The scenic route from Engelberg to Lucerne

I spend my Sunday morning in Engelberg climbing among the rocks at 1800 m above sea level like a deranged mountain goat. Down in the valley it’s still fresh. But up on the Brunni the sun is already warming up the air.

By the time I make my way down the mountain it’s already gone eleven. I have until 12h00 to check out of the hotel. There is a train departure from Engelberg every hour at two minutes past the hour. There are two possibilities for me to get back to Lucerne. I can either just stay put on the Lucerne-Engelberg Express, which should get me there in 43 minutes, or I can take the scenic route.

The scenic route requires two changes, but is totally worth it! From Engelberg to Stans takes 33 minutes on the express. There I have seven minutes to change trains to a local service to Stansstad, which is a journey of four minutes.

And then from Stansstad it’s about five minutes on foot from the railway station to the lake, from where I’ll be catching the boat back to Lucerne.

The trip by boat from Stansstad to Lucerne takes just over one hour. En route the boats calls at Hergiswil, Kehrsiten, Kastanienbaum, and the Transport Museum. Today’s service is being operated by the Titlis, one of the smaller vessels in the fleet.

Despite the many places I have visited around the globe, as far as I’m concerned nothing beats a lazy Sunday afternoon on Lake Lucerne in the autumn. It’s still warm enough to sit out on the deck, but without the humidity and the oppressive heat of summer.

Pilatus emerging out of the fog.
Just before Kersitten.
The Rigi, if I’m not mistaken.
The Bürgenstock.
Just before entering the port of Lucerne.
The Uri, which entered service on the lake back in 1901. She was overhauled back in 1994 and is still plying her trade on the company’s scheduled service. The Uri is the only one of the original steamboats on the lake that also operates in the winter.

The port of Lucerne is right in the centre of town. The railway station is two minutes on foot and the city’s famous covered bridge, the Kapelbrücke, is not much further away.

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!

Mount Pilatus, Switzerland

Without a doubt Mount Pilatus is one of Switzerland’s top tourist attractions. And rightly so! Perched on the shores of Lake Lucerne, the view from the top of Pilatus is simply stunning and on good days you can even see as far as Zürich.

To reach Pilatus, I take the bus line 71 from Lucerne main station to Kriens. The journey takes about ten minutes. And then from there it’s about a ten minutes walk to the station of the Pilatus Bahnen. The journey by cable car will take about 40 minutes to complete and includes changing cable cars more or less halfway up the mountain.

If you’re the nervous type or just not comfortable in vehicles that hang precariously hundreds of metres above the ground, then perhaps you should be warned: it can get quite windy at the summit, so very often the cable car cabin will have to break abruptly just before entering the station at the summit and for the wind to abate and the cabin to stop swinging from side to side…

Once you reach the top at Pilatus Kulm, the place is crawling with tourists – predominantly of the German and Chinese variety. You can’t really blame them because the vistas really are superb!

If you want to escape the crowds, probably the best thing to do is spend a night or two at one of the two hotels. The last departures from Pilatus Kulm are at around 17h45, when the place quietens again and you have the mountain to yourself.

There are two hotels on Pilatus Kulm, the Bellevue and the Hotel Pilatus Kulm. The latter is the older of the two, but is well taken care of. The rooms are spacious and all rooms face the same way, so you’re guaranteed and perfect view of the Alps.

The next morning I decide to take the cogwheel railway from Pilatus Kulm down to Alpnachstad, which is right on the lake. Apparently, the Pilatus railway holds the world record for the cogwheel railway with the steepest gradient. It’s a nice journey down and will take you about forty minutes to complete. Usually the ticket you purchase is valid for both the railway and the cable car.

At Alpnachstad is only a short walk under the autobahn and the railway lines to the pier for the steamboat to Lucerne. Of course, this being Switzerland, the departures of the boat are coordinated with the arrivals of the trains coming down from Pilatus.

The journey from Alpnachstad to Lucerne will take 75 minutes to complete.