Festina lente: make haste slowly …

Festina lente: make haste slowly … -

As a young boy, he spent his days sitting on the platform at Samedan. Waiting until the Glacier Express came sweeping in – bringing with it the scent of the dining car and of the great, wide world. Gian Brüngger, who worked for RhB for more than 40 years, still hasn't lost his love of the railways. We met this walking encyclopaedia on board the vintage Glacier Pullman Express.

«I'm secretly proud of the Piano Bar carriage. It was launched in 2010, as planned – by me!»
Gian Brüngger

Gian Brüngger, how exactly did you develop your great appetite for the railways?
Well, it was very simple. My father used to work in the depot at Samedan. The smell of grease was part of our everyday life at home – as natural as bread and butter. And then there was the magical dining car of the Glacier Express. And its imposing head waiter called Gottlieb Fischer. He always looked stern, in his brown uniform decorated with cords. He reminded me of a general whenever he looked out of the galley window. One day – he had already seen me at least 20 to 30 times – he barked at me, asking what I thought I was doing there.


And what answer did you give?
At first, I said nothing. Then, in a small voice: "Train spotting," watching passing trains go by. A railway worker who knew me well, a shunter, said: "Why don't you ask him to give you a piece of smoked sausage?" And then something I never dared dream of happened: Fischer invited me to climb on board and join him in his kitchen, where he handed me a sausage.


Which almost certainly left you wanting more …
Of course. I was so proud that I had actually been in the Glacier Express kitchen that I wanted to work for the railways from that moment on.


We are now sitting in the dining car in which your career ran its course, so to speak. Has this particular carriage changed a lot since then?
Not really. The wood is still the same, mahogany and ash, I think. And the seats are arranged in the same way. But in 1929, when the catering company Mitropa took over the running of the cars, the upholstery was still green.


Does Mitropa still supply the catering on the train?
No, after the war the Swiss Confederation acquired the carriages. They had previously been confiscated abroad as German property. In 1949, RhB bought them from the Confederation. Funnily enough, those of us here who speak Romansh still refer to the RhB dining cars as 'La Mitropa'.


When did they first get their blue livery?
Oh, that's a different story altogether. RhB has had many different colours over the years: for a long time it was green, then cream and green for a while, and today everything is red. The dining cars on the other hand were initially painted burgundy, so that they stood out from the otherwise green train. In the 1980s, when the entire outfit changed to red, my colleague Willy Hochstrasser – he was head of marketing at RhB – and I submitted proposals to the Management Board as to which colour the dining cars should be in future.


And what ideas did you have?
We voted for yellow, light green, blue or violet. To help us get a better picture of how it would actually look, I drew all the rolling stock by hand at a scale of 1:100. And then we copied the views and coloured them in to allow us to try out the various shades as part of the overall composition. Back in those days, there was no such thing as CAD or the like.


And which colour was ultimately crowned the winner?
Violet, because it was reminiscent of the old German 'Rheingold' luxury trains. Problem was, the cars didn't keep their colour for long; the paint faded rapidly through exposure to the sun. That's when today's cobalt blue came into play.


And it's perfect for the saloon cars that are attached to the Glacier Pullman Express. What's the story behind these magnificent carriages?
They weren't actually built for RhB in the first place. They were commissioned by the international sleeping car company CIWL for the Montreux Oberland Bernois Bahn, now known as MOB. But MOB soon found it didn't have any use for the dining cars, and so they were left standing unattended on a siding somewhere. At the annual international timetable conference in Budapest in 1939, RhB seized its chance.


In what way?
CIWL offered director Erhard Branger an unbeatable bargain: he could buy three saloon cars at half price. Needless to say, he didn't hesitate! He was happy that these new carriages, which had only been built eight years previously, would allow him to retire old two-axle coaches from the RhB's early days and replace them with a better, more luxurious class of vehicle.


What use did RhB make of the Pullman coaches?
Interestingly enough, the company merely deployed these upmarket pieces of rolling stock as ordinary second class carriages. That was the 'upholstered class' back then. What's more, RhB repainted the cream and blue cars in a cream and green livery. In 1956, the 1st and 2nd class were merged – and 3rd class became the new 2nd class.


And did that mean 'end of the line' for these historic carriages?
Not immediately, no. But when RhB introduced its new standardised cars in 1962, the crunch question was soon raised – I think that was in the 1970s: should they be completely overhauled or scrapped?


Was their final hour now fast approaching?
That's still not the case. Luckily, RhB was too proud and didn't, under any circumstances, want to hand the carriages back over to MOB, which had developed a real interest in the return of its 'prodigal sons'. So unprecedented efforts were made to renovate the Pullman cars. By the end of the 1990s, their third life had also come to an end. And RhB announced that nostalgic trips were not part of its basic remit.


So how come we're still riding in these luxury carriages today?
That's mainly thanks to Alby Glatt. Together with Willy Hochstrasser, the sadly deceased railway expert and travel operator set up a special association: the Verein pro Salonwagen RhB. We needed four million francs, one million per saloon carriage. We rustled up three in no time at all thanks to major sponsors. The fourth was raised by numerous donors, all of whom we were able to mobilise thanks to a high profile campaign: we mounted huge SOS stickers on the historic vehicles and chugged our way round Graubünden with a double headed steam engine formation – for which, I have to point out, we didn't actually have permission.


What specific changes were made to the carriages?
Well, we didn't actually want or have to make that many changes. We've kept the wonderful, bay-style windows. You can still open them – unlike windows on today's trains. At the same time, we enhanced the air conditioning so that the windows don't get steamed up.


The toilets, on the other hand, look ancient …
That's right. We deliberately retained their original design. You have to remember what it was like back in the old days: back when running water and an on-board toilet with porcelain toilet bowl and mosaic tiles were considered the height of luxury – including the drop chute mechanism. The latter now belongs firmly in the past. Just think of the fully automated toilets with closed water circuit in the ALLEGRA railcars.


And who do these wonderful, vintage vehicles now belong to?
They're still owned by RhB. We've been using them for special trips since 1999. For example, for the Glacier Pullman Express, which runs from St. Moritz to Zermatt or vice versa three times a season. Our original goal was to emulate the era of the express trains by making the outbound journey on one day and the return journey the next. But the eleven hours needed for the trip in one direction proved too stressful for everyone, especially the passengers. Once again it was Alby Glatt who came up with a brilliant idea: a two-day travel experience with add-ons. So we visit the Viamala and the church at Zillis, among others, or philosophise with Father Theo in the monastery at Disentis.


And how long will you continue to be involved?
As long as I'm still breathing. Right to the end. I'm convinced that nostalgia has a bright future.


And when you finally do retire, where will your dream train journey take you?
I would love to whisk my wife off on board the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Chiang Mai – another masterpiece in terms of narrow-gauge track. Let's see whether I'll be able to persuade her.