The electric railcar BCFe 4/4, No. 18, passing the church in Tegna, photographed on 24 August 1925.
The electric railcar BCFe 4/4, No. 18, passing the church in Tegna, photographed on 24 August 1925. Swiss Museum of Transport, VA-423

The 100-year history of the Centovalli Railway

The Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway crosses 83 bridges and goes through 31 tunnels. It connects Switzerland to Italy and is the most direct route between the Gotthard and Simplon lines. The legendary narrow gauge railway in southern Switzerland celebrates its centenary in 2023/24.

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher is a historian and curator at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.

Until the early 20th century, there were no roads going through the Centovalli and the Vigezzo Valley between the Swiss town of Locarno and the Italian town of Domodossola. The two valleys were only connected by a bridle path until the first road was opened in 1907. At the time, the idea of a railway line was also being considered. The building of the line was mainly instigated by mayor of Locarno Francesco Balli (1852–1924), teacher Andrea Testore (1855–1936), and engineer Giacomo Sutter (1873–1939). French bank Banque Franco-Américaine was to provide the financing. The rail operating companies Ferrovie Regionali Ticinesi (FRT) in Switzerland and the Società Subalpina di Imprese Ferroviarie (SSIF) in Italy were set up in 1909 and 1912 respectively. The construction work, which had already started, was delayed because the bank ran into difficulty in 1913 and went bankrupt. In addition to the financial problems, the First World War also led to delays when the Italian workforce were called to the front after Italy joined the war in 1915. In 1918, Switzerland and the Kingdom of Italy signed a treaty that remains valid to this day, which set out the rights and obligations of the two countries and rail companies.
The construction of the Centovalli line, occasionally using very basic tools was extremely arduous for the workers.
The construction of the Centovalli line, occasionally using very basic tools was extremely arduous for the workers. Archive Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi

Locarno’s tramway and the Maggia Valley Railway

Routing the line through the region, which is criss-crossed by gorges and mountainsides was no easy task and required the construction of many tunnels and viaducts. Besides the stone arch bridges over the Val d’Ingiustria, the Rio Graglia and at Ponte Ribellasca, the steel bridge over the Isorno near Intragna and the Ruinacci bridge near Camedo are some of the most spectacular railway bridges in Switzerland.
Construction of the majestic steel bridge over the Isorno near Intragna, c. 1916.
Construction of the majestic steel bridge over the Isorno near Intragna, c. 1916. Swiss National Museum
Tunnels had to be built and certain sections had to be re-electrified. The section of track between Ponte Brolla and Locarno station was shared between the Centovalli Railway, the Locarno tramway and the Locarno-Ponte Brolla-Brignasco train (Maggia Valley Railway). Also known as the ‘Valmaggina’, the latter had been built in 1905 to connect the valley’s quarries with the Gotthard Railway and the barges on Lake Maggiore. Both companies were leased to the FRT and were converted from alternating current to the Centovalli line’s direct current system. For the extensive modifications, the company bought two steam locomotives from the Rhaetian Railway and the steam engine ‘Salève’ from Geneva. The official opening of the narrow-gauge railway, featuring the electric railcar made by Carminati & Toselli in Milan, took place on 25 November 1923.
The Locarno tramway with a view towards the Piazza Grande, 1950s.
The Locarno tramway with a view towards the Piazza Grande, 1950s. Swiss Museum of Transport
Image 01 of 03
The electric railcar BCFe 4/4, No. 10, in front of Visconteo Castle in Locarno, photographed on 24 August 1925.
The electric railcar BCFe 4/4, No. 10, in front of Visconteo Castle in Locarno, photographed on 24 August 1925. Swiss Museum of Transport, VA-1653
Image 01 of 03
An electric railcar crossing the viaduct near Intragna, 1950s.
An electric railcar crossing the viaduct near Intragna, 1950s. Swiss Museum of Transport, VA-66544
Image 01 of 03

