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Railroads Europe - In The Alps

( Originally Published 1927 )

WITHIN a comparatively small area Switzerland shows some of the most remarkable triumphs of railroad building, both in surmounting the lofty peaks that are the country's great natural glory and in driving roads through the mountain ranges that would otherwise be a barrier to the flow of traffic between northern and southern Europe.

In the land of the Alps are some of the best known rack railroads, a type of road that is the most economical and frequently the most efficient also where the gradient exceeds 4 feet in 100. The rack is laid between the smooth rails of the track and engages with the teeth of a cog driven by the mechanism of the locomotive. Such roads are those that climb Pila-tus, the Rigi, the Wengeralp, and the Jungfrau. These were built for the pleasure of the tourists, and are wonderful examples of railroad mountain-climbing.

Railroads up and down the Alps, however, wonderful as they might be from the standpoint of construction, did not serve the purposes of commerce which was deflected from the little mountain country in favor of more level roads. Switzerland was becoming isolated so far as traffic was concerned as rail-roads were built to east and west of her. France and Italy completed a line by tunnelling Mont Cenis that brought Paris and Milan within 590 miles of each other, and commerce took to this route. The Swiss republic, lest it should become sidetracked, bestirred itself and outdid the Mont Cenis route by the St. Gothard Tunnel.

The St. Gothard Railroad was completed in 1880, after six years of labor, and reached from Immensee in Switzerland to Chiasso in Italy. There were fifty-six tunnels, with an aggregate length of twenty-five miles. "The locomotive," said a traveller, "scuffles up a steep road for a while, then thoughtfully approaches a mountain that is too hard to climb, and, instead of skipping along the edge and eluding it, plunges boldly into it, makes a complete circuit in a spiral tunnel, and comes out two hundred feet above where it went in. This adroit trick is resorted to seven times, and in one big mountain the locomotive actually accomplishes two circuits of a mile each, rising in corkscrew fashion, and emerging triumphant up where the eagles brood."

The St. Gothard Tunnel itself was the longest tunnel built up to that time, in length nine and one-fourth miles, and about one and a half miles longer than the tunnel through Mont Cenis.

This new road won back traffic for Switzerland; it also inspired engineers to attempt other railroads through the Alps. The most interesting of the routes considered was one that had been taken by travellers and pilgrims for centuries, a route over which diligences constantly drove, but which presented to the locomotive the barrier of the lofty and massive Simplon. So difficult appeared any attempt to attack this great rampart that it was not until near the end of the nineteenth century that a company—the Jura-Simplon—was organized and received government sanction to proceed with the scheme.

The main feature of the Simplon Railroad was the great tunnel, which eclipsed the St. Gothard. In addition to this there were unique engineering difficulties to be overcome in constructing the approach lines to the two tunnel portals, at Brigue, in Switzer-land, and at Iselle, in Italy. The bore was planned to drive through the range between the Rhone and the Diviera Valleys, on a tangent, with curves at each entrance, making the total length 12.3 miles. The tunnel crossed the boundary between Italy and Switzerland, and more than half its length was in Italian territory.

The tunnel, as designed, was to have a width of 14.78 feet at the level of the rails and of 16.4 feet at a height of some 6 feet above the rails, and a maxi-mum height of 18.04 feet. It was to carry a single track, although provision was made to drive a second bore in case another track was wanted. A smaller parallel shaft was constructed in advance of the main one, narrow gauge tracks were laid in both tunnels and so connected that the trains that brought in tools and materials for the workmen could deposit their loads, take aboard the rock dislodged by the blasting, switch over to the other road and haul the rock clear of the tunnel.

Work was begun on August 13, 1898, and it was estimated that the Simplon Tunnel would be completed in November, 1903. Rapid progress was made at the start, owing to the perfect organization; then the drillers at the northern end encountered an obstacle that almost stopped the work. This obstacle was heat. The engineers expected the temperature to increase as they drove into the mountain, but did not expect it to exceed 95° to 97° Fahrenheit at the fifth mile from the entrance. At the fourth mile, however, the thermometer soared to 113 and 115 degrees. The engineers thought this must be local and pushed the work on with speed. To their astonishment the thermometer went on rising, to 127 degrees beyond the fifth mile. A powerful ventilating plant was installed, but the cool air from this was inadequate, and it was only by bringing water from an icy mountain stream and spraying the tunnel that work in the boring could be done at all.

On the southern side no heat zone was encountered, but one day the blasting opened up a vent for an underground stream of enormous volume. Torrents of both hot and cold water broke through the fissures made in the rock by the explosives, and rendered that part of the tunnel unworkable.

The engineers were delayed here for a considerable time, but presently they devised a means of carrying the water away as fast as it poured into the workings. Then the men were urged to redouble their efforts so as to get beyond the springs in the mountain and allow the fissures to be closed up.

Yet another difficulty was the grinding of the mountain mass, which caused the strongest wooden beams to splinter and even bent the iron supports. The only way to overcome the movement of the dense rock was found to be by using huge blocks of concrete and the toughest steel that could be made. So extraordinary were these obstacles of temperature, underground streams and pressure of the mountain mass that the work was much delayed and it was not until February 24, 1905, that the last barrier of rock yielded to the blasting and the tunnel was driven through the mighty Simplon.

The Swiss government, adopting the plan of combining all the standard gauge trunk railroads of the country in one national network, took over the completed Jura-Simplon route, and then proceeded to build a second tunnel through the Simplon so that traffic might not be interrupted should it become necessary to repair the tracks. The construction of this second tunnel was almost as herculean a task as the completion of the first had been, but the work was finally crowned with success when the keystone was set in the arch on December 4, 1921.

The "playground of Europe," as Switzerland is often called, has many other wonderful railroads. One of these is the Bernina road that connects St. Moritz by way of the beautiful valley of the Upper Engadine with the Italian lines at Tirano. This rail-road traverses a rugged country of lofty mountain peaks ; at one point there are five tracks, side by side though below one another, in a stretch of country about three-quarters of a mile wide, and the tracks are connected by four loops, three of which are in spiral tunnels. The trains on the Bernina road, which is about 38 miles long, are run by electricity, and this line through the Engadine is the most elevated rail-road of its type in Europe.

From the Swiss end of the Simplon road swings off the Martigny-Chatelard--Chamonix Railway, which provides connection with Geneva and opens up the Chamonix Valley and the country in the neighborhood of towering Mont Blanc. The scenery along this road is magnificent as the track climbs by rising curves over arched viaducts built against the forest-covered and snow-capped mountains.

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