The Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes (2008)

Rhaetian Railway, Bernina Line
Rhaetian Railway, Bernina Line
© Andrea Badrutt/RhB

On 7th July 2008, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee designated the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes as a World Heritage Site. Because the terminus of the Bernina Line is in Tirano, Italy, a transnational nomination proposal was submitted jointly by Switzerland and Italy.

Albula Line between Bergün and Preda
Albula Line between Bergün and Preda
© RhB

The Heritage Site comprises both the technical monument represented by the railway line itself and the surrounding landscape inside the Site's buffer zones. The transnational perimeter of the Site, straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy, reflects all the mutually influential elements – constructional, technical, cultural and natural – which make up the phenomenon of the railway in its broader context.

There are several grounds for arguing that the value of the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes is exceptional and universal.

The railway line and the surrounding landscape form a "Gesamtkunstwerk", an integrated work of art whose two elements shape and define each other. Although topography dictated that the Albula Line should be designed as a narrow-gauge railway, it was conceived and executed with all the characteristics of a mainline railway. Its purpose was to make the Engadine easily accessible in both summer and winter. In so doing, the railway helped to promote a new type of economy, destined to become crucial to the region – winter and sports tourism. The railway line was subtly integrated into the multifaceted landscape and continues to enrich it to this day.

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes
Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes
© Andrea Badrutt/RhB

The Bernina Line was made possible by an Italian initiative to build power-stations and supply energy to the cities of Lombardy; it was built using capital raised for this project. At the same time the railway was also to cater for the needs of tourism, and the line was therefore to be built in such a way as to enhance the experience of the mountains for train passengers. To achieve this objective, a new technical approach was employed for this stretch of track; building it as an electrified, high-altitude, overland track.

The Albula/Bernina Line combines the two different types of mountain railway construction: driving a summit tunnel beneath the pass (combined with spiral tunnels, equally demanding in terms of structural engineering); and building an 'overland' railway across the pass. The Albula-Bernina Line offers the finest examples of each type, while the synergy of their combination makes it unique. The exceptionally high standard to which it was built and its importance for the history of railway construction were recognised from the time it was first opened and earned it world-wide recognition. The Albula-Bernina Line is fundamentally different from the mountain railways already included in the World Heritage list; as a masterpiece of complex construction executed to the highest standards, the Albula Line exemplifies the mountain railway from the heyday of the railway age. With its many stone viaducts of varying height and length, its technically complex spiral tunnels, sometimes superimposed one above another, its long summit tunnel, its meticulously constructed and architecturally beautiful elevated structures and, finally, its business model, the Albula Line displays all the characteristics of a mainline railway, despite being constructed with a narrow-gauge track. As for the Bernina Line, an electric overland railway, built at high altitude and with the extremely steep gradient of 70 ‰, it was ground-breaking in its technological achievement. The Albula-Bernina Line is no ordinary 'mountain railway'; within a distance of only approximately 130 km and a maximum difference in elevation of 1550 to 1700 m, it conquers an entire mountain range. As a transnational line, it reflects the ability to create links where topography creates barriers. Although short, it traverses many types of landscape and several climate zones, as well as three cultural areas with different languages and traditions.

Rhaetian Railway, Alp Grüm
Rhaetian Railway, Alp Grüm
© Andrea Badrutt/RhB

Even at the time of the railway's construction, it was appreciated that the landscape it was to traverse was of exceptional quality and worthy of protection; great emphasis was therefore placed on designing an infrastructure which would complement it, while the actual route of the line – particularly of the Bernina Line – was chosen to present the landscape to passengers in its most magnificent aspects, offering it to them as a landscape experience. In a way which is quite unique, landscape viewpoints were engineered into the railway's route, while at the same time the landscape was intentionally sculpted by the railway. Within a short distance, varied and spectacular natural phenomena and different types of cultural landscape, each with its own typical agriculture and highly significant monuments, can be viewed. From the high-Alpine world of the glaciers in the Bernina to the southerly atmosphere of the Poschiavo and Valtellina Valleys, from the sophisticated tourist centre of St. Moritz to the pastoral Alpine landscapes of Bergün/Bravuogn, unchanged from time immemorial, passing on the way a multitude of distinctive buildings, sacred and secular, in quick succession, modern technology allowed (and allows) railway passengers to experience the whole gamut of the Alps, in all its riches, as if from a time machine. The Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes is an emblematic synthesis of nature, culture and technology.

The characteristic features of the Albula/Bernina Landscapes are extraordinarily well preserved. The entire infrastructure of the railway (track alignment, tunnels and elevated structures) is also in its original condition and very sound. This is particularly remarkable, given the fact that the line is still in operation: it is still running as a regular railway to a daily schedule, carrying passengers and freight as it did a hundred years ago. Not only that; it still possesses a unique assembly of historic rolling stock.

While the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Semmering Railway represents the beginning of the process by which railway technology opened up the mountains, the Albula/Bernina Line exemplifies the golden age of mountain railway building: only with the development of machines for boring tunnels in the second half of the 19th century did the construction of long or specialised tunnels (such as spiral tunnels) become feasible, both financially and in terms of the time it took. With the First World War, mountain-railway building all but ceased and no more tracks were built across the Alps. Nowadays spiral railway tunnels are no longer built at all.

Rhaetian Railway, Tirano
Rhaetian Railway, Tirano
© Andrea Badrutt/RhB

The Site is managed by the specially-founded Rhaetian World Heritage Association, which includes and coordinates all parties involved.

Last modification 09.01.2013

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