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Only footprints here

Switzerland's efficient transport system can take a person virtually every where ... except to one great mountain, says MAHESH VIJAPURKAR.



Walking back to the Alpine hut on the Matterhorn.

SWITZERLAND is one of the world's favourite travel destinations. And there are almost as many domestic tourists reaching every nook and cranny of the country by a seamless transport system, its elements being trains — cogwheels, funiculars included — cable cars, buses and trams. It takes them to virtually every remote village, every mountain top save one — the Matterhorn, the snow-clad peak bordering France; the one first climbed by Edward Whymper in 1865. It is a popular climb, even if it means a three-day trudge — guides cost a fortune and sometimes, the climber, his life.

If there were to be a referendum, virtually every Swiss national would vote against the very notion of a cable car "defiling the great Matterhorn". So strong is the mountain's spell on them that at its foot, the pride of place in Zermatt town has been assigned to the living icon of mountaineering, 102-year-old Ulrich Inderbinen. Inderbinen has scaled the 4,478-metre high mountain several hundred times as a guide, the last time being when he was 90. An image of the man's face in relief is the town's way of paying tribute to him. The town has also a large cemetery for young climbers who have lost their lives.

It does not matter if there are only 2,000-odd beds in the smallish Zermatt for the 1.7 million tourists who come for an overnight stay. It does not matter if all of them go up in cable cars and rack railway up the Gonergrat and other peaks to ski down the slopes. Nor does the fact that a cable car route has been built to neighbouring Kleinmatterhorn.

During the season, there are as many as 300 people on the slopes of Matterhorn, often courageous, enthusiastic and ill-equipped.

This alpine country has, by sheer use of technology, subdued every mountain. The (humorous) selling line for travel companies worldwide who woo visitors to Switzerland is: "we make mountaineering easy. We take you up there in a cable car."

Train companies may skip Matterhorn but the system — where if there is 90 per cent occupancy it is seen as overcrowding — is continually upgraded.

Already, the system operated by 400 companies in remarkable error-free co-ordination has made the country, albeit small, into a vast metropolis. The Swiss have undertaken a major project in magnetic levitation so that trains, for instance, can run from Zurich to Geneva in one hour. Work on a pilot line between Geneva and Lausanne has been conceptualised and may become operational by 2020. The idea is to have trains move at upto 500 kmph in partial vacuum, the air being rarefied at 15,000 metres. These will carry passengers in pressurised coaches. Once this Swissmetro project gets going, a new revolution in train transport would have become a reality. To the Swiss, "this is part of routine progress".

The Swiss may think the French may have made a mistake by replacing trains with buses, because they worked on the trains, the buses, the trams, the cable cars and even huge boats on the enormous lakes. For instance, the time spent on a train is a delight, especially because it is well run. Before it oiled the wheels of tourism, trains first transported only freight.

Now, stations are served at the same minute every hour or half hour. Trains and buses arrive shortly before, either the full or half hour, and after establishing a vital link, depart. This makes for a shorter travel time. This has enabled Switzerland to be called the "railway country of Europe" with 27,000 km of railway line (1,000 km is mountain railway.) This enables a Swiss citizen to make 40 trips per year, the highest in all Europe. And yet, he would prefer to trudge up the Matterhorn.

The system was developed way back in the 19th Century. Its advent meant changes. Land growing cereals became grasslands, farming less-labour intensive. But at the same time, the railways shaped the landscape and tourism took hold.

The first rack railway was built in Rigi in 1873 and the one to Jungfrau mountain in 1898. To another peak, Pilatus, it was to happen in 1889, dealing with a 480 per cent gradient, the steepest in the world. Plush cabins came in as early as 1875. But because most railways were built and operated by interests in energy, the surplus electricity was used to electrify them because, even after all buildings and squares were lit up, they still had more. The country made a virtue of a necessity.

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