Railway, PostBus and co. reshape Switzerland

From the middle of the 19th century onwards, Switzerland's transport system developed with ever-increasing speed. The railway reshaped landscapes, society and the economy; mountain railways, cable cars and the PostBus connected summits and valleys. The old stage coach, on the other hand, had served its uses.

The beginnings of the railway

The dawn of the railway marked the onset of a new era in Switzerland that was characterised by the boom of the mechanical engineering industry and entrepreneurial politicians such as railway pioneer Alfred Escher. Most of all, however, it resulted in a profound change to the landscape and an accelerated urban development.

The Railway Act of 1852 placed the construction and operation of the railways in the hands of the cantons. The Confederation was responsible for granting operating concessions, dealing with issues relating to compulsory acquisitions, technical standardisation, reviewing construction plans and for the safety of workers. The Confederation subsequently expanded its competencies due to the "railway row" at the end of the 1870s and the construction work on the Gotthard that was overshadowed by numerous accidents. Treaties were agreed with neighbouring countries to enable the construction of large railway tunnels. Concessions had to be granted, construction deadlines reviewed and financing guaranteed by way of federal government bonds. The Confederation appointed experts who reviewed the construction contracts and investigated accidents at work. The authorities also mediated in the event of legal disputes.

In 1902, the Central Railway, the Northeastern Railway, the United Swiss railways, the Jura-Simplon Railway, the Gotthard Railway and other companies merged to create Swiss Federal Railways (SFR). Individual small railway companies such as the Rhätische Railway (RhB) or, later, the Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon Railway (BLS) were able to compete and survive throughout the 20th century. However, the cantons and the Confederation became important stakeholders.

The documents of the Confederate Railway Administration dating from the 19th century are maintained in the fonds of the Railway Authority (1843-1965). The following topics can be found there:

  • Development and operation of the railway network and other public transport facilities in Switzerland
  • Legislation
  • Nationalisation of railway companies
  • Licensing
  • Safety issues in relation to state-owned and private railways, cable cars and chair lifts

The business files of the Swiss Federal Railways (SFR) and its predecessors, on the other hand, are not maintained by the Federal Archives, but are in the Historical Archives of the SFR (ger).

The personal files of Federal Councillors Josef Zemp (1870-1908) and Ludwig Forrer (1873-1922) are also of significance with regard to the beginnings of the national Railway Authority. The private archives of Ludwig Forrer (1863-1917) and Federal Councillor, entrepreneur and railway pioneer Alfred Escher (1820-1891) also contain interesting documents on the topic.

Railways in the 20th century

The Swiss Federal Railways (SFR) began operating in 1902. The continuous demand for new rolling stock triggered a boom in Switzerland's mechanical engineering industry that had set international standards in the construction of locomotives. In the 1940s, the railway became a means of mass transport for people and goods. In the 1960s, however, it fell into crisis due to the competition from motorised private transport. The 1970s were the decade of forecasts and plans. New stretches for faster trains were to be built, connections to airports established, and commuters given a better service. Large-scale projects such as Bahn 2000 and NEAT were initiated in the decades that followed. The SFR was the subject of a significant change in 1999. For almost 100 years, it had been governed directly by the Federal Assembly and Federal Council as a supervisory authority. In 1999, it was reorganised as an incorporated company under private law and owned outright by the Confederation.

Documents on the railways of the 20th century can be found mainly at the current Federal Office of Transport (1823-2005) and its predecessor organisations, the Railway Department (1874-1934) and the previous Federal Office of Transport (1820-1992). In addition to written documents, these fonds also contain many plans on the routes of lines, level crossings and height profiles. Some dossiers also contain photographic material, predominantly anniversary publications and business reports.

Important documents on the topic can also be found in the personal files of former directors of the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC), for instance in those of Marcel Pilet-Golaz (1893-1948) or Adolf Ogi (1988-1994).

Documents relating to trains, railway transport and train accidents during the First and Second World Wars are filed in the fonds of the National Defence (1600-1960). Notes on other fonds may be referenced from the section on Railways and PostBuses (Item 722).

