Trans Europ Express, First Class: Olten via Berne to Lucerne

Back in their heyday, the 47 train compositions that made up the fleet of the Trans Europ Express (TEE) were the Queens of the European railway network. They offered passengers an unrivalled and unprecedented level of luxury, comfort and service. The compositions originally only offered first class seating. It was only much later that second class carriages were introduced.

The Trans Europ Express was established in 1957 on the initiative of the Dutch national railways. They subsequently formed a consortium with the national railway companies of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland. Later on, other members would join. In a way, the TEE was the natural successor to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lit. The new, eye-catching trains symbolized Europe’s return to prosperity and innovation after the hardships of World War II.

The first trains were diesel powered compositions, mainly because they would operate internationally and would therefore have to cross international borders. This is also the reasons why the compositions were equipped with a power and/or steering unit at both ends of the trains, as a means of shortening the turn around times at the border stations – by not having to change locomotives.

In 1961 the Swiss Federal Railways introduced the electrically powered RAe TEE II trains. What made these trains unique, was the fact that they were equipped with four pantographs, so that they could operate outside Switzerland and without having to make any major modifications to the units en route.

When I was a young boy, I even had a LIMA model of the Swiss TEE. But as is almost always the case, the tragedy of the human existence is that you are rarely aware of what you have until it is too late. I could kick myself for not having kept that model and for chucking it out when I was a teenager and thought I was way too cool and mature for toys.

Fortunately, the Swiss Federal Railways have retained one of the original TEE trains and have had it beautifully restored to its original splendour by their historical maintenance division . To mark the 60th anniversary of the TEE this year, the Swiss Federal Railways have laid on a Festzug. The TEE will start its journey in Olten, then travels to Berne and Lucerne. And then from there to Zürich, then Basel and eventually back to Olten. I will be joining the journey from Olten to Lucerne.

Getting to Olten

Olten is kilometre 0 of the national network of the Swiss Federal Railways. Olten is normally thirty minutes away from Basel by train. Currently, the journey is taking a bit longer to complete because they’re building on the line at the weekends. I catch the 08h31 train, which gets me into Olten at 09h10 with enough time to take some photos of the exterior of the TEE as it pulls into the station.

When I arrive in Olten the mist is just starting to lift. So I’m hoping we’ll have good weather for this trip today. The departure platform is not displayed yet, but if the many train spotters with their huge lenses are anything to go by, I think I can make a pretty good guess where the train will be arriving.

Boarding

On the platform there are are plenty of staff of the SBB checking passengers’ Covid certificates. Which is good, because it means we’ll be able to keep our masks off on the train. It looks like it’s going to be a busy ride today, and there are many people milling about and taking pictures of our TEE once it pulls in.

What always drew me to the Swiss TEE, was its elegant design and the sleek lines of its nose section. That and the fact that the train can speed up to 160km/h, which was quite a lot back in its day and is still not too shabby for an old lady of 60 years.

The atmosphere on the train is nice. There’s a sense of excitement. All the passengers seem to be in a good mood, and most of them are commenting on what a classic the TEE is.

The cabin

The restoration of the train has turned out nicely, and I think the SBB did a good job in maintaining the original vibe of the cabin, while at the same time modernising it where necessary to meet today’s standards of comfort. On one side of the train are single seats that are arranged in pairs facing each other. On the other side, there are four seats in the same layout. Every seat has a foldaway table.

There is a proper dining car serving hot and cold meals and snacks. There’s also a bar for you to enjoy an aperitif or even just an espresso after the meal. The dining car and the bar are the most retro parts of the train and they’re just so cool, because you can just imagine what it must have been like to travel on one of these trains between Amsterdam and Basel or Milan back in the 1970s.

The seats are incredibly soft and very comfortable. To the point that once I settle in my seat, I find it difficult to stay awake while the train’s gentle movements lull me to sleep…

There is a welcome chocolate at every seat (common, this is Switzerland…) and a small brochure with information about the train and the TEE.

The journey

The journey takes us along the old route from Olten to Berne, the Swiss capital, in 45 minutes. This is honestly quite a bland route, and not just because the mist is still only beginning to dissipate. In Berne we have 15 minutes to step outside and stretch our legs.

From Berne, the train takes the old route through the Emmental (where the cheese is from) to Lucerne in just over two hours. By the time we leave Berne again, the weather has cleared up and it’s turned into a glorious day. The Emmental region is in the Voralpen, which means that you’re not surrounded by high mountains, towering above you on all sides. But the mountains are clearly visible in the distance. The landscape is dominated by softly rolling green hills with lush vegetation and so, so many happy looking cows grazing on them.

Other than that, the route is lined with train spotters, standing in fields or leaning precariously out of moving cars in an attempt to catch a glimpse of our train. Occasionally, we stop at a station to let another train pass. And wherever we stop, people are taking out their mobiles to take photos of the TEE!

Arrival

Eventually, we arrive in Lucerne on time at 13h23. And here too, there are spotters lining the far end of the platform, taking pictures of the TEE as she gracefully pulls into the station.

Conclusion

I suppose with this trip report my street cred as an avgeek will take a serious beating. But that can’t be helped. For me, this trip on the TEE has been a dream come true. As a kid, playing with that model I had, I always used to wonder what it must have been like travelling on such an elegant train back in the day. And thanks to the excellent work done by the team of the SBB historic division, at least I now have a bit of an idea. I sincerely hope that the TEE will be around for many more generations to enjoy. I certainly did!