BLS was founded in 1906 by the cantonal government of Bern (with financial support from french investors) to construct a new north-south alps-crossing line. With the opening of the Gotthard tunnel in 1882, the canton of Bern was “cut off” from the main north-south railway axis, therefore the cantonal government made use of it’s rights to build an entirely new line. however, funding from the federal government couldn’t be secured as the authorities weren’t happy with the idea of an effectively rival line to the Gotthard.
The necessary funding came from france, as the country, after having lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany due to the defeat in the 1871 Franco-Prussian war, remained without a border crossing at Basel, with trains having to be re-routed via Geneva. The construction of a new line was seen as a possible solution to this.
The BLS company, “Bern-Lotschberg-Simplon Railway” was officially founded on the 27th of July 1906, with work on the new line commencing shortly after. The main fetaure of the new line was the 13,7Km-long Lotschberg tunnel, wich was finally completed in 1911 after five years of tunneling and several accidents. Electrified at 15Kv AC 16,7Hz, the full Lotschberg Line was officially opened on the 19th of June 1913. After the opening of the line, BLS incorporated as it’s subsidiaries the Bern–Neuchâtel ,Spiez–Zweisimmen, Gürbetalbahn and Lake Thun Railways, acquiring also the latter’s ferry lines over the Thun and Brienz Lakes.
In 1919, with the treaty of Versailles after the first world war, Alsace-Lorraine was retunred to france, with BLS consequently losing one of it’s main “reasons d’étre”; the company was however able to successfully “repurpose” itself as a direct link between Germany and Italy, something that has been it’s company purpose ever since.
Unlike the Gotthard Line, the Lotschberg Line had been built as a single-track line due to cost issues. By the mid-1960s, the single-track was posing a number of issues to BLS’ operations, being a considerable limitation, but it was not until 1976 that the Federal Council finally granted a 620 milion CHF loan to the company to upgrade to double-track it’s line, with works commencing shortly after.
The full double-tracked Lotschberg Line opened after almost 20 years of works, on the 8th of May 1992. In the same year, the swiss people approved via a referendum the NRLA project, wich project, wich consisted in the construction of new, faster and more direct railway lines trought the alps, manily by building new “base tunnels” to replace the existing “mid-height” Gotthard and Lotschberg tunnels, all in order to decrease the number of trucks (going from the north to the south of europe and vice-versa) clogging up the existing swiss motorways.
In 1997, the the Bern–Neuchâtel ,Spiez–Zweisimmen, Gürbetalbahn and Lake Thun Railways, wich had been operated as BLS subsidiaries since the 1910s, were officially merged into BLS, with the company remaning itself as “BLS Lotschbergbahn”.
In 2001, BLS and the SBB CFF FFS signed a collaboration and task-sharing agreement in order to secure the future of both companies: the federal railways took over long-distance traffic over BLS lines, while BLS took over the operation of the S-Bahn networks of Bern and Lucerne and the vast majority of regional passenger trains within the canton of Bern.
A few years later, in 2006, the Regionalverkehr Mittelland company was merged into BLS, forming the current BLS S.A. company. One year later, the Lotschberg Base Tunnel finally opened for regular services.
Currently, BLS operates both freight and passenger services within the canton of Bern and the Lotschberg Line, running as far as Domodossola in Italy. BLS nowdays mostly operates local and regional trains and “medium-distance” freight trains – long distance passenger and freight service having been taken over by the federal railways as part of the 2001 task-sharing agreement. Thanks to this agreement, there is little to no competition (and therefore no animosity) between BLS and SBB CFF FFS.
BLS is a semi-private company: it’s shares are in the hands of the Cantonal Government of Bern (55,8%), the Government of the Swiss Confederation (21,7%), and governments of other cantons or a few private individuals (22,5%).