In the interwar period, well-off travelers could choose between two luxury day trains from the Netherlands to Switzerland. This was the result of competition between the French Wagons-Lits and the German Mitropa.
The opulent Wagons-Lits Pullman trains, such as the Étoile du Nord from Amsterdam to Paris, aroused German envy. In 1928 Mitropa and the Reichsbahn introduced their own version: the Rheingold running between Hook of Holland and Basel. The German parlor cars could not carry the Pullman name, but otherwise they were almost identical. In response, Wagons-Lits also introduced a luxury day train to Switzerland with an alternative route: the Edelweiss.
by Arjan den Boer
In 1924 Wagons-Lits introduced Pullman trains on the European continent: luxury day trains for long distances with service at the seats. Even though the Pullman carriages originated from the United States, where George Pullman had invented the sleeping car, they had evolved into luxury parlor cars in Britain.
The Étoile du Nord between Amsterdam and Paris was the first continental Pullman train. It was soon followed by the Flèche d'Or, the London-Vichy Pullman, L'Oiseau Bleu and the Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express. These day trains with surcharges provided Wagons-Lits a successful addition to its luxury sleeper services like the Orient Express.
In 1907 the British entrepreneur Davison Dalziel, also a Wagons-Lits board member, purchased the British Pullman Car Company from its US parent company, including the Pullman brand for Europe. Thanks to Dalziel the Pullmans came to the continent. From 1925 onwards Dalziel sold his Pullman shares to Wagons-Lits, of which he had become the chairman.
Mitropa — the German sleeping and dining car company founded in WW I — together with its major shareholder Deutsche Reichsbahn came up with an answer to the success of the Wagons-Lits Pullman trains. In 1928 the Rheingold was inaugurated, a luxury day train from the North Sea to the Alps.
The Rheingold consisted of two first-class and two second-class coaches and a luggage car. The parlor cars of German origin closely resembled the Pullmans: lavishly upholstered and equipped with separate armchairs. Even the livery was similar: dark purple and cream, while the Pullmans were dark blue and cream.
Obviously, the Pullman and Wagons-Lits inscriptions were missing on the Rheingold carriages. Mitropa, Reichsbahn and Rheingold were indicated instead. To emulate the famous bronze Pullman letters a special Rheingold lettering was designed.
The first class of the Rheingold had individual armchairs, facing each other, in a single row on each side of the aisle. Each carriage had 28 of these seats. In the second class carriages there were 43 fixed seats, two on one side of the aisle and one on the other side.
Coaches of both classes had fewer seats when they were equipped with a galley, which was the case in every other car. All seats had tables — with table lamps — on which food and drinks were served. Just as in the Pullman trains there were no separate dining cars.
Each coach had a unique interior. The design and color of the upholstery and carpeting differed per carriage. The walls were covered with a variety of woods such as zebrawood, palisander and maple.
In the Netherlands, the Rheingold was hauled by 'Jumbo' locomotives of the 3700 and 3900 class. In Germany, S 3/6 locomotives of Bavarian origin with extra large driving wheels were used for long-distance trains, such as the Rheingold. Their top speed was 120 km/h.
The Rheingold ran along the right bank of the river Rhine, through the renowned German Rhine Valley. It was named after the treasure of the Nibelungenlied, made famous by the music of Richard Wagner.
The Rheingold started at Hook of Holland. With its connection to the Harwich ferry it mainly focussed on English passengers, but there was also a through-carriage from Amsterdam. Via Utrecht, Arnhem, Duisburg, Cologne, Mainz and Mannheim it reached the Swiss border town of Basel. Soon, parts of the train were extended to Lucerne and Zurich and later to Milan.
Only a month after the first Rheingold ran in May 1928, the Edelweiss was launched, named after the well-known Alpine flower. This Wagons-Lits Pullman train also connected Holland with Switzerland, but via a very different route bypassing Germany, via Rotterdam, Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg.
The different routes of the Rheingold and Edelweiss were determined by treaties on market sharing concluded after World War I. Mitropa operated in Germany and its northern neighbors while Wagons-Lits had France, Belgium and the south of Europe as its territory. Neutral Switzerland and the Netherlands were served by both.
