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Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway

Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway

The Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway (BLS), known between 1997 and 2006 as the BLS Lötschbergbahn, was a Swiss railway company. In 2006 the company merged with Regionalverkehr Mittelland AG to form a new company called BLS AG.

The Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway was the largest standard gauge network on the Swiss Railway system apart from the Swiss Federal Railways. 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, with the Confederation holding about one fifth.

Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway
Dates of operation1913–2006
PredecessorLake Thun railway
Bern–Neuchâtel railway
Gürbetal–Bern–Schwarzenburg railway
Spiez–Erlenbach-Zweisimmen railway
SuccessorBLS AG
Track gauge1,435 mm(4 ft 812 in)standard gauge
Electrification15 kV, 16⅔ Hz, AC



With the opening of the Gotthard line in 1882 the canton of Bern became separated from the main north–south route. The administration, not being happy with the situation, made full use of its federal rights to build 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, due to the Franco-Prussian War, France had surrendered Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. As part of this annexation, the French-Swiss border crossing at Basel was lost.

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

Car transport service (Kandersteg)

Car transport service (Kandersteg)

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 (8.5 mi) single-track Lötschberg Tunnel. Construction began on 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 (9.079 mi). 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, 16⅔ 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 area, the Bern–Neuchâtel railway (BN), the Gürbetal–Bern–Schwarzenburg railway (GBS) and the Spiez–Erlenbach-Zweisimmen railway (SEZ) adding some 130 km (80.8 mi) to its system. The BLS/TSB merger meant that the Lötschbergbahn also became the proprietor of the shipping company on Lake Thun and Lake 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 (5.3 mi) Grenchenberg tunnel.

Following World War I, in 1919, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France under the Treaty of Versailles, and Basel was restored as a border crossing between France and Switzerland. As a consequence, 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.

Double-track and piggyback

Problems with the operation of a single line railway were being seriously felt in the 1960s, 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 (98.4 in) and a corner height of 4 m (13 ft 1.5 in). 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.

In 1994 the BLS moved 9.2 million passengers.

Politics and railways

The south side of the Lötschberg Base Tunnel

The south side of the Lötschberg Base Tunnel

BLS RABe 535 on the southern Lötschberg ramp between Lalden and Brig.

BLS RABe 535 on the southern Lötschberg ramp between Lalden and Brig.

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 and worst 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 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 NRLA project. 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 NRLA Lötschberg project provided for two single bore tunnels between Frutigen and the Rhône valley, a distance of 41 km (25.5 mi). For financial reasons the tunnel length was shortened to 34.6 km (21.5 mi), and the greater part of one of the bores was only be constructed as a shell. The new base line was inaugurated on 15 June 2007 and full standard traffic started with the new timetable on 9 December 2007. In full operation trains are able to travel through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel at speeds of 160–200 km/h (99.4–124.3 mph). Since the completion of NRLA and the opening of the new Lötschberg Base Tunnel, the BLS is responsible for the operation of train services along the entire Lötschberg–Simplon route.

Creation of BLS AG

A BLS train at a low lying platform

A BLS train at a low lying platform

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 merged to form 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 operating most routes of the Bern S-Bahn, together with some of those of the Lucerne S-Bahn.


ETR 610 train on the Lötschberg line

ETR 610 train on the Lötschberg line

The directly owned main line of the Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway ran from Thun, where it connected with the Swiss Federal Railways through Spiez and the Lötschberg Tunnel to Brig, where it connects with the Swiss Federal Railways owned Simplon Tunnel to Italy. The route between Thun and Spiez formed part of Lake Thun line, which also serves a terminus at Interlaken, whilst from Spiez to Brig the Lötschberg line was used.

This classic main line formed part of a longer route, from the border with France and Germany through the Simplon Tunnel to the border with Italy and Milan. As part of one variant of this route, the Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway also owned and built the Grenchenberg line between Moutier and Lengnau, which included the 8.5 km (5.3 mi) Grenchenberg tunnel, and shortened the distance between the French border at Delle and Bern. However most of this longer route was always operated by other railway companies.

Besides the lines mentioned above, the Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway also operated several other independently owned operating companies in the canton of Bern, including the Bern–Neuchâtel railway (BN), the Gürbetal–Bern–Schwarzenburg railway (GBS) and the Spiez–Erlenbach-Zweisimmen railway (SEZ). In 1997, the ownership of these lines was taken over by the Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway.

