Living with…Kraftwerk…for a week
It’s obvious that Kraftwerk have a transport fetish. You don’t dedicate albums and songs to railways, cars and bicycles if you didn’t. This is my brief dedication to the best transport system in Europe – the Swiss rail network.
Ode to Swiss Railways
my Swiss rail.
You’d never be late
for our first date.
Since I can remember I’ve loved Swiss railways. I travelled on them well before I have any memories. My bright red luftseilbahn (that’s a cable car) was one of the earliest toys I could remember. Attaching it to to tables and door handles and winding it backwards and forwards. Loading it with small figures that went on exciting adventures as they wound their way up and down. Up and down.
When I got a train set, an early prized possession was a set of three classic green Swiss railway carriages. They had immaculate precision to them, far beyond the Hornby of the time. And I still have them, and they are still as immaculate as they were then. Testament to a system that keeps going like clockwork.
Years of travelling on the Swiss rail system, SBB, and I’ve never been disappointed. It has never been late, the trains are always immaculately turned out. The guards are efficient (some may say officious) and can tell you anything you need to know about their trains, your connections. The toilets are clean. They have sufficient legroom between the seats. Enough room for your luggage. They have playgrounds on board and good quality snacks and coffee.
My favourite rail journey of all is the run up from Chur in eastern Switzerland to the mountain resort of Arosa, it is known as the Rhatische Bahn. It starts with a slow creaking run through the streets of old Chur town itself. The town stops briefly at eight minutes past the hour to allow this old friend to pass through on it’s way. No one makes a fuss – the cars just pause, the pedestrians glance up reassured that the train is running. No one needs to check their watch. It is eight minutes past the hour.
The train then passes out of the town and starts the slow descent along the river valley climbing towards the distant peaks of the Engadines. Depending on the time of the year, the snow may start to appear lower or higher. In the winter you can peer out the windows looking for tracks and maybe even the deer as they feed close to the line. Maybe the occasional fox. In the summer we watch out for the beautiful waterfalls that cascade down either side of the route.
Village names along the line are as evocative for me as the rolecall to London (Hassocks, Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Three Bridges, East Croydon). Instead the more exotic names for me of St Peter-Molinis, Peist, Langwies, Litziruti and final stop Arosa.
The final climb in to Arosa is wonderful. The train is straining by this stage as the gradient increases. In the old days it would even creak with the strain, a delight now lost with the modern upgraded stock. If there hasn’t been snow so far, it will start to appear now and there is the beauty of the woods, the lower lake, spotting a cousin’s house and the final tunnel that enfolds you as you pull in to the end of the line.
Below is a favourite photo of mine from the Rhatische Bahn. One year we came a day early and decided to stay partly up the mountain at a hotel in Langwies. We were the only ones getting off the train at the station. The snow was falling heavily so we could barely see, and at this moment the train is pulling away to leave us alone as if at some wild frontier town. There is no one else around. Just the snow.
It was then that I realised that the Hotel Bahnof that I’d booked online was misleading on one crucial count. It wasn’t really by the Bahnof at all. It was half a mile up an incredibly steep hill in a town so small it didn’t really justify a taxi service. That was a long slow climb with three heavy cases and a child intent on snowballing me, but at the top was one of the most welcoming stays we’ve ever had. That night we dined by candlelight overlooking a blissful winter wonderland, as the snow continued to fall.
Off the Rails
But is something amiss in the garden? In the last six months, as Europe itself crumbles, I’ve heard tales that my Swiss Rail is not as perfect as it could be.
Firstly, a phone call from my mum in November. Silvio Berlusconi has just resigned earlier that day at the head of the Italian government – we seem on the brink of chaos. Has she phoned to discuss the state of Europe?
No, it was more earth-shaking news than that. She was on an SBB train heading back to the airport and it had broken down. It was a first for everyone on the train. There was mass puzzlement in the carriages at this unique experience. Everyone would have gone back and shared this with their friends and family.
I frantically searched online to see if it had made the international news but it looked like they had hushed it up.
Within a few days another incident at Zurich Stadelhofen when a train ploughs in to a newspaper van that had been left too close to the track. As World Radio Switzerland put it
“The driver had left his van on the platform as he went to deliver newspapers.
The van was thrown 60 meters down the track and the vehicle is a write-off.
The train is also badly damaged.”
Devastatingly again, there are holds-up. But wait, the end of the piece shows the Swiss still have their heart in the right place and report the most important fact. The train is also badly damaged. They care, we really care.
Trans-Europe Express (1977)
And Kraftwerk really care. In the 70’s something new musically came out of Europe. The Americans had invented rock n roll, and soul. Britain had its waves of music across the world in the 60’s. And Europe stood by trying to find a musical identity that went beyond their eponymous volkmusik, and yet stayed European.
And out of Dusseldorf and Berlin came a distinctive electronic sound that was ours. That was European. While Tangerine Dream largely created soundscapes, Kraftwerk started to move in the arena of pop while keeping that electronic sound. Trans-Europe Express was that breakthrough. It’s witty in an ice-cold clinical way – “We are Showroom Dummies”, a reference to their static presence on stage. It’s experimental – the whole second side is a vast railway journey across Europe, the rhythm section clattering behind a simple melody and the deadpan chanting.
I wondered if returning to something 35 years later would mean it felt dated. I’ll confess now that last week’s trip back to The Velvet Underground was disappointing. But it certainly didn’t feel that with Kraftwerk – although so much of electronic music even played now is spawned from these early albums, they still stand up as great works of pop music. Although they use one note only where most others would use two or three I found this surprisingly warm and retravelled the express several times this week. On a loop really.
Clip of the week goes to another form of Kraftwerk transport. Autobahn. Live.