Poster Exposition Internationale Milan, 1906 | Leopoldo Metlicovitz (

Railways at the Milan World Fair of 1906

Esposizione del Sempione

May 2015

Nederlandse versie

Currently the Expo 2015, the 34th universal exposition, is being held in Milan. In 1906 Milan also hosted a world expo, which focused on the theme of transportation. It was the largest railway exposition of the first half of the 20th century. The 9 kilometers of railway track in the various pavilions showcased, in the words of a visitor, "huge locomotives and beautifully decorated sleeping and parlor cars."

The occasion for the 1906 international exhibition was the inauguration of the Simplon Tunnel, the world's longest railway tunnel — a technical tour de force that took almost eight years to complete. The new Simplon Express connected Milan to the metropoles of Paris and London.

by Arjan den Boer

Simplon Tunnel

The construction of a tunnel under the Simplon Pass — a notorious obstacle between North and South — started in 1898. The projected route between the Swiss town of Brig and Iselle, Italy placed the border exactly in the middle of the tunnel. In 1903 the CFF took over the project started by the private Jura-Simplon Railway.

In May 1906 the Italian king Victor Emmanuel III and the Swiss president Forrer inaugurated the Simplon Tunnel. Immediately afterwards the tunnel was electrified with 3-phase AC. In 1921 a second tube was completed. With 19.8 kilometers the Simplon Tunnel was the world's longest railway tunnel until 1982.

Celebration of the SImplon Tunnel hole-through, 1905 | Ernesto Trabucchi (Archivio Verbano)

Simplon Express

In July 1906 the Simplon Express was launched, an international luxury train between Paris and Milan. For travellers from London there were also sleeping cars starting at Calais. In the years before World War I the route was extended to Venice and Trieste. In 1919 the train merged into the legendary Simplon Orient Express to Istanbul.

Simplon Express poster design, 1906 | Henri Toussaint (coll. Arjan den Boer)
Double postcard of the Milan expo, 1906 | Maria Stroppa (collection Arjan den Boer)

Esposizione Internazionale

The opening up of Milan by the new Simplon Tunnel was the occasion for the first World Exhibition hosted in Italy. The main theme was transportation — railways, shipping, automobiles, airships — but art, design, agriculture, labor, telecommunications and hygiene were also addressed.

The exhibition was staged at two locations in Milan: the Parco Sempione (Simplon Park) and the Piazza d'Armi (parade ground), connected by a special electric railway. 40 countries participated, 225 pavilions were built and 5 to 10 million visitors attended. 12 million lire (50 million euros) were invested in the expo.

Panoramic photo of Piazza d'Armi during the Expo 1906 | Unknown photographer (source: Andrea Rui)
Poster Exposition Internationale Milan, 1906 | Leopoldo Metlicovitz (hagleydigital)

Leopoldo Metlicovitz, pioneer of Italian graphic design, designed the exhibition poster in a mix of symbolism and Stile Liberty, the Italian Art Nouveau. Mercury, god of commerce and travelers, together with Urania, muse of science, are depicted on the front of a locomotive leaving the Simplon Tunnel. Their shoulders look Michelangelo-esque.

Main entrance with tunnel portals, 1906 | Garzini & Pezzini (collection Ettore Accenti)

Ingresso principale

Visitors entered the expo through the Simplon Tunnel — that is, through a representation thereof, made by the architect Sebastiano Locati. The entrance building had two tunnel portals. In 1906 the Simplon Tunnel only had a single tube, but the second one was already planned and the Italian side already had a double portal.

Between the portals a sculpture group by Enrico Butti depicted the tunnel labor. The Simplon Tunnel was constructed over many years under harsh conditions by thousands of Italian workers, with 69 casualties. Inside, the tunnel metaphor was continued convincingly, according to a visitor's report.

"The illusion is perfect. You push aside the black curtain and enter the unknown darkness; in the distance tiny lights glow against the glittering crystalline rock; in their faint light one sees the fuzzy parallel lines of the rails on the ground. You can hear the clatter of water and the humming and thumping of machines.

Through narrow connecting aisles, where you hear rock shards crack under your feet, you enter the second tube. A mountain stream springs with great power from the rock wall, with the water splanshing and foaming, just like it can be seen in the mountains."

report by Ph. J. Ketner, 1906

Simplon sculpture group by Butti, 1906 | Foto-Eliografica (collection Arjan den Boer)

Mostra ferroviaria

"At the rear of the site are three large buildings, which together form one giant railway station with extensive canopies." This is how a visitor characterized the railway exhibit, an important part of the World's Fair because of its link to the Simplon Tunnel. The railway expo covered nine acres.

There were two shared pavilions — designed by the architect Bongi — for the Italian, French and Hungarian railways, among others. Both contained seven tracks and were open at the sides. Outside the pavilion signaling systems were demonstrated. A few other countries had their own railway pavilions.

