The Trans-Europe Express took travel to a whole new level.
The Trans-Europe Express took travel to a whole new level. SBB Historic

Trans-Europe Express

In 1961, SBB brought the electric TEE train into operation. The TEE is still regarded as a symbol of luxury travel and technological advancement.

Marc Ribeli

Marc Ribeli

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

In November 1954, eight European railway administrators founded the Commission TEE headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands. The Commission’s aim was to offer high-speed luxury trains. Despite differences of opinion, the railway administrators were agreed on a number of points: the new trains were to be self-contained units, have a uniform appearance and operate as first-class-only trains. In the end, four different Trans-Europe Express trains were built. The German, French and Italian railway companies each built their own version, while SBB developed the RAm TEE diesel multiple unit, in collaboration with Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the Dutch state railways. The trains started operating in summer 1957.
First-generation TEE train: RAm TEE I diesel multiple unit pulling into Zurich, July 1958.
First-generation TEE train: RAm TEE I diesel multiple unit pulling into Zurich, July 1958. SBB Historic
‘The railway car should offer the passenger a level of comfort that no other mode of transport can offer.’ These are the words used by SBB director general Otto Wichser in 1957 in a report on the Trans-Europe Express (TEE), the new European luxury trains, which had recently gone into operation. A surge in car and air traffic, a corollary of the economic boom, was putting the railways under pressure to improve their services. What was needed was solutions that could enhance comfort, increase travel speed and improve the regularity of train services. Franciscus Querien den Hollander, President of Nederlandse Spoorwegen, had proposed to the International Union of Railways (UIC) in 1953 that a European express train network be created. On this network, a fleet of standardised express trains would travel across national borders in an unaltered composition and connect Europe’s cities with one another.
A dining experience to rival any gourmet restaurant: interior view of the dining car, 1961.
A dining experience to rival any gourmet restaurant: interior view of the dining car, 1961. SBB Historic
SBB’s declared aim was to connect the Gotthard and Simplon Alpine tunnels with the European TEE network. However, the diesel trains didn’t have the necessary performance characteristics to tackle the steep mountain routes. So SBB proposed an electric TEE – a move which also made sense in view of progressive electrification throughout Europe. One final, but serious, obstacle for cross-border electric trains was the differing electricity systems of the various European railway lines. So SBB instructed Switzerland’s industrial fraternity to come up with an electric trainset that could operate on all electricity networks of the eight countries participating in the Commission TEE. The firms Schweizerische Industriegesellschaft (SIG), Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO) and Brown Boveri & Cie (BBC) were involved in the project. Together, they developed and built the RAe TEE II.
Passengers board the RAe TEE II ‘Gottardo’, September 1961.
Passengers board the RAe TEE II ‘Gottardo’, September 1961. SBB Historic
Also referred to as the Allstromzug or ‘train for all systems’, this electric railcar functioned with four different power systems, two with direct current and two with alternating current. Direct current flowed directly into the traction motors; alternating current was converted into direct current by means of a stepped transformer and a new type of rectifier. On the roof of the generator car there were four different, newly developed pantographs. Which of these pantographs would be raised depended on the electricity system and the country in which the train was located at any given time. As a result of this technical innovation, the wide variety of railway power supply systems established historically throughout Europe was not an obstacle for international electric express trains. Subsequently, the SBB Board of Directors decided in 1959 to procure four RAe TEE II trains, after agreement had been reached with the railway administrators of France and Italy on the timetable plan and operating requirements. The trains went into operation 60 years ago, in July 1961. The northern and southern TEE networks were finally joined up with the classic Gotthard and Simplon Alpine routes.
Many people still consider the TEE the best train ever built. YouTube
Because only first-class seats were offered, when fitting out the compartments the focus was on travel comfort and design. The trains’ distinguishing features included a streamlined power car that had been optimised in a wind tunnel, the TEE logo on the front, the wording ‘Trans Europ Express’ on the sides, and claret and cream livery. Inside, the limited number of seats gave an impression of spacious opulence and passengers enjoyed plenty of legroom and freedom to move. The spaciousness was intended to allow freedom to move about in the (air-conditioned) train and thus cater to passengers’ physical comfort even on long journeys – on the Milan-Lausanne-Paris route, for example, travellers were on board for eight hours.
A stylish rendezvous: the bar in the centre of the train.
A stylish rendezvous: the bar in the centre of the train. SBB Historic
In the accoutrements of the RAe TEE II the interplay of lighting, colour and material really raised the bar when it came to plush design; features included walls panelled with exotic woods, and slat blinds that could be operated at the push of a button. The rear wall of the driver’s cabin was glazed, and afforded a superb view of the cabin. To make sure the onboard catering was as smooth and accomplished as possible, the dining car and adjacent bar were placed at the midpoint of the train. The dining car’s size was also impressive: with a total of 54 seats, for many years it was the most spacious single-unit train restaurant in Europe. There were separate restrooms for each gender; the ladies’ restroom featured a huge, gleaming three-part mirror.
Spacious restrooms for well-groomed travel: the ladies’ bathroom on board the RAe TEE.
Spacious restrooms for well-groomed travel: the ladies’ bathroom on board the RAe TEE. SBB Historic
The travel experience, combined with shorter journey times, made the TEE train popular and ensured it was well patronised. From the mid-1970s onwards, demand for first-class-only trains declined in favour of fast, two-class intercity transport. The remaining RAm TEE trains were sold in 1976 and put into operation in Canada; the RAe TEE II was used for charter trips and official visits. In the late 1980s these vehicles were repurposed into intercity trains, with a silver-grey exterior and an interior dominated by grey and black, earning them the nickname ‘grey mouse’. The trains were withdrawn from service in the 1990s. In 2001, their prestige as important contemporary witnesses to railway history and as embodying the pinnacle of Swiss engineering prompted SBB Historic to acquire the best-preserved of the five RAe TEE II trains originally built, in order to refurbish it to the condition of the 1960s and make it accessible to the public.
RAe TEE II luxury train at Milano Centrale station, September 1961.
RAe TEE II luxury train at Milano Centrale station, September 1961. SBB Historic

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