“It should be easier for the Dutch,” Furrer admits, “for their national rail service consists of only one company. They don’t have to work with partner firms as we do.”
As confirmed by the Information Service for Public Transport (LITRA) office in Berne, the Dutch Federal Railways have the densest rail network in Europe. The Dutch are also building a 130-km high-speed stretch from Amsterdam Central Station via Shiphol Airport to Rotterdam and Breda at the Belgian border.
And another country with a high rail density in the lowlands, Belgium, has its own high-speed rail expansion underway: the north axis linking to Brussels and on to the Dutch border. High-speed travel has its champions within the business community, where executives can stay focused on their laptops. Yet it’s another story for tourists keen on the passing scene.
Though ideal for high-speed rail, the flat expanses of the Netherlands and Belgium admittedly lack the scenic splendor of the Swiss Alps. That’s what draws foreign tourists to Switzerland in droves and justifies Furrer’s outreach to them via the STS. At least that’s the finding of longstanding marketing research throughout Europe.
If any other European country combines breathtaking mountain scenery and a desire to tap its potential for tourism, it would be Switzerland’s eastern neighbor Austria. But the Austrians, according to LITRA, have become nearly bogged down with rail groundbreaking ceremonies involving the Brenner Pass.
Two other countries bordering Switzerland — France and Italy — have also made ambitious strides as high-speed train developers in recent years. Both the French TGV and Italian Cisalpino systems feed into Swiss territory.
Indeed the Cisalpino passes through the country and continues north from Zurich to the German city of Stuttgart. Swiss residents boarding within Switzerland gain a 25 percent discount on the Cisalpino in Italy or Germany if they possess a Swiss half-price pass.
German and Austrian trains offer passengers from Switzerland bearing half-price passes the same discount on trips into their country. But at this point France has resisted granting such discounts to its neighbors. SBB spokesmen say off the record that French rail marketers have traditionally preferred a go-it-alone stance.
In this sense, Switzerland’s recent coup in tourism marketing bears more than brief mention, as the Swiss managed to enter France’s back door via rail “cultural diplomacy.” A consortium of Swiss tourism-oriented interests, including the Rhaetian Railways, won the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) “World Heritage” listing on July 7 for the RhB’s spectacular Albula and Bernina rail stretches that end in the border town of Tirano, Italy. The United Nations cultural agency granting the coveted honor happens to reside in Paris.
Unesco recognition actually focuses on the need to preserve the mountainous valleys’ unique culture as well as marvelous railway tunneling and viaduct-building feats completed more than a century ago.
It’s notable that the Unesco choice of a tourism-oriented rail line becomes the third such line granted this honor by the UN agency. The other two — Austria’s Semmering Railroad and India’s Darjeeling Himalayan Railway line — also met the UN criteria as deserving scenic rail rides built during the golden age of rail design.
Unesco’s recent decision to honor the RhB Albula and Bernina lines adds yet another reason for rail tourists to spend Swiss francs in the country’s easternmost canton. Canton Grisons director of planning and spatial development Richard Atzmüller explained why. He was one of many expert coauthors of the project’s 700-page proposal to Unesco.
As Atzmüller points out, those who planned the linking 122-km Albula and Bernina lines more than a century ago could have plotted a rail route based on pure cost effectiveness.
“That would have meant determining the shortest possible route between A and Z,” he says. “But the RhB’s civil engineers realized from the start that these lines should attract tourists. So they imagined the best vantage points to view the alpine scenery. Photographers today can see how well they carried out that task — how they created sweeping vistas to showcase gorges, glaciers, viaducts and terraces.”