Locarno station provides a gateway to Italy
Teeming with film buffs during the annual festival and crowded with holiday-makers in summer, Locarno railway station is a quiet backwater out of season.
An unremarkable building, Locarno station is the starting point for the picturesque “Centovalli” route – the most direct rail link between the southern canton of Ticino and western Switzerland.
Opened in 1874, the station was one of the first to be built by the St Gotthard railway company. Enthusiasm for the new venture meant no expense was spared.
These were the early days of commercial tourism. At the time, Swiss-Germans and German nationals were embarking on a virtual colonisation of Italian-speaking Ticino, which reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.
A Swiss Federal Railways brochure dated October 1954 describes the lakeside town in glowing terms: “Locarno, pearl of Lake Maggiore [Lake Verbano to the Swiss], is becoming increasingly important as a health and holiday resort.
“Its charming environs… attract an ever growing number of admiring visitors, who come in search of peace and quiet and relaxation in this delightful region.”
It was at around this time that the station underwent a thorough refurbishment, with major changes to the kitchens, buffet and washrooms.
But the architects eschewed the modern style, preferring to preserve the vaguely “Belle Époque” character of the building.
Three decades earlier - in 1923 - the Locarno-Domodossola line opened, and it is still very much in service today.
Known to Swiss as the Centovallina, and to Italians as the Vigezzina, the line provides the most direct link with French-speaking Switzerland and the country’s capital, Bern.
From the train window, passengers can enjoy magnificent views of forests, waterfalls, cliffs and picturesque villages.
This is a tourist route par excellence, but also an important link with Italy, connecting the main St Gotthard and Simplon lines.
Like all stations, Locarno’s is a focal point in the urban landscape. And now there are plans to perform some minor cosmetic surgery on the building, as Locarno is one of the 620 regional stations included in the Swiss Federal Railways’ “Face Lifting” project.
“There will be new benches, new stainless-steel rubbish bins, new bicycle parking facilities and new automated ticket machines,” explains Barry Gibson, who works for the Ticino firm appointed to produce the station furniture chosen by the Federal Railways.
But no makeover can disguise the fact that Locarno station is not the hub it once was.
“In the 1980s, 60 people were employed here. Now there are no more than 20,” reminisces a former member of the station staff.
In the past, Locarno handled a large amount of goods traffic. This function was then hived off to the Federal Railways Cargo section, or to private transport companies.
There has even been a radical change in the handling of luggage.
Once upon a time, it was possible to despatch a suitcase from any station in Switzerland, or even from a post office. The station staff in Locarno would take charge of people’s luggage and hand it over directly to hotel porters.
But this kind of service is now a thing of the past.
On a more positive note, services between Locarno and destinations north of the Alps are about to be improved: from December, trains will depart hourly, with Zurich and Basel as alternating destinations.
swissinfo, Raffaella Rossello in Locarno
Locarno railway station:
Opened in 1874.
Central section with ticket sales outlets, offices and five-arch entrance portico.
Two wings with waiting room and buffet.
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