Railway in the blood

Railway in the blood -

What is it like when your own ancestors are among the greatest pioneers in the history of the Graubünden railway? Completely normal, if the discussion with Gian-Mattia Schucan, great-great grandson of the very first RhB Director, Achilles Schucan, is to be believed. But as far as the railway is concerned, it's in the blood.

"Pride would be somewhat presumptuous – but it is without doubt a feeling of satisfaction," agrees Gian-Mattia Schucan in response to the question of what it feels like to be the great-great grandson of a famous railway pioneer. His great-great grandfather Achilles Schucan, born in Avignon in 1844, grew up in Zuoz and was involved as chief engineer and director of operations in the construction and operation of the Landquart – Davos line, later to become the Rhaetian Railway. He was summoned by the Dutchman, Willem Jan Holsboer, who founded the 'Schmalspurbahn Landquart –Davos AG' narrow-gauge company in 1888 and asked the experienced railway professional, Schucan, to construct a cross-cantonal network. As the first director and later chairman of the RhB, Achilles Schucan headed and shaped the company up until 1918 – a period of no less than thirty years.

«A car? No thank you. I actually travel by train four or five times a week.»
Gian-Mattia Schucan

Stories from times gone by – contemporary history

Gian-Mattia Schucan shares his passion for the railway with his famous ancestor. "I was aware of this enthusiasm for the railway at an early age even before I discovered that I had a railway pioneer in the family," he explains. As a schoolboy he loved to build model railways: "I learned more about physics doing this than at school," says the graduate physicist. His famous great-great grandfather was repeatedly a topic of conversation in the family and even his memoirs still endure. "Achilles kept notes on his life, including endearing comments about the family, his children and grandchildren. These writings made it clear, among other things, that the position of control engineer with the Federal Railways Department didn't appeal to him any more – he didn't want to be an official any longer but more of an entrepreneur. And that was exactly what happened." The following story is also related with interest: Achilles Schucan's wife always made sure that fresh flowers adorned every RhB railway station – and this custom is honoured to this day. On the subject of honour: during jubilee celebrations for the '100 Years Bever – Scuol-Tarasp' line, the RhB christened the ALLEGRA railcar 3104 by the name of 'Achilles Schucan'. Gian-Mattia Schucan was godfather – and even the great-great-great grandchildren of the first RhB director were present: "together with my two boys I was then permitted to stand in the driver's cab for the journey from Zuoz to Chur. There, at the latest, the enthusiasm for the railway rubbed off."

The joy of travelling …

But love of the railways is not the only thing he and his great-great grandfather have in common. "The desire to seek out pastures new is something that I also share with Achilles. Before settling down with the RhB my great-great grandfather often packed his bags and set off for destinations unknown." Aged just 20, ETH engineer Achilles Schucan went abroad to start his career: he travelled to Pirmasens in Germany and later to Regensburg, followed by a stint in French-speaking Switzerland as a section engineer on the construction of the Jura Railway. In 1875, he was involved in studies for a rail link between Geneva and Annemasse – a line, by the way, that has been under construction since 2011 and is expected to open in 2017. Following his time with the Federal Railways Department Achilles Schucan worked for three years as director of the Central Switzerland Seetal Railway, before joining the RhB in 1888 to settle in the canton of his birth. Gian-Mattia Schucan's stations in life were every bit as adventurous: born in the US and having grown up in Basel, he now lives in Bern together with his wife and their four children. He wrote his dissertation in England and taught in China for one year as a physicist. And what about Graubünden? "In my early childhood I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents in the Engadin. I have a lot of wonderful memories – both with and without the railway."

«I have great admiration for the speed at which the RhB was constructed.»
Gian-Mattia Schucan

… and nature in the blood

Gian-Mattia Schucan is fascinated by nature: in 2013 he founded Schucan Management, which specialises in providing consulting for public transport and sustainability issues. "It's the link between technology and natural sciences that has always kindled my interest in physics – and the railway industry also unites these topics: it involves technology and is relevant for the environment." Would he have constructed the RhB line differently? "No. It is wonderful how the RhB blends into the landscape. The construction was oriented towards the terrain." Another thing the two railway enthusiasts have in common: Achilles Schucan wanted to be sure that the stone arched bridges and railway buildings were constructed in the local architectural style in accordance with Swiss Heritage regulations. 126 years later Gian-Mattia Schucan has gone a few steps further: he is interested in the relationship between entrepreneurship and ecology as the environment can only develop properly if industry is involved – and vice versa. His desire is aligned closely to that of his famous ancestor: "I would like to make my small contribution to a better world."