Gary Phillips takes one of the world’s most stunning train journeys with Rail Europe, the Jungfraubahn train to the top of Europe – The Jungfraujoch. At over 3500 metres or 11,000 feet, its the highest building in Europe. Make sure you watch the video at the bottom of this page.
When you stand back to look at the position of the Jungfraujoch from the rail station down below at Kleine Scheidegg you have to wonder how anyone had the idea to build a rail station so high up in what must be one of the most challenging and exposed places in Europe. Yet in 1893 Adolf Guyer-Zellar looked up and decided that there should be a railway station all the way up on the rocks in the cradle of the mountains in between Mönch and the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps.
To this day the Jungfraujoch remains the highest railway station in Europe, but still 100 metres or so below the intended target of the surface rock. A service lift takes you the final 100 metres to the Sphinx Observatory which is set at a height of (3,571 meters (11,716 ft). You can walk even higher than here during the summer when trails are opened up alongside the Jungfrau Mountain itself from where you can actually look down over 100 metres above the Sphinx.
The only way to reach this point is to take the 7.3 km train line using the cog-wheel railway operated by Jungfraubahn from Kleine Scheidegg station through the rocks of the mountain and the only realistic way to reach Kleine Scheidegg is also by train from Lauterbrunnen one side or Grindelwald on the other.
We took the train all the way from London. We started out by gathering at London St. Pancras Rail Station at 06:30 to catch the 07:22 Eurostar train to Paris. We arrived in Paris Gare du Nord at 10:47 local time to walk the 5 minutes or so across to Gare de l’Est where we could catch the new TGV Est Européene to Strasbourg. This new line was the fastest in the world until 2009 when one of the new high speed lines in China was completed, but in any case we still marvelled at the full speed of 320km/hour we achieved on the way to Strasbourg. On arrival at Strasbourg we grabbed some lunch while we waited for the onward train which left for Basel at 14:51. We arrived in Basel at 16:08 where we were to connect to the final destination of Interlaken West to arrive at 18:57. A short walk followed to the Hotel Oberland where we had a fine dinner that evening accompanied by some horn-blowing and coin spinning in traditional Swiss drunken style.
The next day was the big one though. Yes it was another day on trains, but nothing like the daily Clapham Junction to Victoria type train. The first led was from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. As the name implies, Interlaken is situated in between two lakes surrounded by high mountains so the short journey to Lauterbrunnen was fantastically beautiful in itself. At Lauterbrunnen we changed onto the train for Kleine Scheidegg which takes about 45 minutes. From here you start to look across deep valleys bordered on both sides by sheer cliffs of rock – unlike anything I had seen before.
For the 30th November we were exceptionally lucky not to have been hit by a white-out snow storm as we were ascending to places which rely on snow for their main source of income for much of the year, and the snow as already one month late in arriving. It was eerie to look down at snowfields completely clear of snow save the small circles of ice surrounding snow cannons that tried unsuccessfully to create an artificial surface. Call it global warming or just a late season, but just for the purposes of photography, the clear weather was a blessing.
On our approach to Kleine Scheidegg we caught our first glimpse of our destination. It looked like a tiny dot at first which offers a perspective of the grandeur of the mountain range it’s nested in. We were already now at 2061 metres above sea level. I was sure I had never been that high before, as this is even higher than Mount Snowdon and way higher than Ben Nevis, yet there we were on a railway station, preparing for a final leg to take us to over 3400 metres.
We transferred to the Jungfraubahn train for the final leg. As you might imagine, the ascent seemed pretty steep (25% in fact), so much so that seats are angled on the train to prevent rear-facing passengers from falling off. On the way up there were two stops, the first was on the north face of the Eiger where a window has been placed on the rock face to allow passengers to view the Eigerwand, the ski fields and the station now a long way below. This window has been used in numerous films and is also used as an access to rescue climbers who have run into problems. You have five minutes to take photographs here before moving west through the mountain towards the Jungfrau and the second window to view the “Eismeer” or “Sea of Ice which is a large glacier stretching out for miles in front of the Jungfrau.
On reaching the Jungfraujoch you immediately start feeling the effects of altitude. There is 25% less oxygen at this height than at sea level so everything must be done at a steady pace. Running up the stairs to get a favourable view in front of all the Chinese tourists is nonetheless definitely worth a try. Once outside you will also start to feel the cold. It was minus 5 Celsius while we were there, but tempered by the strong sunshine. Winds can reach 240km/hour up here which is literally strong enough to blow you off the mountain.
The views across the top of the Great Aletsch Glacier, (14 miles / 22 km long) is magnificent, as is the view of the Jungfrau and surrounding mountains. Looking back towards Lauterbrunnen made us realise how far we’d come.
The final ascent was to take the extra 100 metres or so by lift to the Sphinx observatory whose views are even more amazing. Sadly we only had time for two and half hours at the Jungfraujoch before having to start the journey back down to Kleine Scheidegg and then the other direction towards Grindelwald and then on to Luzern.
If you even find yourself within a day’s travel of the Jungfrau, make the effort to take the Jungfraubahn train to the Jungfraujoch. It will be an experience to remember for the rest of your life.
How to get there…
We booked the train from London through to Interlaken with Rail Europe. Tickets can be booked online and delivered to your door by special delivery. Likewise the Swiss Travel System sell passes for all travel in Switzerland, but you must make a reservation for the Jungfrau train. You can join an organised escorted group tour with Treyn Holidays or Great Rail Journeys, call 01904 734173
Panorama Jungfrau Region (PDF)