From downfall to liberation.
Known affectionately by locals as the “shaker”, the Stansstad–Engelberg Railway operated with virtually no competition from 1898 until the middle of the 20th century. By the 1950s, with people’s thinking shaped by the growing popularity of the motor car and a reluctance to make major investments, there was a debate about a bus service in the Engelberg Valley. Difficult to imagine today, but that was the zeitgeist of the time.
Until the middle of the 20th century, if a worthy, bearded farmer, a nun, two young people going on their honeymoon or an artist wanted to discover the the big, wide world beyond Nidwalden, they needed three tickets. One for the Stansstad–Engelberg Railway (StEB), one for the boat from Stansstad to Hergiswil and another from Hergiswil for the SBB. It took a long time to overcome difficulties of this kind. From the 1950s onwards, increasing use of the car as a means of transport hampered the growth of the railways. On top of that, there were bitter disputes with the railway’s financial backers demanding repayment of a bond debt, impossible for the railway at the time. The governments of Nidwalden and Obwalden examined the situation, and although willing to provide the railway with advice and support, they were unable to take on the financial burden of CHF 1.6 million. As a result, the Federal Supreme Court ordered the compulsory liquidation of the railway company at the beginning of 1957. In a bailout effort, quietly arranged and swiftly executed, Hermann Villiger, then administrator of the canton’s first bank Ersparniskasse Nidwalden (EKN), managed to acquire a majority of the bonds at a reduced price – half their value to be specific – and pass them on to the canton of Nidwalden, paving the way for successful development.
Antiquated in the age of jet travel
At the beginning of the 1960s, a brighter future seemed to be dawning. Unexpectedly, however, there was a resurfacing of resistance to the idea of financial aid from the Confederation for the development of transport routes, primarily from the Federal Administration in opposition to the federal contribution of CHF 14.66 million. No less a figure than President of the Swiss Confederation Hans Streuli said that it would be “an anachronism to modernise this railway company in the age of jet travel”. His argument was supported by large sections of the Swiss press. Nidwalden and Obwalden’s political class then got to work, untangling distortions and clearing up misunderstandings, and above all setting the record straight with regard to the economic benefits. In the end, the controversy turned out to be a storm in a teacup. The federal parliament voted almost unanimously in favour of the investment, and the two cantons breathed a sigh of relief.
Lucerne–Stans–Engelberg – a direct connection
On 19 December 1964, the Lucerne–Stans–Engelberg Railway (LSE) commenced scheduled services from Lucerne to Stans and Engelberg. The new connection proved very popular from the outset, often reaching the limits of its capacity, especially on nice days. Seeing this limited transport service, far-sighted politicians and a broad-minded general public opened up to further development of the railway and agreed to the financial resources required for expansion.
The gateway to the world – the Acheregg bridge, built for both road and rail – has stood the test of time over the last 60 years. Today, 130 Zentralbahn trains carry passengers from far and wide back and forth across the bridge every day.
Interview with Armin Villiger.
We met Armin Villiger, son of the then administrator of EKN bank, and cast our thoughts back with him to the 1950s. His background is in business administration and economics.
Why was a bus service in the Engelberg Valley considered?
There were people who were sceptical, worried about the major investments required for the connection to Hergiswil via the Acheregg bridge and Lopper Tunnel, and about the technical modernisation of the railway. In the Swiss press, you would sometimes find terms like “extravagant model train romanticism”.
Why did your father and EKN bank, which he managed, believe in the railway service?
He was steadfast in his belief in the importance of a railway for the development of the Engelberg Valley. As a non-profit banking cooperative, EKN had an ongoing concern with the development of trade and the promotion of schools. There was a hope that a connection to the then Brünig line and the Lucerne railway hub would improve conditions in general. When my father saw the opportunity for a bailout, he began brooding over it in the truest sense of the word. He was difficult to talk to at that time. We only found out why after the move had been made.
What was then your personal experience of the development of the Stans–Lucerne–Engelberg Railway?
Very positive. I was already a frequent and satisfied railway user as far back as the StEB era. For me and the surrounding area, the connection to Lucerne meant welcome progress in terms of mobility and saving time, especially as I no longer had to transfer from the Postbus to the train in Hergiswil.
Paper edition of the magazine “hin und weg” – also available as a subscription.
This is an article from the magazine “hin und weg”. You can find the printed version at the train stations in Engelberg, Sarnen, Stans and Meiringen, in all Travel Centres, as well as on trains. We will also be happy to send the magazine to your home address. Send an e-mail to email@example.com with the subject “Subscribe to hin und weg magazine” and include your postal address in the body text of the message.