Aigle to have a direct train to the Leysin ski lifts

TPC Mountain railways out of Aigle.

Aigle is a small town at the heart of the Chablais, dominated by the towering Dentes du Midi. From the historic town centre you can see the Chablais Alps, the Mont-Blanc massif, the Pennine Alps and the Alpes Vaudois. From the vineyards around the castle you can also see Lake Geneva, Montreux, Vevey and the distant Jura. Above you, you can just make out the ski slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Villars-Gryon and Leysin.

I’m rather fond of Aigle, and it is a town I currently call home. It is easy to get to, with a frequent, direct train right from Geneva Airport. It is also possible, with only one connection, to ski Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Verbier and a host of other resorts.

However, even more conveniently, there is a network of narrow gauge railways operated by TPC (Transports Publics du Chablais) that fan out from the station at Aigle, trundling through the town and up the mountains to provide direct connections to the resorts of Champéry, Les Diablerets and Leysin. There is also a direct bus to Villars (or a train from nearby Bex, also operated by TPC – and of course you can always ski across from Les Diablerets).

These are the easiest substantial resorts to get to from Geneva and Lausanne by public transport or car. For all but the public transport connection at Leysin, the transfer is a doddle – more of that anon.

I have mixed feelings about Leysin. The village itself is charming, lying on a sunny plateau under the Tour d’Aï . Although the resort claims 100km of piste, that includes the low-lying, surface lift served section at les Mosses which is connected to the Leysin section by a navette – a courtesy bus. Still, from the excellent revolving restaurant at la Berneuse with its amazing views over Lake Geneva and across the Rhône valley there are a number of good, varied runs.

However the main reason for my mixed feelings about Leysin is the distance from the train stations in the village to the lifts that provide the only access to the ski area. There is a navette in Leysin, but the bus timetable isn’t co-ordinated with the train times – unusually for Switzerland – and the buses are too infrequent. Rather than wait, I have walked to and from the gondola many times from one or other station in Leysin, and it is long, hilly walk. The alternative is to drive up.

You may well ask why the good folk at TPC didn’t build the railway to connect to the gondola station, and the reason is that there was no skiing in this part of Switzerland when the railway was built in 1900. And there is a good reason why the railway takes the course it does.

In the 18th Century the people of Leysin had an unusually long life expectancy for the time. Swiss commentators attribute this observation to Thomas Malthus in an essay of 1789. However this is not exactly true, but is oft repeated. The reference exists in a subsequent edition of the essay, and it is with regard to the observations of Jean-Louis Muret in his 1766 “Le mémoire sur l’état de la population dans le Pays de Vaud“. This what Malthus wrote in 1826:

In the parish of Leyzin (sic), noticed by M. Muret, all these circumstances appear to have been combined in an unusual degree. Its situation in the Alps, but yet not too high, gave it probably the most pure and salubrious air; and the employment of the people, being all pastoral, were consequently of the most healthy nature. From the calculations of M. Muret, the accuracy of which there is no reason to doubt, the probability of life in this parish appeared to be so extraordinarily high as 61 years.

Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of
Population, vol. 1 [1826, 6th ed.]

Whether because of Malthus, or as a result of the emerging view that mountain air and sunshine had restorative properties for various maladies, Leysin soon became a destination for the sick. Numerous clinics and sanatoriums were built, largely on the most sunny terraces to the South-West of the village. In 1875 the first road from the valley of the Grande Eau was extended to Leysin, followed by a cog railway in 1900. The terminus of the railway was the Grand-Hôtel, a sanatorium built in 1892.

Leysin-Village - one of the narrow gauge cog railway stations in Leysin.
Leysin-Village Station.

Through the renowned Dr Auguste Rollier and his Institute of Heliotherapy (light therapy) Leysin became particularly famous in the treatment of lung diseases. Dr Rollier believed that exposure to the sun in fresh mountain air could restore a patient’s health – and he enjoyed a remarkably good recovery rate for tuberculosis patients at the time. The healthcare industry in Leysin boomed, and by the 1930s Leysin had as many as 80 sanatoriums with 3000 patients. Famous visitors included the Russian Czar, Igor Stravinsky and Mahatma Gandhi.

Then penicillin was invented and by the mid-1950s all the sanatoria were closed. Leysin promptly re-invented itself as a holiday resort, with the first gondolas running in 1956. Unfortunately, for reasons probably related to engineering and cost considerations as well as access to sheltered slopes, the gondolas ran from the North-East end of the village, nowhere near the four railways stations in Leysin.