Unlike the Rheingold, the Edelweiss did not depart from Hook of Holland. Instead, English travelers entered the train at Antwerp; another Pullman train connected with the port of Ostend. During some periods the Edelweiss even had Antwerp as its terminus, and passengers for Amsterdam had to change to the Étoile du Nord.
The carriages of the Edelweiss proudly carried the Pullman lettering — not Edelweiss, as a brochure picture suggested. They were even more spacious than those of the Rheingold: the first-class carriages only had 18 seats, mostly in semi-open compartments with four armchairs and a table each.
The second-class carriages consisted of open lounges with comfortable but fixed seats and tables. As in the Rheingold, every other carriage included a small kitchen from which lunch, tea and dinner were served at the seats.
Both the Rheingold and the Edelweiss made the journey from Amsterdam to Basel in around 10 hours. With a distance of 812 km versus 779 km the Edelweiss arrived fifteen minutes later. At Basel one Edelweiss carriage was combined with a carriage of its Rheingold competitor and the two of them continued to Zurich. Both trains also had through-carriages for Lucerne.
The artistic furnishing and the views along the route were selling points for both trains. For the Rheingold, the scenic route along the Rhine was praised, the Edelweiss experience was advertised in a Wagons-Lits brochure as follows:
Comfortably seated in a well-upholstered armchair and gazing through the spacious windows, the passenger can enjoy a succession of fleeting landscapes; Holland — a green expanse dotted with windmills and thriving farms — Belgium, Luxemburg, Lorraine, Alsace with its quaint old houses, the famous banks of the Rhine, and the Swiss mountains mellowed by the purple light of eve.
The train itself, too, attracts the eye. Strolling through the various saloons, all richly decorated with the most delicate good taste, we admire the freedom and the imaginative skill with which the artists, adopting a different scheme for each carriage, have composed the costly inlaid pannelling. The journey seems all too short for the full enjoyment of these harmonious devices, so well set off by the carefully-chosen colours of the seats and the carpets.
During the war, luxury trains were taken out of service and carriages were damaged. After the war the Edelweiss was reintroduced as a normal express train between Brussels and Basel with only two Pullman coaches. One car ran between Amsterdam and Brussels in another train. In 1952 the Pullmans were replaced by regular coaches.
Shortly after the war a train with three classes connected Hook of Holland to Basel again. In 1951 the new Deutsche Bundesbahn introduced the Rheingold-Express, consisting of streamlined coaches in dark blue livery. Some of the original Rheingold coaches were converted into dining cars.
The Rheingold-Express did not follow the old route but ran through Rotterdam, Venlo and Bonn. From Mainz there was also a new branch to Austria. In 1954 the addition ’Express’ was removed again from the Rheingold’s name and its prewar route was restored in 1962.
In 1962 the DB reinstated the Rheingold as an expensive luxury train. New first-class carriages were built, including unique panoramic dome cars. As a reference to the interwar period the coaches were given a blue-cream livery. They were hauled by matching electric locomotives.
In 1965 the two former competitors were united under one name. The Rheingold joined the TEE network, to which the Edelweiss already belonged since 1957. Under the uniform TEE branding railway companies in Western Europe offered modern first-class day trains between dozens of cities.
The contemporary luxury of the Trans Europ Express made the classic Pullmans outmoded. In 1957 the Edelweiss had been fitted with a streamlined diesel-electric trainset of Dutch-Swiss design. The Rheingold retained its 1962 composition but the blue paint was replaced by TEE red.
In 1987 the last Rheingold departed. The Edelweiss survived until 1999.
Rheingold/Edelweiss: Luxury day trains from the North Sea to the Alps
Friedhelm Ernst, Rheingold. Luxuszug durch fünf Jahrzehnte, 1977
Konrad Koschinski, Rheingold, Eisenbahn Journal Special 1/2011
Jürgen Klein und Albert Mühl, Reisen in Luxuszügen. Die Internationale Schlafwagen-Gesellschaft, 2006
Spoorwegmuseum/Geheugen van Nederland, Spoorwegen in beeld