This interactive map of the Swiss rail network is just really, really cool

The first train crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel during the opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland, on 1 June 2016. Image: Getty.

After 500 years of democracy all Switzerland has produced is the cuckoo clock: so said Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man.

This is terribly unfair – so I’m going to leap to the defence of the proud Swiss people, and disprove Lime’s claim right now, by showing you a mind-boggling map of the country’s rail system.

Made by self-described hacker, trainspotter and map addict Vasile Coțovanu, it uses data from the federal railways organisation SSB to show the movement of trains across the country in real time. If you’re too impatient to watch the trains crawl across the map, you can speed the whole thing up. If you feel the need to follow a particular train, you can do that, too.

The map is not actually live, as such: it uses timetable data to show where trains are meant to be, so doesn’t show delays and so forth. But Swiss trains have such a reputation for punctuality that the joke is the locals set their watches to the trains – so we can be fairly sure what we’re seeing is spot on.

The map also, indirectly, shows both the physical and human geography of the country. You’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic duo than Switzerland and mountains: the country’s topography has allowed the small republic to keep out of Europe’s wars for centuries.

But as well as providing a natural barrier that would make Donald Trump go green with envy (what colour does green and orange make?), the mountains have been a huge obstacle for the engineers tasked with building the country’s rail system.

This map shows the rail network in its entirety: note the concentration of red to the north, representing the Swiss Plateau. Hemmed in to the north by the Jura Mountains and to the south by the mighty Alps, this stretch of relatively flat land was an obvious choice for settlers, and although it only covers 30 per cent of the country, two thirds of the total population lives there.

In the rest of the country, though, rail coverage really thins out. Tunnels and difficult spiral climbs are necessary for trains taking on the mountainous south.
Despite its difficulty, the route through the Alps along the Gotthard Pass has been an important trade route for centuries. It is the shortest route between the Po and Rhine Rivers, and control of it has been a key objective for the Swiss state.

Two years ago a new rail line opened along this north-south route, known as the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT). The tunnel can be seen in the more faded red, running from Erstfeld to Biasca:

This tunnel was built quite a bit after Harry Lime’s time: he had seen it, I doubt he would have been quite so rude about Switzerland. It’s the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world running for 57km under the Alps. At its deepest point, the GBT is 2,450m deep. This incredible feat of engineering allows faster and more frequent journies through the mountains and onto Italy.

Here you can see the 19:09 for Como go through the tunnel:

The Alps aren’t just an obstruction, though: where railway lines have managed to wind their way through you can find some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express is the sort of old school Alpine train where you imagine you could find James Bond in the bar carriage. It travels along two World Heritage railways, the Albula and the Bernina, which are among only a handful of rail lines whose importance has been recognised by UNESCO. Sweeping past glaciers and lakes, the train goes through 55 tunnels and across a mindboggling 196 viaducts and bridges.

Here’s the 13.48 to Tirano going through the eponymous Bernina Pass:

I was thinking of asking Vasile Coțovanu, the man behind the map, to try mapping out the UK rail system in a similar way. The problem is the difference between actual running times and those timetabled is so great that any map would be less of a practical tool than a work of utopian fiction.

Let’s leave these interactive maps to a country that can build a world class rail system in the middle of a mountain range. Harry Lime, eat your heart out. 

Images: Vasile Coțovanu.


Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?

These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.

The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.

Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.

Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.

Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.

At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.

Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.

The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.

One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.

This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.

Loudon’s green belt plan. Image:

In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.

Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.

And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.