On 15 October 1889, a few citizens from Brienz, under the direction of Karl Brück and probably on the initiative of engineer Alexander Lindner, submitted a licence application for a cogwheel railway to the Brienzer Rothorn. Just 65 days (!) after the application was submitted, the National Council and the Council of States granted permission for the railway to be built. Theodor Bertschinger, a building contractor from Lenzburg, soon joined the initiators. Today he and Alexander Lindner are regarded as the builders of the Brienz Rothorn Railway.
Around 700 workers – mainly from Italy – were involved in the construction of the Brienz Rothorn Railway. Even today, various names in our region that have since become local remind us of the construction of the railway. The railway was built within 16 months – an extraordinary achievement! The total cost of the railway – project costs, construction management, construction interest, land acquisition, line incl. substructure and tracks, buildings, points, water stations, four locomotives, four passenger cars, two freight cars, station and depot inventory – was calculated at 2.2 million Swiss francs.
The railway was ceremoniously opened on 16 June 1892. However, the start of the new attraction in the Bernese Oberland did not go quite as planned. The 12,000 guests predicted by Alexander Lindner in the worst case scenario were not nearly reached at the beginning. The poor financial situation drove those responsible to set up a limited company in 1900. The business continued to make deficits – later, on the one hand, wars in South Africa and China, on the other, high coal prices and the still missing railway connection Brienz – Interlaken led to the poor operating result. In 1908, the air pressure of a large dust avalanche severely damaged the Mülibach bridge, causing unforeseen costs. Bad weather, the tense political situation, the stock market and economic crisis, high inflation and increased competition led to a decline in frequency and an operating deficit.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the frequencies dropped massively and the entire staff was laid off. The Brienz Rothorn Railway was “mothballed” – it was on the brink of extinction, the demolition of the facility was seriously discussed. However, this was successfully prevented time and again. Above all, the people of Brienz stood behind their railway. But it was to take several more years before the Brienz Rothorn Railway was able to run at full steam again. This slumber is the reason why the BRB has not been electrified to this day. At that time, almost all other mountain railways were electrified.
The municipality of Brienz set up a committee with the aim of reviving the slumbering railway. With new capital and a great deal of optimism, operations were resumed as far as Rothorn Kulm in June 1931.
Tourism in the Bernese Oberland developed rapidly, especially after the Second World War. The Brienz Rothorn Railway also benefited from this until the economic viability of the railway deteriorated. The operation of the railway was costly and could hardly keep up with the new competitors – the electrified mountain railways. On peak days, the necessary transport capacities were also lacking. Many guests had to be left standing. People no longer believed in the future of the steam rack railway. In the 1960s, cable car construction boomed throughout Switzerland. An efficient and, compared to the Brienz Rothorn cable car, much more economical cable car was built to almost every vantage point. In 1958, it was decided at the general assembly to demolish the rack railway and replace it with a more efficient aerial cableway.
But now the people of Brienz were back in action. A committee was formed against the demolition of the steam rack railway. They were successful and the decision to demolish the railway was withdrawn. The problem remained the lack of transport capacity and the expensive steam operation. Attempts were made to procure new, more economical steam locomotives. But this was not possible in the 1970s; no locomotive factory was interested in further developing steam locomotives. The solution to the problem was temporarily the procurement of diesel locomotives.
Association “Friends of the Brienz Rothorn Steam Railway”
In 1991, the Benefactors’ Association “Friends of the Brienz Rothorn Railway Steam Railway” was founded by Ernst Streule to promote and preserve steam service. To achieve this purpose, the association supports the costly renovations of the steam locomotives, important renovations on the line, supports infrastructure projects, carries out collections and supports advertising measures. For the five-month steam operation and regular use of historic rolling stock, the association forms an important foundation of the railway.
In order to finance the most important and decisive investment project “Aktion 5 S” (for ballast, sleepers, rails, poles and retaining walls), the association collected patronage contributions from 2009 – 2018. The renovation of the line is a basic prerequisite for the renewal of the federal concession and thus very important for the future of the railway. The total cost of the replacement and renovation is estimated at around 7.6 million Swiss francs.
Since 2009, several hundred metres of railway track have been rehabilitated every year – mostly at night, so that daily steam operations during the season are not affected. All removed material (rails, sleepers, ballast) was brought back from the line to Brienz so that no empty runs could occur.
New concession 2019
On 29 September 1969, the Brienz Rothorn Railway was granted a concession by the federal government for the railway infrastructure and passenger transport for the next 50 years. This was a milestone, as the railway operation was legally secured for the next decades. In December 2019 – some 50 years later – the time had come again and the renewal of the concession was approved. Achieving this goal involved an immense amount of work, because numerous conditions had to be fulfilled for the new concession. For example, the entire line was renovated as part of the large-scale “Aktion 5 S” project.
The history of the Brienz Rothorn Railway is strongly influenced by snow clearance. In the early years of the railway, up to 70 men were employed year after year to clear the snow. As welcome as the additional income was for many families in Brienz, this expense item was a burden on the railway’s operating account.
In 1951, a snow blower was used for the first time. Even though some initial problems had to be solved, mechanisation prevailed here as well.
Today, snow clearance is carried out with a modern wheel-driven snow blower. In addition, powerful snow groomers are used for pre-clearing and for pushing off the snow masses. This makes snow clearance much more economical and, thanks to the time saved, the time at which the track is opened can be better planned.