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The Furka-Oberalp Railway is the heart of the large alpine narrow gauge network between Engadine and Matterhorn. It connects the valleys of Rhine and Rhone and forms an important east west axis within the Swiss alps. Since 1982 its importance has been increased by the opening of the Furka Basistunnel, which permits an all-season operation.
After a long and confusing prehistory the Furkabahn Brig Furka Disentis" (BFD) was created on May 27th 1910. Financial investors from France have had a strong influence on the plans. In 1911 the construction work has started in the Goms (= upper Rhone Valley) and at the Furka summit section. One year later they started also at the Oberalp line from Andermatt to Disentis. On June 30th, 1914 the initialization of the line Brig-Gletsch was celebrated, but the official acceptance was delayed to the summer 1915.
Because of problems at the Furka Scheiteltunnel and the outbreak of the First World War the society came into a financial crisis, which ended in 1923 in a bankruptcy. In 1924 a group of interested people under the leadership of the Visp-Zermatt Railway has been formed. Involved were the three concerned cantons Grison, Uri and Wallis, some municipalities and also the neighbour railways Schoellenenbahn and Rhaetian Railway. The rescue and completion of the line has been accomplished by this group. In October 1925 the first train could run over the total distance Brig-Disentis for a test. With the completition of the VZ line Visp-Brig in 1930 the last gap in the large narrow gauge network of VZ, FO, SchB and RhB has been closed. In the same year the famous "Glacier Express" Zermatt- St. Moritz was introduced.
Since the two pass lines were passable only in the summer, a first financial rehabilitation was needed in the thirties. The desired electrification could be carried out only by strong commitment of the Swiss Federation and their military. Starting from summer 1942 the operation on the whole distance was handled electrically. In the same period the Oberalp line was secured for winter operation.
With financial help by the Swiss government the FO merged together with the Schoellenenbahn in 1961. This was a logical consequence of the close operation between both companies.
The old Furka Mountain line has made large problems for the FO for years, because it could be used only in the summer months. In 1970 the planning for a new "Furka-Basistunnel" started. In 1971 the project had passed parliamentary hurdle, in 1973 the construction work started. Geological problems, enormous cost overruns and difficulties with the construction supervision grew up a public scandal, which nearly caused the stopping of all work as a consequence.
But against all odds the tunnel has been broken through on 2 April 1981 and been put into operation one year later. With a length of 15,381 m the tunnel was the longest narrow-gauge railway tunnel of the world up to 1999. In November of that year the Vereina tunnel of the RhB took over this title with a length of 19.042 m.
The old line over the Furka was shut down in 1981 officially and is operated today by the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway. The train route, which is a sight worth seeing, was preserved thanks to a private initiative. The Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway Club was founded in 1983 to prevent the dismantling of the mountainous stretch of track and to put trains eventually back on the line.
But the reopening of the line was never certain – financial and regulatory hurdles had to be overcome and Swiss rolling stock that had been sold to Vietnam retrieved.
Eventually the club attracted thousands of members, from across Europe, who invested their own time – about 200,000 working hours - and millions of Swiss francs.
Key milestones were the registering of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway Company in 1985 to operate the line, and in 1990, the repatriation of steam locomotives from Vietnam.
The first length of track - no longer electrified - was reopened in 1992. Eventually other sections were opened, with the completion of the entire 17.8km stretch on Thursday.
In 1999 the old line was reconnected to the FO network by a switch in Realp.
It has been described as one of the most beautiful Swiss train routes. The Furka mountain route, which was built in 1925, leads past the impressive Rhone Glacier. Nostalgic steam locomotives and original carriages travel from June to October across cograil sections from Realp up to Canton Uri, through long tunnels and over folding bridges to the railway station of Furka, which lies at an elevation of 2,160 meters, and subsequently ride down on the Valaisian side. The steam train runs past the Rhone Glacier, which gave the original railway route the name Glacier Express.
The preservation and operation of the steam railway is guaranteed by an association that has over 7,000 members who volunteer their services.
The Glacier Express train will continue to pass this alpine section underground, while steam train buffs can now buy a separate ticket for the thrill of riding along the older, more breathtaking line.
The operators are hoping to attract many tour groups, which can journey by bus to Oberwald at the western end of the railway, board the train for the journey, and be picked up by bus again in Gletsch.
Even though the re-electrification of the line is under discussion, the small railway company is hesitant to move too quickly with any plans for upgrades.
The train can only be run on average 70 days of the year, and maintenance of the old rolling stock and tracks – susceptible to damage from rockslides and avalanches – is costly.