Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon railway

Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon railway

The Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon (BLS) railway, known since the merger of the "old" BLS with the Bern-Neuenburg-Bahn (BN), the Gürbetal-Bern-Schwarzenburg-Bahn (GBS) and the Simmentalbahn (SEZ) in 1997 as the BLS Lötschbergbahn, is the largest standard-gauge network on the Swiss Railway system apart from the Federal Railways, SBB-CFF-FFS. The railway had not been built at the time that the Federal government took control of the five big Swiss standard-gauge railway companies in 1902 and so it led a separate existence, being considered the largest of the Swiss "private" railways, although the majority of its capital was owned by the Cantonal government of Bern and also the Confederation held about 1/5.

In 2006 the company merged with Regionalverkehr Mittelland AG to form a new company called BLS AG.


With the opening of the Gotthard line in 1882 the canton of Bern became separated from the main north – south traffic route. The administration, not being happy with the situation, made full use its federal rights to built its own line but it could not rely on financial aid from the Swiss Confederation, the authorities being vehemently opposed to any rival transit route. Bern had to look elsewhere to raise the necessary funds and these were to come from an unexpected source. In 1871, France had surrendered Alsace and Lorraine, together with the border crossing point at Basle, to Germany and because of this business circles in Paris were interested in co-financing a viable international transit route through Switzerland. Several alternative routes via Frutigen–Lötschberg were proposed but eventually, the Pro-Lötschberg Initiative Committee won the day. The Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon Railway was founded on 27 July 1906 and within a few months construction work commenced.

The Lötschberg Tunnel

Possibly because of French finance the construction of the “Mountain Route” the 58 km Frutigen–Brig line, was assigned to a French construction consortium, the major civil engineering work on the section being 13.7 km single track Lötschberg Tunnel. Construction began on the 15 October 1906 but within months the Swiss federal authorities ordered the BLS to enlarge the tunnel to double track and to profile its access ramps to suit. Money was not forthcoming for the provision of a double track line throughout and only the Lötschberg Tunnel itself was constructed in this way. Due to an accident on 24 July 1908 in which rock, washed with alpine waters, collapsed into the tunnel gallery killing 25 Italian miners. Construction work was halted for six months before the gallery was sealed and plans made to bypass the site. The plan was to construct three curves inside the mountain and extending the length of the tunnel to 14.612 km. The breakthrough was finally made on 31 March 1911.With the completion of the access ramps, the other civil engineering works on the line, 33 tunnels, 3 avalanche galleries and 22 bridges, together with the provision of electrical support masts, power stations, sub-stations etc, the line, powered at 15,000 Volts, Alternating Current, 16 2/3 Hz was officially opened on 19 June 1913.

Take Overs and wartime changes

In 1913 the BLS made a successful takeover of the Lake Thun railway (TSB) (Thun/Scherzligen-Interlaken-Bönigen), and became the operating company for three other companies in the are, the Berne–Neuchâtel railway (BN), the Gürbetal–Berne–Schwarzenburg railway (GBS) and the Spiez–Erlenbach railway (SEZ) adding some 130 km to its system. The BLS/TSB merger meant that the Lötschbergbahn also became the proprietor of the shipping company on Lakes Thun and Brienz.

In 1915, to shorten the distance through the Jura Mountains, to the French border, the company inaugurated the Grenchenberg line between Moutier and Lengnau which included the 8.5 km Grenchenberg Tunnel.

Following the First World War, in 1919, Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France under the Treaty of Versailles and the importance of Delle as a border crossing point into France became less. Transit traffic was more and more routed via Basle/St Louis. Freight traffic between Germany and Italy, which could be routed via the Lötschberg line meant that the company was able to offset the loss of transit via Delle.

Coming Up-to-Date

Problems with the operation of a single line railway were being seriously felt in the 1960’s but it was not until 1976 that the Federal Council gave their approval to loan of CHF 620,000,000 to upgrade the line to double track, the work to be carried in several stages, commencing the following year. The line, entirely double-track, was officially inaugurated on 8 May 1992.

At the end of 1993, the Swiss Confederation commissioned the BLS to provide a “piggyback” corridor along its line for road vehicles with a width of 2.5 m and a corner height of 4 m. The construction work began in January 1994 and the opening was delayed, due to geological problems on the southern side of the Simplon, until 11 June 2001. Since opening, the "rolling highway", the transportation of trucks by rail from Germany to Italy via Lötschberg, has made a considerable contribution towards transferring transit traffic from road to rail.

Politics and Railways

The economic, political and legal operating environment for European railways changed to such an extent towards the end of the 20th century that restructuring amongst railway operators became inevitable. Liberalisation and competition also started to make an impact on railways. (Using EU legislation Britain’s railway network can probably show best what happened with its divisions and fragmentation). Although not bound by EU directives Switzerland is surrounded by EU countries and as details arrived from Brussels notice was taken of happenings elsewhere. The BLS Lötschbergbahn reacted early and realigned itself strategically. On 1 January 1997, the jointly-operated BN, GBS and SEZ railways merged with BLS to form BLS Lötschbergbahn AG. The organisation was also changed, the company being now based around the three profit-focused core business of infrastructure, passenger traffic and cargo.