A beacon of hope in the Second World War

Although international links were almost completely severed by the outbreak of war, the Centovalli line initially continued to run on a slimmed-down wartime schedule. Because individual transport was severely restricted due to fuel rationing, the FRT benefited from significant traffic. During the war, the Swiss border took on a fateful significance for many civilian refugees and evacuees, partisans, deserters, and besieged foreign military units. The smuggling of goods, people and weapons reached a whole new level. Usually this took place via the green border, but some smuggling activities were carried out – successfully or not – via the Centovalli line. After the collapse of Italy, on 18 September 1943, the Swiss authorities put a stop to the moderate international traffic. On 10 September 1944, Italian partisan groups managed to oust the fascist troops, proclaiming the Ossola Partisan Republic on the Swiss border, which lasted for 44 days. During this chaotic time, especially after the region was recaptured by fascist troops in October 1944, tens of thousands of people fled to the cantons of Valais and Ticino. Many of them travelled to Locarno on the Centovalli Railway, from where they were accommodated in refugee camps or stayed with local host families.
Evacuees at the window of a train carriage organised by the Swiss Red Cross, c. 1944.
Evacuees at the window of a train carriage organised by the Swiss Red Cross, c. 1944. Archive of the Swiss Red Cross

Infrastructure projects and the storm of the century

As well as passenger numbers, which recovered after the Second World War, there was high demand for freight traffic up until the early 1950s, sometimes with volumes of over 100,000 tonnes a year. This was due to the transport of materials for the hydropower projects in the Maggia Valley and the Palagnedra dam.
During the construction of the Palagnedra reservoir, the material was delivered directly to the building site by freight trains on the Centovalli Railway (top left) via chutes c. 1950.
During the construction of the Palagnedra reservoir, the material was delivered directly to the building site by freight trains on the Centovalli Railway (top left) via chutes c. 1950. Archive Officine Idroelettriche della Maggia
After a quarter of a century of operation, fundamental renovations were needed. In 1952, the FRT merged with the Maggia Valley railway. Meanwhile, the Locarno tramway was in poor condition and was replaced with buses in the mid-1950s, and permanently shut down in 1960. With the operation of bus lines, the company changed its name in 1961 to Ferrovie e Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi. And in the Maggia Valley, too, bus services caught on, with the last ‘Valmaggina’ train from Bignasco to Locarno running on 28 November 1965. In the late 1950s, the Centovalli Railway got new rolling stock and the overhead line was completely renewed on the Swiss side. Meanwhile, the deficits on the Italian side were becoming ever more apparent, with overhead line masts that were still mostly made of crooked chestnut wood. The modernisation work was carried out in the 1970s with Swiss support. Barely had the work been completed than a once-in-a-century storm hit the Italian side on 7 and 8 August 1978, completely sweeping away several hundred metres of railway track between Re and Olgia, causing three bridges to collapse and damaging many structures. It was only through the tireless work of the track construction team that sections of the line could be reopened and full service resumed on 28 September 1980.
Destroyed track on the Italian side following the storm of August 1978.
Destroyed track on the Italian side following the storm of August 1978. Keystone
After this, a major infrastructure project was about to start on the Swiss side, but in Locarno, the plans were hampered by the terminus of the Centovalli Railway and the busy station square. The solution came in the shape of a 2.59-kilometre-long tunnel between S. Antonio and Muralto, as well as an underground station. The section of tunnel, known in Locarno as ‘Minimetro’ ended up costing some CHF 130 million instead of the estimated CHF 38 million, and was opened on 17 December 1990.
When the Centovalli Railway still ran above ground on the square in front of the station in Locarno, 1967.
When the Centovalli Railway still ran above ground on the square in front of the station in Locarno, 1967. ETH Library

One of the world’s most beautiful railway lines

The railway, which is affectionately referred to as the ‘Centovallina’ on the Swiss side and the ‘Vigezzina’ on the Italian side, snakes through some impressive natural and cultural landscapes on its way from Locarno to Domodossola. The journey takes in deep gorges, rivers, snowy peaks, waterfalls, wild chestnut forests, vineyards and flowery meadows. Various smugglers’ trails and museums on the route attest to the daily hardships and modest lives of people in bygone eras, such as the Chimney Sweep Museum in Santa Maria Maggiore. At almost 900m altitude, it is the highest village on the railway line and features charming squares, narrow streets and characteristic buildings. But besides the line’s charm and beauty, for many people it is simply a fast way to travel from Ticino to the French-speaking part of Switzerland and to Bern. And to meet today’s demands and the requirements of disability legislation, the Centovalli line’s journey must continue: at the end of 2020, FART ordered eight new railcars from Stadler Rail and the first trains are due to arrive in 2024.
The Ruinacci Viaduct on an idyllic autumn day.
The Ruinacci Viaduct on an idyllic autumn day. Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi

100 years of the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway

The Swiss Museum of Transport is organising various activities and exhibitions to mark the centenary, such as a thematic display featuring a carriage from 1923.

Further posts