We engine drivers call the Gotthard “the holy mountain”. It’s a joke, but we’re still being serious in a way. And anyone who is allowed to drive over the holy mountain (or through the tunnel) earns respect. Unfortunately, I’m not one of this select group…
However, I’m now on my way to film the trains winding their way through the mountains. The Föhn wind is tracing wave patterns in the fields and rustling the pale green leaves on the trees. A yellow dust cloud rises from the pine forest: blossom.
A drone blown away by the wind.
The four motors of my camera drone rev up and I make it climb steeply. Well done! It fights bravely against the gusts of wind. Thanks to GPS, a compass and motion sensors, it holds itself steady in the air. The InterRegio from Locarno whooshes out of the tunnel into the famous Wattinger curve. I chase after it with my multicopter. On the screen I can keep a close eye on what the camera is seeing. These pictures are going to be great! But what’s happening now? This drone is insanely fast! It’s now going almost as fast as the train and I can only see a small dot in the sky. What’s going on? Oh no! The drone presumably lost its GPS signal because of the steep mountains and is now being swept away by the wind!
Yesterday and today.
The first thing most people probably think of when they hear “Gotthard” is the railway tunnel between Göschenen and Airolo, which opened almost exactly 133 years ago. It is an undisputed fact that this tunnel was an incredible achievement for that era. It was an almost impossible project which had to be completed under intense financial and time pressure. The workers, who were living and toiling under miserable conditions, suffered the most as a result. Nearly two hundred of them lost their lives in accidents. Four were even shot during a strike! Tunnel engineer Louis Favre also died from heart failure in the middle of the tunnel before the construction work was complete.
A train performing pirouettes.
I look for attractive locations to take photos and am amazed by the feeder lines with their bridges and helical tunnels. Trains disappear into the mountain, do a pirouette and reappear in almost exactly the same place, just many metres higher up. It’s a confusing spectacle on both the north and south side. When I had finished filming, I still couldn’t reliably predict which hole the train would reappear from.
The terrain is so rough here! The work must have been extremely difficult. They didn’t have a motorway for transporting materials and the engineers couldn’t rely on the technical equipment we’re familiar with today either. Did they have computers for performing calculations? They weren’t invented until around 80 years later. What about lasers? They’ve only been around since 1960. Concrete pumps? They came 40 years too late. Accurate maps based on aerial photographs? They just missed out by a few years! And GPS? GPS has only been in use for about 30 years.
Today, taking aerial photographs is a piece of cake. Except when the GPS fails… I mustn’t lose my nerve now! Expert flying skills are required. I turn the drone 180° and make it fly back towards me at full speed. It’s tilting forward a lot and fighting like an angry wasp against the wind. It approaches slowly and I can already hear the whining motors again. After swaying back and forth a bit just above the path where I’m standing, I bring it in to land. Not very elegantly, but it’s still standing stably on its two legs again. I put the remote control down and let my sweaty hands dry in the air. My heart is pounding as if I had been in an aircraft myself…
An engine driver who’s got the Gotthard bug.
But that doesn’t stop me from doing some more flights after a short break. I’ve got the Gotthard bug! I want more, so I plan a second day of filming. I also go on a ride in the cab to Locarno and back. I’ve put all my most impressive images together in two videos.
Almost exactly a year from now, lots of things are going to change here. With the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the mountain line will be less important. There will be fewer trains, but the Gotthard legend will remain.