On 15 May 2001, in order to secure their future, the BLS and SBB agreed on a new task-sharing arrangement. This was largely implemented as part of the timetable changes made on the 12 December 2004 when the BLS took over the running of the SBB's S-Bahn lines and with it, system responsibility for Bern's S-Bahn network, the second largest in the country. This was accompanied by the transfer of long-distance railway operations from the BLS to the SBB. Within the cargo sector the SBB assumed overall control for full-load traffic in Switzerland. Transit and block train traffic has been subject to competition since the signing of the 2001 agreement. The SBB became responsible for rail network management across Switzerland.

On 27 September 1992, the Swiss people voted with an overwhelming majority in favour of the NEAT Project (Neue Alpentransversale), also known as the “AlpTransit”. In voting "Yes" the Swiss people gave their approval for the construction of two transverse routes through the Alps, one at the Gotthard, the other at the Lötschberg. The original AlpTransit Lötschberg Project provided for two single bore tunnels between Frutigen and the Rhône valley, a distance of 41 km. For financial reasons the tunnel length was shortened to 34.6 km, and the greater part of one of the bores was only be constructed as a shell. The new base line was inaugurated on the 15 June 2007 and full standard traffic will start with the new timetable on the 9 December 2007. In full operation trains will be able to travel through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel at speeds of 160–200 km/h. From the completion of NEAT and the opening of the new Lötschberg Base Tunnel, the BLS will be responsible for the operation of train services along the entire Lötschberg–Simplon route.

Passenger Take Over

In June 2006, following their respective Annual General Meetings and with the approval of the shareholders, the "Regionalverkehr Mittelland AG" and the "BLS Lötschbergbahn AG" were consolidated into the BLS AG. The new undertaking belongs to the canton of Bern (55.8%), the Swiss Confederation (21.7%), further cantons and private persons (22.5%). The BLS AG was actually founded on 24 April 2006, when the cantons of Berne, Lucerne, Solothurn, Valais and Neuchâtel exchanged their BLS and RM shares for BLS AG ones.

As a result of the fusion of the companies, the BLS AG becomes the second biggest traffic undertaking in Swiss standard-gauge railways after the Swiss Federal Railways. The BLS AG operates regional traffic in an area which lies between the Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Lucerne and the Jura Mountains and the Simplon Massif. It is also responsible for the Bernese Suburban Railway (S-Bahn).

The Route

The main line runs from Bern, the Swiss capital, through Spiez and the Lötschberg Tunnel to Brig, where it reconnects with the SBB network. It then enters the Simplon Tunnel to Italy which it enters at Iselle di Trasquera. The line forms a key part of the Bern-Milan artery which the company operates jointly with the SBB. The company also operates extensive commuter services as part of the Bern S-Bahn network. In 1994 the BLS moved 9.2 million passengers.

The BLS network operates trains over 245 km of standard gauge track, but the BLS actually owns only 115 km. The whole network is electrified at 15 kV 16 2/3 Hz.

Locomotives and Multiple Units

CLASS Re 4/4 (Re 425)

Business activities

The BLS is engaged in the following activities:
* Maintenance of the infrastructure used by the BLS,
* Passenger rail transportation
** Since a 1994 agreement with the SBB, the BLS has operated many suburban services in Bern, and runs regional services towards Neuchâtel, Luzern and Brig using SBB lines
*BLS is part of the consortium Cisalpino, together with SBB-CFF-FFS and Trenitalia.
* Rail freight transportation via the "BLS Cargo" subsidiary (in 2002 870 million ton-kilometres of freight were conveyed)
* Rail transportation of accompanied cars through the Lötschberg tunnel
* Rail transportation of trucks between Switzerland and Italy via "RAlpin SA" (a BLS subsidiary), the SBB, and Hupac (a Swiss road-rail transporter company)
* Lake transport ferries on Lakes Thun and Brienz.


* Florian Inäbnit, Jürg Aeschlimann: "Bern–Neuenburg-Bahn. Die Linie Bern–Neuenburg der BLS". [ Prellbock Druck & Verlag] , Leissigen 2001. ISBN 3-907579-18-6
* Ulf Degener: "Neue Wege im Alpentransit. Umorientierung bei der BLS Lötschbergbahn". In: "Lok Magazin". GeraNova, München 41/2002,255, S. 25-26. ISSN|0458-1822
* W. Brügger: "Das Frutigbuch." Heimatkunde für die Landschaft Frutigen. Kapitel "Die Bahnen". Paul Haupt, Bern 1977, pp. 419-437.

External links

* [ BLS AG]

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