The railway has been my life since the moment I was born.
Ernst Christen cuts an imposing figure and is a passionate storyteller. Having lived in Balzers in the Principality of Liechtenstein for many years, his Nidwalden (in Switzerland) roots become apparent in conversation. His mother worked as a barrier guard in Hergiswil, while his father was a railway worker on the Brünig Railway. History.
Nestled against dramatic landscape, the railway has operated in the picturesque village with its large glassworks for 57 years. “Posten 6d” is the last house on the cantonal border with Lucerne. The pretty little barrier guard’s house with an expanse of beautiful hydrangeas and geraniums, is where Ernst Christen and his two older siblings were born. “The railway has been my life from the moment I was born,” he says, showing us the paintings he brought to our interview. “While I played in the sand pile, my mother did the laundry and household chores and worked at the barrier every hour.” A bell told us which direction the train was coming from. If it rang once, it was coming from Hergiswil; if it rang twice, it was heading for the Brünig Pass.
The life of a “tamper”
While his mother devoted herself to the barrier, his father Alois Christen was out earning his living as a railway worker or more specifically, a “tamper”. It’s a job that has disappeared with the advent of tamping machines. In the early days of the railway up until the 1950s, ballast stones were mainly packed manually under the tracks by “tampers”. As a deputy foreman, his father was responsible for the tamper crew that maintained the route between Horw and Giswil. Four to six tampers would walk from sleeper to sleeper. Working to a rhythm, they would pound the rocks under the sleepers. They would do this every day. “I can still hear the rhythm of those special tamping pickaxes,” says Christen, pointing to his ears with a smile on his face. In addition to the gruelling work, Christen’s father travelled around the Hergiswil area on the famous “Gumpesel” Tm 100 tractor locomotive (now operated by zb Historic). Among other things, the vehicle was used to transport coal and quartz sand for the local glassworks.
Crew cook applicants and payment delivery by tractor locomotive
The crew cook was responsible for preparing hearty meals for the tampers. Excellent organisational and hospitality skills were the key requirements for making it to the final round as a crew cook. “Interestingly, it was the crew members/tampers who chose the crew cook. The women would cook for the men, who would then decide which applicant got to cook for them in the crew carriage. Among other things, this may be why Christen’s father told him that the people of Obwalden were very strange.
While work crews dined on the tracks, Ernst Christen’s parents also received their salary on the tracks. Every month, the green tractor locomotive would come by, and payday bags were handed over to the barrier guard and the tamper. This was a happy event as Christen’s mother and father felt gratified to see their hard work rewarded.
From the 1950s onwards, traffic in Lopperdorf developed at a rapid pace. Thekla – Ernst Christen’s mother – had helpers on Sundays. They were responsible for stopping vehicles so that the barrier guard could lower the barriers. There was an increasing number of accidents, both major and minor. From cyclists breaking their noses to a car “pierced” by a barrier bar, there was plenty to talk about at the Christens’ dinner table.
These developments also meant the end for the pretty barrier guard’s house. In 1958, the family moved to Renggstrasse in the village. Christen remained fascinated by trains. Although he chose a career as a historian, he remained connected to the world of the railway. Today, he travels with the EUROVAPOR museum railway as a certified TR Transrail travel companion, and occasionally shares his vast knowledge with the public.
Physische Ausgabe vom Magazin «hin und weg» – auch zum Abonnieren.
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