For the construction and operation of the first railway on Swiss soil, the railway company had to adhere to detailed specifications. Illustration: Marco Heer
For the construction and operation of the first railway on Swiss soil, the railway company had to adhere to detailed specifications. Illustration: Marco Heer

Switzerland’s first railway

On 15 June 1844, a railway train ran on Swiss territory for the first time. The train didn’t go from Baden to Zurich; instead, it ran a distance of about two kilometres from the French border to the city of Basel.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

Quiz question: When and where did Switzerland’s first railway operate, and what was it called? Probable answer: The Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn, also known as the Swiss Northern Railway, from Baden to Zurich in 1847. Correct? The contestant would probably advance to the next round. But well-informed railway enthusiasts know that this answer is only partially correct. The Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn was actually the first railway to operate entirely on Swiss territory. But it didn’t run on the first railway line in Switzerland. To give a properly correct answer to the question, we need to travel from the historic railway station in Baden several years into the past and about 50 km further west, to Basel. By 1840, several hundred kilometres of railway track had already been laid in the countries bordering Switzerland and were in operation. In Switzerland itself, savvy business folk recognised the economic potential of the railway and instigated the first railway projects, but getting those projects implemented was another matter altogether. Disagreements about the route led to general animosity between the cantons, culminating in the Sonderbund War in 1847. Things were made even more difficult by the fact that at that time there wasn’t yet a federal state that could have settled the disputes and managed the cross-cantonal projects.
Detail from the map of the railway line from Strasbourg to Basel around 1840. The Swiss section is still missing.
Detail from the map of the railway line from Strasbourg to Basel around 1840. The Swiss section is still missing. ETH Library
North of Basel, the first sections of the railway line between Strasbourg and Saint-Louis had been brought into service in autumn 1840. In June 1843, Basel’s Great Council decided to extend the railway tracks, which reached to the Swiss border, to Basel. The Great Council awarded a concession to the firm Compagnie du chemin de fer de Strasbourg à Bâle, the Strasbourg-Basel railway company. Although the section on Swiss territory constituted just two of the approximately 130 kilometres to Strasbourg, the Basel authorities drew up a detailed specification that, in addition to the laying of the tracks and the building of the station, also set out the hours of operation on Sundays and public holidays, the transport tariffs and many other details.
Excerpt from the requirement specifications “concerning the extension of the Strasbourg-Basel railway from Saint-Louis to the city”.
Excerpt from the requirement specifications “concerning the extension of the Strasbourg-Basel railway from Saint-Louis to the city”. Swiss Federal Archives
The first contentious issue in the Basel Council was the question of whether the station for trains from France should be located inside or outside the city walls. Opinions varied widely. The NZZ even expressed concern “that a Swiss town would be donning a French uniform” if a French railway station were to be built within the city’s walls. The politicians, however, decided by a narrow majority to go ahead, but with the proviso that the opening allowing the railway through the city wall was to be secured with a lockable railway gate.
The first train arrives on Swiss territory on 15 June 1844.
The first train arrives on Swiss territory on 15 June 1844. SBB Historic
On 15 June 1844 the first train, driven by the steam engine “Napoléon”, chugged across the Swiss border and into the temporary station outside the city. A year and a half later, on 11 December 1845, Switzerland’s first official railway station was formally opened, at the site of what is today the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. Five pairs of trains operated on the route daily. After the last train entered the city, the iron portcullis in the railway gate was lowered by guards in the evening, and opened again in the morning.
The railway gate in the Basel city wall, around 1861.
The railway gate in the Basel city wall, around 1861. Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt
Grand opening of Switzerland’s first railway station. Basel, 11 December 1845. Illustration from the magazine L'Illustré, Paris.
Grand opening of Switzerland’s first railway station. Basel, 11 December 1845. Illustration from the magazine L'Illustré, Paris. Wikimedia
Most of this historic railway line, and the station, ceased to exist in the 1860s. With the opening of the Basel-Liestal line, the Swiss Central Railway Company opened a temporary station in the east of the city. The Centralbahnhof, opened in 1860 at the present-day location of the SBB station, connected the Basel-Liestal line with the line from Alsace and made the first station unnecessary. The tracks were laid around the historic old town centre to today’s SBB station and the old buildings were demolished; today, nothing remains of this building that is of such historic interest for Switzerland.
Detail of the “Scenic Map of the City of Basel”, created and published by Friedrich Mähly, 1847.
Detail of the “Scenic Map of the City of Basel”, created and published by Friedrich Mähly, 1847. The sizeable complex with the railway gate in the city wall is recorded in meticulous detail. Swiss National Library
Incidentally, there are historical reasons why traffic on the railways travels on the left and not on the right, as it does on the roads. From 1825 onwards, steam engines were in scheduled operation in England. English railway pioneer George Stephenson (1781-1848) had a critical influence; his expertise was later sought after in other European countries. In addition to Stephenson’s gauge of 1.435 m, left-hand traffic, which is the norm in the UK, was also adopted in those countries.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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