The Brienzer Rothorn Scenic Railway
The Brienzer Rothorn Railway (or Brienz Rothorn Bahn) is a private, scenic mountain railway on the shores of Lake Brienz, in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. It starts from its own station, just behind the main Brienz train station and gradually ascends the Rothorn mountain to an altitude of 2350 metres.
The train is the only non-electrified, daily steam service in Switzerland and is also unusual for using some of the world’s most modern locomotives, among the three generations of engines in service.
The first thing you notice about the train is that the locomotive is on back-to-front. This is because it’s easier to control in case of any problems on the line, (drivers keep a constant vigil on the line, checking for troublesome rocks that might pose a threat to the cogwheels on the narrow track) plus it’s apparently more energy-efficient.
The 8 kilometre journey takes around an hour each way. The train makes one stop half way up at Planalp Station, where you can get off and go for a mountain hike, on a range of routes. Here some enterprising dairy farmer sold us huge wheels of ‘young cheese’ for 15 CHF or so.
The journey broadly splits into three sections. First you climb your way past houses and gardens, many of them in the traditional, dark wood chalet style (our tourist board rep pointed hers out as we passed it) you then go through a maze of tall, dense pines and before you know it you’re looking out onto dizzying views of Lake Brienz.
After passing through a series of short, rough, granite tunnels, where you can actually feel the steam mist enveloping you, the scenery opens out onto Alpine plains, meadows and cow pastures, which are all but silent, save for the gentle tinkle of cowbells, as it weaves its way to the top, the views flipping from one side of the open carriage to the other.
Our volunteer guide Mike is an excellent advocate for the railway. He works for SwissCom during the week and travels half way across the Canton to give tours and workshops when called upon. Mike speaks, in a soft Yorkshire burr that occasionally slips into a Swiss German twang, with obvious, boundless enthusiasm, filling us in along the way with tales of ‘the ghost of car 54’ (one of their hospitality cars that mysteriously crashed on the mountainside in the 80s) and of the constant work to clear snow on the mountain in readiness for the next season.
Of course many mountain trains in this part of Switzerland offer sublime views, but the Brienzer ups the ante slightly by offering truly 360 degree panoramic vistas. From the summit you can look across six cantons, taking in the triple whammy of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau on one side and the Pialtus, Titlis and Rigi peaks of the Central Alps on the other.
So what makes the Brienz Rothorn Railway different?
Well one thing that our guide was keen to stress was that it provides a ‘more authentically Swiss experience’ than some of its competitors, attracting lots of locals. It’s not as heavily internationally marketed as the Jungfraubahn, for instance, so it’s not yet on the radar of mass tourists, some of whom tend to race excitedly with their cameras to the nearest viewpoint.
Indeed we did notice the preponderance of Swiss German voices at the top. The small circular viewing platform at the very apex of the Rothorn does not get too crowded, although prepare to be mobbed by thirsty gnats during summer.
The burly engine driver merrily puffs away on a cigarette in the cab, echoing the engine’s steady puff. It seems that the railway is a labour of love for them too. On Wednesday afternoons during the summer they do a special trip – the Steam Sausage Express – when they grill sausages on the loco’s radiator, served in huge baguettes, specially baked into the shape of train tracks, along with cartons of apple juice. This very charming initiative was actually suggested by one of the drivers.
How much is the Brienz Rothorn Railway?
Prices range from 26 CHF for a single (£17), early morning trip (the 8.36 express) to 84 CHF for a day return (around £55) It’s not the cheapest scenic railway going, but it’s reasonable value for Switzerland. Up to two children under the age of 16 travel free.
Discounts of up to 50% are available for holders of various passes, including the Swiss Saver Pass. Come on your birthday and they’ll even treat you to a free trip.
They also offer workshop tours, private group charters, footplate experiences and a special evening service in August, among other special deals.
When does it run?
The Brienz Rothorn Railway runs throughout the summer, whenever sufficient snow has been cleared from the line, usually from mid May to the end of October. There are 9 or 10 daily departures, from 7.30 am to the final descent at 5.40pm.
Food & Drink
No refreshments are served on the train (Steam Sausage days aside) but there are is a large cafe / canteen-style restaurant at the top with a terrace, serving mostly simple, fast food and Swiss classics, such as intimidatingly vast plates of cheese-crusted rosti. There’s also another cafe bar just next to the station.
The train even has its own small hotel at the summit, with 44 beds arranged in a variety of single, double and triple (bunk bed) rooms. There are no en-suite rooms, guests share several bathrooms on each corridor, so the hotel does not yet have a star rating. The pine-panelled rooms are basic, akin to what you’d expect from a good, rural hostel, but clean and cosy and give some splendid mountain views, especially first thing in the morning. Our guide Michael even spent his honeymoon there.
What is the Brienz Rothorn Railway experience like overall and is it worth it?
If you’re looking for a quiet, relaxed, authentic steam train experience in Switzerland with prime views, but without all the bells and whistles, then we’d certainly recommend the Brienz Rothorn Railway. The railway is run with genuine passion by a team of volunteers that gives it a real family feel.
It makes for a very enjoyable half day trip, perhaps combined with a cruise on Lake Brienz from Interlaken, and a leisurely stroll around Brienz village, with its 15th century wooden houses, homely cafes and cluster of artisanal woodcarving workshops.
This Scenic Train Journey was fully approved by Railway Stays.