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Travel:by Eric Mackenzie LambRealp, Swiss Alps: More than a century ago, the Swiss government started construction of a steam railway which would connect the Alpine villages of Brig and Disentis by way of the 7,086 foot high Furka Pass. For the local inhabitants, this would be a game changer-especially because travel between the country’s mountainous regions had always been difficult, if not impossible, especially during the winter months. Unlike today, there were no modern highways such as autobahns, and the roads which did exist were primitive and often dangerous due to their steep curves and exposure to mud slides and avalanches.Meanwhile, the intricate process of building steam locomotives was launched in the town of Winterthur, a project which would last from 1913 to 1925.Construction of the line itself began in 1911. By 1914, the first section connecting Brig to the village of Gletsch was officially opened. However, due to World War I, it was used primarily to move Swiss soldiers into defensive positions to protect the country from a potential invasion by Germany and its allies. Because of turmoil in the rest of Europe, government funding for the rail project ran out and work gradually ground to a halt. However, this didn’t impede the construction of six locomotives, the last of which was finished in 1925.But at this point, there was little for them to do. The locomotives were moved into storage until work, it was hoped, would resume on the rail lines.Then history repeated itself with the igniting of World War II. By 1942, Swiss railways were changing their source of power from steam to electricity, one of the first countries in the world to do so. Because of this innovation, a decision was made in 1947 to sell four of the remaining steam locomotives, as well as spare parts stored in a carriage, to Vietnam.In 1982, construction of the mountain line was abandoned after the opening of the Realp to Oberwald base tunnel. The last steam powered journey between Brig and Disentis marked the end of an era. Or so it was believed.But by 1992,, two cantonal districts of Switzerland, Uri and Valais, had realized that a resurrected steam railway in their region would quickly become a major tourist attraction. And, as things turned out, they were right.Building and restoration began at a frenzied pace, largely because much of the work, especially the boring of tunnels and the laying of rails, could only be done during the summer months. The project involved more than seven hundred volunteers, including some of the country’s most talented engineers. In 1990, the Furka Dampfbahn (which had by now become a private corporation) agreed to buy back a total of four of the locomotives which were originally sold to Vietnam more than half a century before. The deal was done, and the first two arrived at the German port of Hamburg a few weeks later.But getting these massive machines, which weighed tonnes , from there to Switzerland was an even greater challenge. But, in the end, the relocation was successful and locomotives were finally back home. Amid great celebrations, the steam train carried its first passengers from Realp to Oberwald in 2010. Since then, although it operates only between late June and October, it has transported, on average, over thirty thousand people each summer.As for myself, I made my maiden voyage on the Furka Dampfbahn only a few weeks ago. To say that it was an amazing experience would be an understatement. And that’s without mentioning the spectacular scenery which we as passengers were able to see from our windows.
A truly memorable experience. And a chance to ride back into history when the first whistle sounds.