The Albula Line
The world’s most beautiful railway at night
The section of the RhB line between Bergün and Preda is impressive enough by day. After ten at night it is even more exciting. "Contura" looks over the shoulder of track worker Walter Gubser as he works on the tracks of the RhB.
Why do all small boys want to be train drivers when they grow up? The real heroes are not the engine drivers, but the men in orange overalls. Walter Gubser is one of them. On this night in spring, he guides us over the Albula Line of the Rhaetian Railway. Countless stars shine on the tracks, viaducts and helical tunnels; every now and then the moonlight is reflected in the eyes of a grazing stag. Shortly after 10 pm the last train from Bergün rumbles through on its way to Preda. Then the track is ours and we do something not normally allowed. We walk between the rails and over bridges while Gubser gives us an insight into the workings of this railway, which has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Hard work - yesterday and today
The railway worker knows every inch of the track, every sleeper and probably every stone as well. No, that’s not an exaggeration: "In the old days, our signature tune was tic, tic, tic, tic", he says – the noise made by each team of four as they packed the crushed stones under the sleepers with their pickaxes. "And woe betide anyone who got out of rhythm", says Gubser. In time, the pickaxe crews became track assemblers and, later still, track workers. Nowadays a tamping machine does the work of the pickaxe crews. Nevertheless, the job is still pretty tough. Gubser, who sometimes describes himself as a federally certified track ballast tamping officer, works on the railway at night for 10-15 weeks a year. With so many trains using the track, there is no other solution. No matter whether it’s 25 degrees below freezing, snowing or "merely" raining: damaged rails must be replaced, fallen rocks removed and points freed of ice and snow. "It starts out all right, but after about two in the morning time seems to fly too fast. You pickaxe, shovel away, check the sleeper fastenings, look at the time and try to get a move on, then the first train is already due." Any breaks? Mostly standing when working at night. And what about food? You bring your own.
«We want our trains and passengers to travel safely on the RhB network.»Walter Gubser
Snow against ice
The sleepers are placed 60 centimetres apart and, as he proceeds from one to the next, Gubser shows us the ballast shoulders – perfectly symmetrical banks of stones along each side of the track. They look like works of art but they are not there for decorative purposes: "The shoulders are essential for the stabilisation of the track and we have to check them out constantly." When we arrive at the Zuondra Tunnel we cannot believe our eyes: Although it’s already springtime, the ground inside the tunnel is covered in snow. "We shovel the snow in there as a protection against the cold", explains Gubser. "Otherwise the water in the tunnel drainage system will freeze." Several years ago, some bright spark decided to save time by dispensing with the snow-shovelling: "The rails kept getting encrusted with ice and we had to hack at it with our pickaxes like madmen. For days on end." At the Rugnux Tunnel a different solution has been found: between trains the tunnel is closed by gates.
A dream job – even if nobody applauds you
Gubser cannot imagine a better job than this. Not even when he has to remove the remains of a stag that has been hit by a train. Not even when he is accomplishing a dangerous job close to the power lines on a steep slope. Not even when he had to fear for his life: once, he was driving a draisine (a light auxiliary rail vehicle) through a tunnel at night when he suddenly saw a pair of headlights coming towards him. But the headlights belonged to a car and - for a seemingly endless moment - they were shining into the tunnel from a nearby bend in the road. Scary incidents may come and go, but the pleasure in his work remains. "It is our job to keep the railway line and the engineering structures in perfect working order, maintain the track and keep it open, as well as looking after the area surrounding the track and a host of other tasks - and we do it all against this fantastic backdrop", says Walter Gubser. "Naturally, we are proud when a train with its passengers safely passes along a stretch of track that we have just finished reconstructing or repairing."
The next morning we are on the platform at the station in Bergün. Our train pulls into the station and several tourists wave to the driver. Further away is a group of men dressed in orange overalls. Nobody waves to them.
Text: Franz Bamert