The Zermatt shuttle

One of the great things about living in Zermatt is that it’s a car free town. You can own a car here but you can only drive to the car parks positioned on the periphery of town. The mode of transport in the town itself is electric taxi or electric bus. They are both very quiet and their numbers are limited to around 500. Some of the streets in Zermatt are very narrow and there would be mayhem and grid lock if the inhabitants and tourists were allowed to drive around and park.

Zermatt is quite a compact town so it doesn’t take too long to walk anywhere, so its really not a problem that cars are banned. If you plan to take a vacation here, there are options to arrive at your destination. If you’ve come by air you can arrive by helicopter transfer from your chosen airport but if you’ve decided to drive here you can get as far as Tasch about 10k further down the valley but then you have to park and then hop in a taxi or on a train for the short journey into the heart of Zermatt. Earlier this year after record amounts of snow fell in resort, the only way in or out for stranded tourists was in fact by helicopter. The snow was so persistent and heavy that it blocked the line. This rarely happens and it’s good to know that relief will be quickly organised when it does.

If you take the journey by train you may wonder at the feat of engineering that it must have taken to build the line. It’s quite a height gain and in some places the track hugs the side of the mountain seemingly quite precariously. The railway is taken for granted now but imagine what is must have been like before it was built and before cars were ubiquitous. It could be argued that Edward Whymper put Zermatt on the map in 1865 but until the railway link from Visp was completed in 1891, few had the chance to visit.

Zermatt gained world wide recognition in 1865 when the English illustrator, climber and explorer Edward Whymper became the first to ascend the Matterhorn. News of his exploit quickly spread and the village soon became a major attraction and as a result visitor numbers rose steadily. At that time access was difficult, Zermatt was only reachable by a lengthy and arduous trek on foot up through the valley. Even a basic mule ride as far as St Niklaus took a long time. Nevertheless by the 1880ʼs there were as many as 12,000 tourist visits a year.

To promote tourism in the valley and especially in Zermatt itself, plans emerged to build a railway line intended to connect the now thriving Zermatt to the outside world. The railway was at the outset to be open only from the beginning of June to the end of September, as the investors did not wish to take on the risks of operating the line in an Alpine winter. There were considerable avalanche risks and heavy snowfalls to content with, operating in winter was considered a non starter. It was only in summer that there were prospects of significant numbers of passengers, as in those days winter tourism was still of no great importance. It seems hard to imagine now that Zermatt was not considered to be viable as a winter ski resort.

Construction of the railway from Visp, way down the valley to Zermatt began in November 1888. Acquisition of the necessary land turned out to be a nightmarish undertaking, particularly in the municipalities of Stalden and St Niklaus as the local population was not interested in selling, the original NIMBYʼs. Tedious compulsory purchase order procedures became necessary. That was if owners could be traced. Land in the entire valley was divided into a myriad of tiny plots and usually the actual owners of the plots were not recorded in official documents. However, once these issues were settled and construction began the absence of a road made it necessary to transport the building materials almost exclusively over the already completed parts of the railway tracks to the construction sites. All obstacles overcome the railway was built, a triumph of engineering. In July 1891 the last link was completed and the entire line from Visp to Zermatt was ready for itʼs first paying customers.

In the early years lack of profitability, avalanche, flood and bankruptcy threatened the line but nevertheless the railway was considered a success, with some reservations. However the valley population and the Zermatt hoteliers thought they were on to a good thing and as early as 1907 there were calls for the Visp-Zermatt- Bahn to operate all year round. The owners refused to conduct such operations due to the high costs that would result, and the consequent lack of profitability. With the outbreak of World War I, the clamour for continuous operations died down, for the time being. The hoteliers and local population persisted but had a long wait, it wasnʼt until 1933 that continuous operations became possible and feasible. Since then the line has gone from strength to strength, passenger numbers increasing to unthought of numbers. In 1930 the Zermatt to Visp section linked all the way to St Moritz and became known as the Glacier Express, the “slowest express in the world”.

Danny Frith is Director at SkiBoutique. SkiBoutique is a luxury ski chalet agency based in Switzerland.

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Comments (1)

  1. Justine Paulsson says:

    The sound of a car free town is amazing. When you mentioned how quiet the electric bus is it made me realise how noisy cars can be. How exciting to arrive by helicopter as well. That’s just a great way to start any visit and gives it that exclusive edge. Also so pleased to hear that the town is recovering from the hard times that have fell upon them. This sounds like the perfect get away.

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