in Visp, Switzerland—a town just outside the valley—with Zermott. The line has been in service since 1890 but is modern in every way. The BVZ is single track with traffic control and signaled sidings, plus tunnels, bridges, snow/avalanche sheds, and quiet and efficient trains. There’s even freight traffic to make things even more interesting.

Below. The BVZ features “racks” that allow trains to climb steep grades between Visp and Zermatt. A closeup of one of the racks is shown below. The racks are double-rows of steel teeth, fastened to steel ties to keep everything in perfect alignment. When trains reach the racks, a powered cog wheel is lowered from the engine to power trains uphill and secure the going downhill.

The maximum incline on the railroad for “adhesion” is 2.5%, but the rack/cog system allows climbs of up to 12.5%. Rack-less track, as seen below, is clean and well-ballasted, and full of date nails. See the weld line?

Below. Some BVZ action. Here’s a bad photo of a very fast freight headed to Zermatt. Freights regularly handle fuel, groceries, building supplies, and just about everything else needed in Zermatt. The Matterhorn is just around the corner to the right.

Below. Here’s a rear view from a Zermatt-bound train. We have entered a rack section at the end of the siding. There’s an electric switch indicator on the right–note the lit, vertical signal on the retaining wall at right.

At the top of the hill, we have exited the rack and have met not one but two trains about to head down the rack.

At the modern Zermatt dead-end terminal, the train shed included both passenger and freight trains. The little engine here is a captive Zermatt switcher.

Below. This engine type–a Deh 4/4 in the Zermatt train shed–was my favorite type I encountered. I saw these running all week on freight and passenger trains. They reminded me a little bit of old American doodlebugs. More info on the engines can be found here, but it’s all in Deutsch: A splendid picture of this engine is online at

At Zermatt the BVZ connects with a famous railway line called the Gornergrat Bahn. This 1000-mm, narrow gauge electric railway takes passengers up steep, scenic route up the mountains to a ski area. At the ski area near the top of the mountain, the line is elevated with ski tunnels underneath so skiers can “shred the GNAR” underneath the embankment.

Below. We didn’t ride the Gornergrat but I did walk past their terminal on several occasions. Here’s their engine house in Zermatt, a half kilometer from the BVZ train shed. Note all the tracks here have racks installed, even on level lines.

Below. The business end of the terminal, showing a train embarking passengers and about to head up the mountain. The complex rack track is very interesting stuff.

Below. The racks on the Gornergrat’s turnouts make them look like three-way turnouts. And, unlike the BVZ, there are no steel ties here.

Finally, we took one last train ride for our last hike of the trip. We took the Sunnegga-Rothorn funicular train, seen below, from downtown Zermatt up the mountain near Sunnega Peak, which is very near the Matterhorn. Below, we’re late and my family is scrambling to get on the train in time. Of course I’m lagging behind so I could “get the shot!”

The ride to the top was only three minutes. Here’s the view at the top:

We hiked for hours to lakes, peaks, mountain huts and more.

On the way back down the mountain, I somehow managed to get in the front car again. Halfway down the mountain there was a little passing siding, and I was able to get a photo of our “down” train meeting the “up train” in the tunnel. There it is at the right. Crazy stuff!

The Swiss love their little railways and it shows.  If you’re intereste you can read more about the BVZ and it’s Zermatt connections at .

Next time, back to modeling. – John G

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