Between 2004 and 2006, when it was subsumed into the BLS AG, the company also operated extensive commuter services as part of the Bern S-Bahn network. The BLS network operated trains over 245 km (152.2 mi) of standard gauge track, but the BLS actually owned only 115 km (71.5 mi). The whole network was electrified at 15 kV 16⅔ Hz.

Locomotives and multiple units

The Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway operated the following locomotives and multiple units.

Class Re 4/4 (Re 425)

BLS No.NameUIC No.Builders detailsSLM No.BuiltEquipmtDate /Notes.
161DomodossolaSLM/BBC/MFO/SAAS44521964Thyristor test unit 1968–1976
180Ville de NeuchâtelSLM/BBC/MFO/SAAS49001973ETCSex-BN
ETCSsecond carbody after avalanche
187MundSLM/BBC/MFO/SAAS50431975ETCSwithdrawn after collision 2007
190RaronSLM/BBC/MFO/SAAS52221982ETCSETCS equipment ex 187

Re 425 170–190 are fitted with ETCS and thus able to pull trains over NBS Mattstetten – Rothrist and through Lötschberg Base Tunnel. Other Re 425 could act in MU as second or third engine and, if required, also behind an Re 465.

Re 425 191–195 were fitted with Railvox public address system and thus primarily used for push-pull services. There are 6 driving trailers for passenger services. By December 2010 the use of such consists for additional trains of S-Bahn Bern ended. Five consists are in use around Spiez (2011).

Third field of use are the car shuttles through (old) Lötschberg Tunnel. A total of 9 driving trailers is available for this purpose.

Class Re4/4 II (Re 420)

BLS No.NameUIC No.CFF/SBB No.Builders detailsSLM No.Year BuiltDate / Notes.
501420 501-911110SLM/SAAS/BBC/MFO46421966Ex-SBB/CFF, July 2004
502420 502-711117SLM/SAAS/BBC/MFO46491966Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2004
503420 503-511119SLM/SAAS/BBC/MFO46511966Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2004
504420 504-311123SLM/SAAS/BBC/MFO46551966Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2004
505420 505-011137SLM/SAAS/BBC/MFO46691966Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2004
506420 506-811142SLM/SAAS/BBC/MFO46741966Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2004
507420 507-611107SLM/BBC/MFO46391966Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2005, withdrawn 2009, 2010 scrapped
508420 508-411102SLM/BBC/MFO44451964Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2005, withdrawn 2009, 2010 scrapped
509420 509-211103SLM/BBC/MFO44461964Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2005, withdrawn 2009, 2010 scrapped
510420 510-011104SLM/BBC/MFO44471964Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2005, withdrawn 2009, scrapped
511420 511-811105SLM/BBC/MFO44481964Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2005, withdrawn 2009, 2010 scrapped
512420 512-611106SLM/BBC/MFO44491964Ex-SBB/CFF, December 2005, withdrawn 2009, 2010 scrapped

Other classes

ClassTSI prefixUIC No.Builders detailsSLM No.BuiltEquimtDate /Notes.
Re 46591 85 4465 001 – 008SLM/ABB5638–56451994–1995ETCS
Re 46591 85 4465 009 – 018SLM/ABB5733–57421996–1997ETCSoriginally owned by SBB, now BLS
Re 48591 85 4485 001 – 020Bombardier2002–2004ETCSowned by BLSC
Re 48691 85 4486 501 – 510Bombardier2009owned by BLSC
RABe 52594 85 7525 001 – 038Bombardier/Alstom1998–2005"Nina"; 031 burnt out Dec 2010; 037-038 ex-TRN;
RBDe 56594 85 7565 721 – 742SWP/SIG/BBC1982–1992730 burnt out Dec 2009
RBDe 56694 85 7566 230 – 242SWP/SIG/BBC1984–1985ex-RM


  • BBC = Brown, Boveri & Cie

  • MFO = Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon

  • SAAS = Société Anonyme des Ateliers de Sécheron, Geneva

  • SLM = Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works, Winterthur

Business activities

The BLS was 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 was part of the consortium Cisalpino, together with SBB-CFF-FFS and Trenitalia. Later BLS left Cislapino, and in December 2009 Cisalpino ceased operations

  • 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.

See also

  • Rail transport in Switzerland

  • Table of turn tunnels


Citation Linkwww.prellbock.chPrellbock Druck & Verlag
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Citation Linkwww.worldcat.org0458-1822
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