A glance back

The passes of Graubünden - the time before RhB

The Romans travelled on foot, with the aid of horses and single-axle chariots, and the wealthy had sedan chairs. But what does the Rhaetian Railway have in common with the Romans?

Nina Taddei, Corporate Communications trainee, 10. January 2020

Both of them understand, or understood, how to move through the Swiss canton of Graubünden on impressively developed routes. Some passes were crossed, before the advent of RhB, using doddery wooden bridges and impressive galleries. Not by train, but on foot, using horses or single-axle chariots. The Julier, Septimer, Splügen and San Bernardino passes were some of the most important sumpter routes. At the start of the nineteenth century, these were converted into passable roads.

Although the engineer Richard La Nicca, himself from Graubünden, was passionate about the emerging railway technology, he was responsible for the creation of the most important axes of the road network in the canton: with the help of Piedmont, the road over the San Bernardino pass and with support from Milan, the road over the Splügen pass. A few years later saw the development of the Julier and Maloja passes. 

La Nicca then followed his passion, together with Simeon Bavier, a civil engineer from Chur, by proposing the creation of an Eastern Alpine railway. This was to go south over the Lukmanier, Greina or Splügen pass. Along with the proposal for the Alpine railway project, there were also plans for a Septimer, a Scaletta and an Orient railway – all with the goal of extending the United Swiss Railways connection to Chur, which had been in existence since 1858, to create a north-south connection.

Six years waiting for nothing

A long wait followed the proposal of the idea. The railway projects and applications for licenses resulted in heated debates at a political level. The draft law proposed that the canton cover 20 per cent of the costs of building the railway, which, however, was to be limited to a maximum of 40,000 francs a kilometre. Unfortunately, the commission president responsible was on holiday and the treatment of the transaction was postponed until the next session. But the draft law was forgotten about and, believe it or not, it took more than six years until a councillor remembered its existence. That does not say much about the councillors of the time and certainly does not show any real interest in a north-south connection. With 15 votes for the proposal and 54 against, the project then temporarily had to be shelved. Nevertheless, the great goal remained the creation of an Alpine railway from north to south. 

Ironically, it was ultimately Simeon Bavier who for the time being was to put an end to the Graubünden Alpine railway projects. As the First Graubünden Federal Councillor, he officially opened the Gotthard Line in 1882 in his capacity as President of the Swiss Confederation. And a north-south connection through Graubünden was off the table. Experts then focussed on railway projects within the canton. There was no shortage of ideas. The Confederation granted numerous licenses, but ultimately all attempts failed due to political disputes or financial constraints. It was not until Dutchman Willem Jan Holsboer arrived on the scene that the tide turned. 

If you want to find out more about who Willem Jan Holsboer was and what he did, take a look at this blog post.

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