Climax of the fire at Lucerne railway station: the main dome collapses.
Climax of the fire at Lucerne railway station: the main dome collapses. SBB Historic

The fire at Lucerne railway station

On 5 February 1971 a devastating fire broke out at Lucerne railway station, destroying large sections of the Art Nouveau building. It was the biggest railway station fire since the formation of SBB.

Marc Ribeli

Marc Ribeli

Marc Ribeli is a historian and manages the photographic archive and AV archive at SBB Historic.

Scores of people stand tightly packed at the railings of Lucerne’s Seebrücke bridge and stare enthralled towards the railway station building. A thick cloud of dark grey smoke is rising; the bright yellow-orange glow of a fire gleams from the rooftop level of the railway station, standing out against the chill grey of the February morning. These powerful images of the blaze at Lucerne’s railway station have survived the passage of the years. The visual sources give us an impression of the impact and scale of the event, which was short in duration but long-lasting in its consequences.
The thick column of smoke was visible from miles around, as here from the Schweizerhofquai.
The thick column of smoke was visible from miles around, as here from the Schweizerhofquai. SBB Historic
Shortly after 8 a.m. smoke was first spotted in the station building; the police were alerted at 8.18, and they immediately deployed with an emergency fire-fighting team. When they arrived at the station, the group used ladders to enter the maze of passageways in the building’s wooden roof. There, they were confronted by open flames and dense smoke. Despite assistance from neighbouring Lucerne municipalities, the police and the SBB operational safety unit, the city fire brigade was unable to bring the fire under control. All they could do was retreat from the building interior and fight the blaze from outside. Fortunately, all the occupants of the attic rooms in the roof level were successfully evacuated; the blaze didn’t claim any human lives, although this was not certain until after the fire.
Video of the Lucerne railway station fire. SRF
The areas on the ground floor were cleared, and the main hall and platform concourse were closed off. Railway staff and postal clerks raced to move well over 100,000 mail items and postal cheques to safety; more than 1,000 mailboxes were cleared. At 8.52 a.m. the last train pulled into the station. Passengers had to exit the station at a run because by that stage the fire was so far advanced that parts of the structure were expected to collapse. Lucerne railway station was closed to freight traffic and from that point on, express trains stopped at the freight terminal, and regional trains in the suburbs. The last four trains left the station at 9 a.m. Three minutes later, the electricity was switched off. The largest burst of fire occurred shortly after 9 a.m. when the main cupola of the station building collapsed with a loud roar. The event was recorded in numerous photographs, and on video. At various locations near the railway station, people followed the conflagration with their camera lenses. After the dome collapsed, the fire ran rampant on the ground floor. It blazed its way through the kiosk, ticket counter, hairdressing salon, hand-baggage check-in, restaurant, display cabinets and toilet facilities. Later on, the station’s smaller west cupola also collapsed. By around 1 p.m., the fire brigade had the blaze under control. The electricity remained switched off in the area around the railway station; trolleybus traffic stood still and the pedestrian underpass remained in darkness.
To ensure no human lives were endangered, the huge blaze could only be fought from outside.
To ensure no human lives were endangered, the huge blaze could only be fought from outside. SBB Historic
The ruined station concourse, into which the main cupola collapsed.
The ruined station concourse, into which the main cupola collapsed. SBB Historic

More than 220 tonnes of scrap

The massive blaze left extensive damage: the huge main cupola was completely gone, and the entire west wing of the frontage, housing the station restaurant and the main hall including banking facilities, waiting room, hand-baggage area and toilets, was completely gutted. When the wreckage in the main hall was cleared later, more than 220 tonnes of scrap was recovered from that area alone. As far as the cause of the fire was concerned, investigations failed to provide any clear findings. Most likely, the fire broke out at a place where a welding torch had been used the previous day during repair work on a piece of damaged guttering.

It’s not every day that, at a major railway station, the platforms, ticket counters, luggage and express goods service, information office, currency exchange counter, waiting rooms and large restaurants are rendered unusable within the space of half an hour.

Federal Railways officials deliberated very soberly and calmly on the question of redevelopment after the biggest blaze in the history of SBB. From the very beginning, the focus was on planning for the future, and on resuming operations as quickly as possible. Provisional arrangements were quickly made. As the railway system itself was undamaged, trains were able to run without significant delay, and the post office reopened in the afternoon. Less calm and sober was the mood among broad swathes of the public: for them, it wasn’t just that one of the largest railway stations in Switzerland had been put out of action for a certain period of time; it was also that one of the most famous buildings in Lucerne had disappeared in the space of a few hours. The central cupola in particular, visible for miles around, had become a landmark of the city over the 75 years of its existence. It was an abrupt farewell; the ‘beautiful old railway station’ was wistfully mourned for a long time. The event remained in the collective memory of the people of Lucerne.
Lucerne railway station, opened on 1 November 1896, pictured before the fire.
Lucerne railway station, opened on 1 November 1896, pictured before the fire. SBB Historic
20 years later, the new Lucerne railway station was finally inaugurated – in remembrance of the fire, the new station was officially opened on 5 February 1991 at exactly 9.03 a.m., the same time the station clock stopped in 1971. The original arched entrance portal on the Bahnhofsplatz, featuring Richard Kissling’s bronze sculpture ‘Zeitgeist’, and the ‘Nord et Sud’ mural by Maurice Barraud, which was rescued barely damaged from the former ticket hall and given a new home on the station’s west façade, are still there as reminders of the old station.

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