Postcard Mostra ferroviaria, 1906 | Pilade Rocco & C. Milano (collection Arjan den Boer)
Railway pavilion with open sides, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)

There was a special focus on the transportation of patients and rail ambulances. The Prussian State Railways showcased a third-class carriage that could be transformed into an ambulance car. The Hungarian railways had a very spacious nursing ward for one — important — person with separate rooms for nursing staff.

Interior of Hungarian nursing coach, 1906 | From: Revue générale des chemins de fer et des tramways
Entrance of the Italian State Railways at the expo, 1906  | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)


The southeast entrance, the most imposing of the railway pavilions, was for the Italian railways. Nationalized in 1905 as the Ferrovie dello Stato(FS), the exhibition was a good opportunity to show what was achieved and what the future plans were, such as electrification.

Outside the pavilion the Italian railways demonstrated a spectacular machine that could lay railway tracks. There were also "very interesting new inventions in the field of signaling and safety devices in to behold operation," according to our expo visitor.

Postcard/drawing of locomotive FS 6943 | F. Fleury (Wikimedia Commons) / Metzeltin (Vereinszeitschrift deutscher Ingenieure)

The FS displayed a special tank locomotive, designed to drive backwards, equipped with a distinctive drivers cab that provided a clear 'forward' view. A first version of this locomotive drew a lot of attention at the Paris expo of 1900. In 1905 manufacturer Ernesto Breda made a version with a larger cabin and more capacity.

Italian railway track laying machine, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)
Drawing of Voiture Pullman mixte no. 1657 | From: Revue générale des chemins de fer et des tramways


Sleeping and dining car company Wagons-Lits presented four carriages in Milan. One of them, intended for the Rome-Palermo night train, had sleeping compartments for 2 persons as well as a Pullman salon for 12 people. The comfortable couches in this section could be put together as beds, as was done in American sleepers.

Of the three dining cars no. 999 was already displayed at the 1905 exhibition in Liege. It had three-axle bogies, allowing it to be longer than regular carriages. Brand new were the exhibited dining cars no. 1650, intended for the Orient Express, and no. 1651, which had special arched windows.

Promotional photo of Voiture-restaurant no. 1651, 1906 | Unknown photographer (La Vie du Rail)

After being delivered by manufacturer Ringhoffer, promotional photographs were taken inside and around the exhibited Voiture-Restaurant 1651, using actors as passengers. Wagons-Lits used these photos in promotional materials to appeal to a sophisticated clientele.

Promotional photo of Voiture-restaurant no. 1651, 1906 | Unknown photographer (Burton)

The expo marked the transition of fixed axle-coaches to bogies, as the numbers show: 38 of the exhibited coaches had bogies and only 26 had fixed axes. Bogies not only increased comfort but also allowed for longer and heavier carriages. Wagons-Lits had introduced bogies in Europe in 1883.

Postcard of Voiture-restaurant no. 999 at the Liege expo, 1905 | E. Dumont (collection Arjan den Boer)
Austrian pavilion with Thonet furniture and carriages, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)


Austria had its own 16,000 m² pavilion next to the general railway exposition. Austria was the only country that presented a mix of transportation, art, design and tourist info in a single pavilion. Between the trains was Thonet furniture, for example. The City of Vienna also presented itself here.

There were carriages — including two luxury parlor cars — of the k.k. Staatsbahnen and the Südbahn built by the Ringhoffer, Nesselsdorfer, Grazer, Staudinger and Simmeringer wagon works, all located in what was then Austria. Steam locomotive no. 5431(?) won an expo Grand Prix.

Postcard of the Austrian pavilion at Milaan, 1906 |

The Austrian pavilion was designed by Ludwig Baumann in a style influenced by the Vienna Secession.

The Austrian regional railways were represented by a Dampftriebwagen (steam railcar) of the Niederösterreichischen Landesbahnen.

Dampftriebwagen no. 30 | From: Die Niederösterreichischen Landesbahnen (WIkimedia Commons)
Belgian national pavilion and railway crossing, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)

Belgium took part in the expo with a prestigious national pavilion in Flemish Renaissance style. It had a 45 meter high tower and a tapestry room inside.

Besides this national pavilion was a dedicated wooden railway pavilion. Outside were demonstration versions of a railway crossing and signals.

Steam locomotives of Belgian manufacturers, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)


In the 5,000 m² Belgian railway pavilion steam locomotives of manufacturers based in Belgium were featured, including John Cockerill and the Forges Usines et Fonderies Haine-Saint-Pierre. The Belgian State Railways also exhibited five luxury carriages, a postal coach and some freight wagons.

Even the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Vicinaux, the national vicinal tramway society, had come to Milan to show off Belgian trams. They presented rectangular tender steam locomotives as well as electric tram railcars, which still had open balconies.

Trams of the Belgian vicinal tramways at Milaan, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)


Switzerland, one of the partners of the Simplon project, was well represented. Two elongated Swiss transportation pavilions contained stagecoaches and sleds, but also 220 meters of railway line. Besides the brand new Simplon Express the slightly older Gotthard Express was also on show.