Mountain railways and cable cars

A close correlation exists between mountain railways and tourism. Prior to the First World War, Switzerland's mountains were a popular destination of predominantly foreign tourists. The Vitznau-Rigi railway began operating in 1871 as Europe's first cog railway. The first drag lift was built in Davos in 1934. The global economic crisis and the Second World War delayed further developments until the 1960s. Ski chairlifts were the final addition when, in the early 1970s, new winter sports regions were developed and skiing became a national sport. At the beginning of the 21st century, 505 cable car operating companies had a total of 1774 cable cars and ski lifts in operation.

The Confederation has been responsible for overseeing the construction and operation of mountain railways and cable cars since the 1890s. The corresponding documents are found mainly in the fonds of the Railway Authority (1843-1965), the Federal Department of Transport (1820-1992) and the Federal Office of Transport (1823-2005). The fonds of the Federal Office of Transport also contain the title Sub-registry of cable cars (1878-1981), a sub-fonds with documents on individual cable cars.

From stage coach to PostBus

Transport by private and regionally organised stage coaches began developing around the middle of the 18th century. The postal system was nationalised with the founding of the Federal State and a national stage coach network was established in 1849. The Gotthard stage coach even achieved fame. An automobile was first used for transporting mail between Bern and Detligen in 1906.

Following the First World War, army trucks were converted into serialised PostBuses that gradually replaced the stage coaches. The PostBuses continuously reached out to new regions, including many alpine valleys and mountain passes that were not connected to the railway network. Licensed regional automobile companies offered a growing range of PostBus services.

Increasing pressure from competitors and costs in the public transport sector have led to a partial reduction in the number of PostBus connections over the past 30 years. On the other hand, PostBuses took over the route services of discontinued railway lines or switched to special transport services. They include tourist travel and trips outside of scheduled services.

The funds of the Post Office (1708-1931) contain various documents on stage coaches, post office licenses and postal routes. More recent documents on PostBuses can be found in the fonds of the Federal Department of Transport (1820-1992) and the current Federal Office of Transport (1823–2005).

Tips for further research

  • Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with, among others, articles on railways (ger) and mountain railways (ger).
  • Historic SFR (ger): historical archives of the SFR (including the archives of the predecessor companies Gotthard Railway, Central Railway, Northeastern Railway, etc.) in Bern; they also contain a library and a contemporary collection of periodicals. Website with photos and technical details on rolling stock as well as notes on collections of historical railway documentation and exhibits of the SFR.
  • Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne: thematic library and archive on the history of transport in Switzerland. Equipped with numerous exhibits, for instance a reproduction der "Swiss Northern Railway" or one of the first electric tram carriages of the Vevey–Schloss Chillon line.
  • Federal archives (ger) and municipal archives (ger): documents on the railways and public transport in Switzerland. Important estates and information on specific railway routes, bridges and station buildings can be found in the corresponding federal and municipal archives.
  • Cantonal Archives of Lucerne (ger): documents of the SFR district directorate Lucerne on the Gotthard Railway, the Central Railway and the Northeastern Railway and also on the Swiss Association of Railwaymen (SEV), Lucerne Section.
  • Cantonal Archives of Graubunden: photos and documents on the construction of the Bündner mountain railways.
  • Cantonal Archives of Bern: documents on the construction and posters on the opening of the Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon line.
  • Bibliothèque de Genève (French): private archives of the Gotthard tunnel engineers Louis Favre and Jean-Daniel Colladon.
  • Swiss Economic Archives (ger): various fonds of Switzerland's historic railway companies.
  • arCHeco: register of economic fonds preserved in largely publicly accessible company archives in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
  • Asea Brown Boveri (ABB): acquired in part by Canadian company Bombardier Transportation. The company's archives contain information on documents relating to the production of rolling stock by the companies BBC, ABB and MFO.
  • Sulzer AG Company Archives: historical documents of rolling stock manufacturer Escher Wyss AG and the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Factory Winterthur.
  • Swiss Railway Amateur Club Zurich (SEAK) (ger): extensive list of links from Alp-Transit to model railway associations to the Transports Publics du Chablais.
  • Railways & Nostalgia (ger): information on historical locomotives
  • Cable Car Inventory (ger): an inventory of historically significant cable cars published in 2012 under the supervision of the Federal Office of Culture (BAK).
  • Museum for Communication in Bern: extensive collection of stage coaches and post office vehicles. Operates the Historical Archives and PTT Library.

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Last modification 04.11.2019

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