So it is with great excitement that I discovered TPC are going to build a tunnel so that the train now connects to the gondola bottom station. The new underground rail route, from the bottom of the village to the gondola station, will include three new stops. The line will no longer run to the Grand-Hôtel (which since 2010 has been the Belle Époque Campus of Leysin American School). However a funicular project is being studied which would connect the Grand-Hôtel with the Feydey station and the village sports centre. The expectation is that the developments will take traffic off the roads and enhance Leysin’s reputation as an all-year destination.

The downside? Apart from the eye-watering cost, commissioning is not expected until 2030. If I’m still skiing, I will be 75 so I’ll probably enjoy the convenience of jumping off a train onto a gondola all the more.

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New Lifts in Switzerland for 2019

The expansion of the Andermatt ski area continues apace with a new lift between Sedrun and Disentis, creating a network of 22 lifts connecting Andermatt, Sedrun and Disentis.

It is a spectacular transformation of what were once three sleepy, relatively isolated but beguiling resorts to create the largest ski resort in Central Switzerland.

Disentis is a fabulous resort in the Rhine valley, now linked to Sedrun.

I have often been frustrated by the difficulties in getting back from Avoriaz to the ChampéryLes Crosets section of the Portes du Soleil ski area. Getting from Switzerland to France has always been relatively easy, but getting back is often difficult because of lift closures or the closure of the notorious Swiss Wall at Chavanette. It should all be a lot easier from 2019 with two new linked 5-seater lifts running from below Avoriaz at Léchère via a new station at Vautna to Pointe de Moissette in Switzerland. There will also be a new red run from Vauntna.

A new 10 seater gondola has been installed in Savognin, taking skiers up to Tigignas in 37 cabins at 2000 people per hour. Season opening on 14th December will see the new lift in operation.

A new terminal opens in Grindelwald, also on 14th December, with a high speed gondola up to the Männlichen ski area.

A Porsche design 6-seat chairlift has been installed at Arosa up to the 2447m Brüggerhorn summit.

Another Porsche design 10-seat gondola will run from Gstaad to the top of the Eggli.

The new 6-seater chairlift at Engelberg linking Engstlenalp to Jochpass has protective hoods and seat heating. The lift carries 2000 people an hour a kilometre in around 4 minutes, with a vertical ascent of 260m.

Linked to the Swiss resort of Samnaun is Ischgl in Austria.

In Ischgl, the new high-speed Velilleck F1 six-seater hooded chairlift goes up the Pardatschgrat ridge, 1,353 m further than its predecessor.

Whilst in Samnaun itself the 8-seater Visnitz N2 is new for the 2019/20 season.

Chamonix has replaced the creaky old cable car from Les Praz to the Flégère ski area with a 10 seater gondola.

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Ski Insurance

I have Swiss insurance and am a member of Rega (the air ambulance people), but there are some gaps in terms of ski insurance cover. In many resorts there is an excellent service you can buy with your lift pass called Snowcare. It costs SFr 5 per day and covers refunds of ski pass, lessons and equipment hire if the slopes are closed, and costs of assistance and rescue, transport by ambulance and helicopter, medical expenses, sanitary repatriation and legal assistance. The amount is limited, but the ceilings seem reasonable, and the insurance is intended to supplement usual insurance and European Health Insurance Card provisions as applicable. It also does not cover off-piste activities. If you’re looking to switch health insurance, there are several options out there. Ski and snowboarding accidents can be painful, specially while practicing on the snowy mountains, check these erase my back pain reviews.

You can buy the card at a number of resorts, currently the list includes:

  • Villars
  • Les Diablerets
  • Engelberg
  • St Moritz
  • Veysonnaz
  • Thyon
  • Nendaz
  • Zermatt
  • Splügen
  • Zinal
  • Vercorin
  • Ovronnaz
  • Leysin
  • Anzère
  • Les Mosses
  • Corvatsch
  • Champéry
  • Morgins
  • Torgon
  • Les Crosets
  • Portes du Soleil (CH)
  • Engadine

View over Zermatt
Incidentally, regarding Rega, they waive the costs of the rescue missions of members (annual fee: CHF 30), providing that these costs are not covered by a health or accident insurance. That is one good reason to sign up, but additionally they are a non-profit foundation who provide emergency medical assistance by air according to medical necessity and, as they put it: “to rescue, not to pass judgement on right or wrong, guilt or innocence”.

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