The Gotthard Tunnel, the first major Alpine tunnel of 1882, had served as an example for the Simplon. The Gotthardbahn connected Zurich, Basel and Lucerne with Milan. The Gotthardbahn-Gesellschaft showcased its A 3/5 locomotive no. 223 from 1902 with three carriages, including a sleeping car used as a through-coach for Berlin.

Gotthard Express at the Swiss transport pavilion, 1906  | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)
Carriages of the Swiss Federal Railways (CFF), 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)

The exhibited 'Simplon Express' train composition lacked the Wagons-Lits carriages that actually ran between Paris and Milan. But the A 3/5 locomotive no. 730 was used for the Simplon Express; the Simplon Tunnel was electrified but the international express continued to be steam-hauled to reduce the number of engine exchanges.

Simplon Express at the Milan railway expo, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)
Panorama Giordano Simplon-Paris and Cinematografo Gualtiero Longoni, 1906 | Varischi & Artico (Alinari Museum)

Panorama Giordano Simplon-Paris

A panoramic attraction provided an impression of the Paris-Milan journey by Simplon Express. Its designer Giordano had shown a moving panorama, giving the illusion of a train trip, during a national exhibition at Milan in 1894. This technique was also used at the 1900 Paris World Fair to present the Trans-Siberian Express.

The circular building of 1906 indicates a stationary 360º painted panorama or cyclorama, perhaps with a carousel for the spectators. The Simplon Panorama has not been preserved. The Rotonda, its 6 meter high building with a 16 meter diameter, served as a temporary church for 10 years after the expo.

Workers at the construction of the Simplon Tunnel, 1899 | Ernesto Trabucchi (Archivio Verbano)

Cinematografo del Sempione

There were three cinemas at the Milan expo, including one by the Pathé Frères. A special one was the 'Simplon Cinema', showing both moving pictures and stereo photographs of the construction of the Simplon Tunnel, comprehensively recorded by the Calzolari & Ferrario company.

Water drilling machines in the tunnel, 1904 | Calzolari & Ferrario (Archivio Verbano)

Ferrovia elevata

The two sections of the exhibition were connected by an electric railway line on a wooden viaduct spanning over one kilometer. With a speed of 40 km/h and a 3-minute journey time it was more of a tram than a train.

The Dutch reporter Ketner was quite impressed:

"The small electric train, comfortably furnished — an example for the management of the Italian railways which, since the state operation is in full swing, did not do much yet to free the railways from their backwardness — brings us there in a few minutes across the slender and elegant viaduct, high above roads and lanes and squares."

Piazza d'Armi Station, 1906 | Foto-Eliografica (collection Arjan den Boer)

The Parco Sempione station was graceful but modest in size. Its counterpart at the Piazza d'Armi, although made of wood, was impressive. It was designed by architect Bianchi and had four towers, high stairways and a canopy. Both stations were headends.

Elevated railway, Expo Milaan 1906 | Unknown source

Milano Centrale

Upon completion of the Simplon connection it was decided to build a new main railway station with international standing. In the exhibition year 1906 the symbolic first stone was laid — and that was all for the time being.

In 1912 the design contest for the station building was won by architect Ulisse Stacchini. Because of the First World War and several other reasons it took until 1931(!) before the new station was inaugurated.

Milano Centrale eventually became a mixture of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and fascism — as will become apparent in the next episode of retours.

Postcard of Milan station, c. 1905 | unknown illustrator (collection Arjan den Boer)

The station was to be built at a new, better accessible location north of the existing 1864 railway station.

In 1906 King Victor Emmanuel III laid the symbolic first stone for the new station while there was no final design yet.

Laying of the first stone of Milan Centrale, 1906 | unknown photographer (collection Arjan den Boer)
Aquarium building by architect Locati of 1906 | Federico Brunetti (Wikimedia Commons)


There is not much left of the 1906 Universal Exhibition in contemporary Milan. The only building that still stands in the Parco Sempione is the Acquario Civico. It gives a good idea of the Art Nouveau architecture that was prevalent during the expo.

Several years after the World Fair the Piazza d'Armi was put into use as the Fiera Campionaria, a permanent trade exhibition area, later renamed the Fiera Milano.

1906 Expo pavilion at the Museum of Science and Technique, Milan | Arjan den Boer

At the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan a 1906 expo pavilion is preserved and used nowadays to display historical trains. Although it was not a railway pavilion originally and it has been modified since, filled with steam locomotives the pavilion still provides a nice impression of the 1906 railway exhibition.

Railway pavilion at the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia | Arjan den Boer


Georges, M.L. Le matériel roulant des chemins de fer a l'exposition de Milan in: Revue générale des chemins de fer et des tramways, 1907 (Gallica)

Ketner, Ph. J. Een kijkje op de Tentoonstelling te Milaan in: De Aarde en haar volken, 1906 (Gutenberg)

Köppel, Thomas und Haas, Stefan Simplon - 100 Jahre Simplontunnel, Zürich 2006

Pozzi, D. e Secchi, C. Milano Expo 1906, Firenze 2008

Online Sources


Archivio Iconografico del Verbano Cusio Ossola

Storia di Milano