The Dolomites railway

The Dolomites train.

While it’s true that you can find numerous articles on the Dolomites Railway online, a mention of the old Dolomites train couldn’t be missing on this website, which focuses on this splendid territory.

However, I admit that I’m not knowledgeable on this topic, so I asked for help from my friend and colleague Franco Gaspari, an expert in local history, who kindly wrote most of what follows without hesitation.

It’s worth noting that Franco is the son of Evaldo Gaspari, a great expert in trains and railways and a historical memory of the Dolomites train. It’s his work, the beautiful volume full of information and vintage photos, ‘THE DOLOMITES RAILWAY Calalzo • Cortina d’Ampezzo • Dobbiaco 1921•1964.’ Unfortunately, the book is now very difficult to find.

Book: The Dolomites railway.

The railway line became famous for the spectacular views it offered, crossing numerous bridges, tunnels, and breathtaking alpine landscapes. The Dolomites train was unfortunately retired in 1964.

However, many of the old routes of the Dolomites Railway have been transformed into tourist trails. For example, there is the Dolomites cycling path, which follows the route of the old railway through the mountains, or the historic Granfondo Dobbiaco-Cortina (a cross-country skiing competition) that has taken place on the old railway track since 1977. This competition is the second most important Granfondo in Italy after the Marcialonga.

The history of the Dolomites Railway.

by Franco Gaspari

The Dolomites railway was a Italian metre gauge, which is actually 950 mm(3 ft 1+38 in), that connected the railway station of Calalzo with Dobbiaco, crossing the Boite valley, Cortina, and descending from the Cimabanche pass to Dobbiaco through the Landro valley. The need for a railway connection between Dobbiaco and Cortina for tourist purposes had emerged since the end of the 19th century.

The train already arrived in Dobbiaco in the north in 1871, but the connection to the south was missing. In 1905, engineer Josef Riehl drew up a project for the connection from Dobbiaco to Cortina with a narrow-gauge railway/tram. However, the Austrian authorities boycotted the project for strategic reasons because Cortina was too close to the border with Italy, and in case of war, the Italians could have used this infrastructure to invade Austria.

But it was the First World War that sowed the seed of the Dolomites railway because both the Austrians and the Italians needed the train for logistical reasons. Both sides used a Feldbahn-type railway at the time, which is a small railway with prefabricated tracks placed on the side of the roads, easy to build, with mainly steam locomotives and in rare cases electric ones.

At that time, some cable cars arrived shortly before Peaio, which started from the Perarolo railway station. This allowed the Italians to initially build the railway section that connected Peaio to Zuel. The Austrians, on their part, built the line from Dobbiaco to just beyond Carbonin.

For military needs, these railways proved unsuitable, and both sides decided to build a real railway. The works for the Dolomites train began in 1917, but they were not completed because the war ended in November 1918.

In 1919, the Italian Military Engineers, with the intention of providing employment to the local population, decided to complete the railway.

The line was inaugurated on June 15, 1921, and until 1929 it remained steam-powered, using Feldbahn locomotives recovered after the conflict and adapted.

On June 28, 1929, the first test runs with electric trains started. By the end of the 1930s, it was considered the most beautiful and efficient narrow-gauge railway in Italy.

1924 – Old Pezovico tunnel and construction of new tunnel.

When the railway line was steam-powered, the train took between two and a half to two hours and forty-five minutes to take passengers from Calalzo to Cortina. It took four hours and forty-five minutes, including a fifteen-minute stop in Cortina, to go from Dobbiaco to Calalzo.

With the switch to electric traction in 1929, travel times were reduced to 1 to 1.5 hours for the Calalzo-Cortina stretch, and 55 minutes to 1 hour for the Cortina-Dobbiaco stretch.

The carriages were blue on the lower part and white on the upper part, so people spoke of the “trenino azzurro” (blue train) of the Dolomites. The Dolomites railway contributed to the tourist development of Cortina and the Dolomites. It also had a significant freight transport activity during the Second World War and was indispensable for the 1956 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the Dolomites railway was irresponsibly closed and dismantled in May 1964.

The current situation.

Several factors have led to the closure of the Dolomites railway, including a decrease in passenger and freight traffic and an increase in maintenance costs. In addition, competition with expanding roads and highways has made the railway line less commercially attractive.

During its existence, the Dolomites railway played an important role in the economy and social life of local communities, but the evolution of times and means of transportation led to its closure.

As mentioned above, the railway bed of the Cortina-Dobbiaco stretch is now used as a cycling path in summer and a cross-country ski trail in winter. The Cortina-Calalzo stretch has been almost entirely converted into a cycling path.

The former route of the Dolomites train remains a popular tourist destination for visitors who want to explore the natural beauty of these wonderful mountains.

Since then, there have been periodic discussions of a new railway, but so far nothing has been done, lacking the political will to provide Cadore and Ampezzo Valley with a modern means of transportation that, if electric, would also be environmentally friendly and “sustainable,” a term apparently improperly used when talking about the upcoming 2026 Olympics.

Enrico Maioni Mountain Guide Dolomiti

Enrico Maioni

Certified Mountain Guide, with a wide know-how of the Dolomiti.
I was born in the heart of the Dolomites, where I live and work to this day.
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