International passenger

trains in 20th Century Europe

International passenger trains in 20th Century Europe

Mountains dominated the Swiss landscape.  They blocked north-south axes which required substantial engineering to overcome.

Simplon & Berne-Lötschberg- Simplon (BLS) lines

In south west Switzerland lies the Rhône Valley which comes against the Simplon Pass on the Italian border. Plans to open a tunnel under the Simplon Pass came to pass in 1906 thus providing a new route to Milano.  It facilitated trains such as the Simplon-Orient Express which started after the First World War and for the first time French traffic for South Eastern Europe had a route which did not cross German or Austrian territory.

The Simplon line gained a further transit route added to it on a private railway (Berne-Lötschberg-Simplon (BLS)) from Basel which joined the Simplon route at Brig, just north of the Simplon Tunnel. This line ascended the Kander valley from Spiez and broke into the Rhône Valley via the Lötschberg Tunnel. This was opened in 1913. The need to realign tracks and speed up transit times were realised in the construction and opening of a new Lötschberg Base Tunnel in 2007. This accelerates trains from Basel and Berne to Milano.

The French connection to the Simplon route lay in crossing the Swiss frontier at Vallorbe and running along Lake Geneva via Lausanne. The advent of the TGV has remodelled services here. With the demise of long-distance through services, passengers through to Milano from Paris ceased using the Simplon line and are now routed via the Mont Cenis line from Chambery to Torino.


The first north-south link was the Gotthard Tunnel route opened in 1882. This united Germany with northern Italy via Zürich. The growth of traffic on this route has necessitated a bolder plan to build a 57km tunnel to be opened in 2017. This tunnel will be the longest tunnel (of all railway and road tunnels) in the world. On completion it is expected to decrease the current 3½ hours travel time from Zürich to Milan by one hour.

Mont Cenis

This pass joins France and Italy between Modane and Bardonnechia. Opened in 1871 this route offered the possibility of through trains from Paris to Torino, Milano and Roma avoiding Switzerland.


A further transit route of significance was that from Basel to Zürich and on to Salzburg and Wien via the Arlberg route. In the 1930s this was the route of the famed Arlberg-Orient Express which spread its wings as far as Athenai and Istanbul.


 This formed an important link between southern Germany and Italy. Trains from München travelled Via Innsbruck, Brenner and Bolzano to Verona leading to Bologna and Roma. In the inter war years it carried the main Berlin-Roma expresses.

D2:1 - Main Swiss passes


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