Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes

Alpa Nawre (MLAUD)

Project Overview

This project seeks to explore the dual role of transport infrastructure, especially railways, as object and subject in cultural landscapes; as object the railway is registered as part of the cultural landscape and as subject it influences the changes therein acting as a register for experiencing the cultural landscape. One such internationally recognized example is the Rhaetian Railway in the Bernina/ Albula landscape, which runs from Thusis, Switzerland to Torino, Italy. The layout of this railway line and the engineering structures built of locally quarried stone marks the zenith of the classic era of railway building.

The promotional historic posters made for the Rhaetian Railway during its early years capture the essence of the subject/ object duality. One image prominently places the train in the foreground as an object in the landscape with the Bernina range in the background while other posters capture the essence of the lifestyle and landscape associated with the railway route and in these, the train is entirely missing from the scenery! As object, the infrastructure symbolizes the character of an era, an economic engine, connectivity and so on; its potential as a vector open to the imagination, including but not limited to social, ecological, economic and cultural. As subject, the infrastructure brings experience, understanding and a unique reading of the landscape.

Project Information

The idea of infrastructure as breathtaking is an alien concept. A stunning piece of infrastructure, which has active utilitarian value, is even more surprising. The Rhaetian railway has an annual turnover of over 250 million Swiss Francs, approximately 10 million passengers, 700,000 tonnes of freight and 400,000 accompanied motor vehicles a year transported through its services. It is composed of two parts: the Albula Railway and the Bernina Railway.

The Albula railway was completed in 1903 and the Bernina railway in 1910. The Albula Railway is a single track metre gauge railway line in the Canton of Graubünden, Switzerland. It links Thusis on the Hinterrhein with the spa resort of St. Moritz in Engadine. With its 55 bridges and 39 tunnels, the 61.67 km (38.32 mi) long line is one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railways in the world. The Bernina Railway is a single track metre gauge railway line and links the spa resort of St. Moritz, in the Canton of Graubünden, Switzerland, with the town of Tirano, in the Province of Sondrio, Italy, via the Bernina Pass. It also ranks as the highest adhesion railway in the Alps, and – with inclines of up to 7% – as one of the steepest adhesion railways in the world.

The engineering structures of the Albula and Bernina lines of the Rhaetian Railway (bridges, station buildings, signal complexes, tunnels and their portals) are in perfect harmony with the striking topography. Both railways integrate buildings of the highest quality and conceptualize them in relation to the landscape, in terms of both their route layout and structures. In these two projects, infrastructure and landscape merge through the parameters of a cultural vocabulary of settlements, building engineering and materials.

This landscape has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and according to UNESCO World Heritage Candidature dossier “The Albula and Bernina railway lines running from Thusis via St. Moritz to Tirano represent the “red thread” that defines the cultural landscape; the overall length is some 130 km. The Albula line was constructed between 1898 and 1904 as a high-capacity, narrow-gauge railway providing access to the renowned holiday resorts of the Upper Engadin. The stretch was originally operated with steam engines but electrified in 1919. Despite continuous adaptations to changing requirements, the original alignment has been preserved virtually throughout and is still used for its original purpose. The Bernina line was constructed between 1906 and 1910 as an electrified surface railway linked with the power stations on the south side of the Bernina Pass, and for better access to the natural scenery that is so attractive to tourists. However, modifications to the alignment and innovations in terms of snow clearance and protective measures for the track proved necessary to permit services to be operated all the year round.

Even at the time the railway was built, the outstanding quality of the landscape to be traversed was recognized and deemed worthy of preservation. Emphasis was put on harmonious integration of the railway infrastructure, while at the same time the alignment – particularly in the case of the Bernina line – was planned, as far as possible, to present the landscape to the traveler in all its magnificence as a landscape experience. The structurally created measures to enhance perception of the landscape during a rail journey together with the railway landscaping realized during construction are unique in the early 20th century. The experience of the exceptional views is an inherent element of the quality of the property. The “Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Cultural Landscape” displays emblematically this synthesis of nature, culture and technology which has exerted a powerful influence on how the Alps have been perceived over the years: a vignette of cultural history.”

The research was undertaken with extensive photo documentation of the infrastructure and its relation to the landscape as both subject and object, evidenced by the craft of its construction, supporting systems of operation, adjoining urbanism and related economic drivers like tourism. This study recognizes infrastructure as an important expression of a people’s culture and therefore also a means of influencing it. As Stan Allen succinctly summarizes “Today, as “urban design” has disappeared as a distinct but limited discourse, a range of new fields have emerged which go by the names of landscape urbanism, interior urbanism and even infrastructure urbanism, a triad of terms that leave far behind the suffixes “design” and “architecture” that had once regulated disciplinary identification and legitimacy. It is through this lens that I sought to investigate the railway infrastructure in the Albula/ Bernina landscapes and challenged the conventional nature, understanding and expectation from a standard piece of transport infrastructure.

As the study unfolded over the three days that I spent on the train and stations in the Albula and Bernina Lines, I began to realize that the dual role of transport infrastructure as subject and object is particularly unique to the Swiss landscape. The scale of the Alpine landscape and the resulting view vistas allow for a unique observation of the train as well as the landscape through the train. Elevation changes also allow for the experience of the landscape to be very varied as the train journeys through different landscapes with quick changes in light, mood, flora and other landscape qualities. Perhaps this relationship would perhaps not be so apparent in a flatter landscape with no aerial viewpoints. However, the understanding that infrastructure could serve these dual roles need to be tested and explored in other landscapes too.


Alpa Nawre
MLAUD 2011
[email protected]


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Belanger, Pierre. 2009. Landscape As Infrastructure. In Landscape Jrnl. 28(1), 79-95

Brooke, William and Behrmann. 1911.The Rhaetian Railway: Rh.B. (Rhätische Bahn): a practical guide to the Swiss Highlands of the Grisons. Rhätische Bahn

Mossop, Elizabeth. 2006. Landscapes of Infrastructure. In The landscape urbanism Reader, Ed. Waldheim, Charles, 163 – 178. New York : Princeton Architectural Press

Smets, Marcel and Shannon, Kelly. 2010. The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure. Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers/ Publishers