These pages comprise articles from the 'Notebooks' compiled
by Charlie Hulme in the 1990s, mostly translated and edited articles
from Swiss books and magazines.
They appeared in printed, and latterly also e-mailed form, as the Web hardly existed at the time. We have converted them to this format, as they chronicle an especially interesting period in railway history, and also include useful histories of various lines.
SRS Manchester Notebook August 1990
100 Years of the BOB
From Eisenbahn Amateur 6/90, by Urs Jossi
July 1 1990 is exactly 100 years from the opening of the Berner Oberland Bahn. This gives us an opportunity to take a look back at the line's history, from its stormy early days through times of crisis to the boom of today. The BOB was one of the first lines in the country to develop a district for tourism.
The Lütschine Valleys before the Railway
Until the beginning of the 19th century, there was virtually no transport to the valleys, whose economy was based on cattle and the alpine meadows. The population was scattered and with a low level of income, and there was very little trade. Inspired by the opening of the Bödelibahn in 1872, the railway mania of 1873 saw the first application for a concession to build a standard-gauge railway in the Lütschine Valleys. This was not proceeded with however, so transport continued to be provided by the postal coaches which began running to Grindelwald in 1862 and Lauterbrunnen in 1873.
Concession and Building
In autumn 1886 three applications were made to build railways in the Bernese Oberland area; a line to the Heimwehflüh, one to the Scynige Platte and one from Bönigen near Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. All met with opposition, especially from farmers, but on 29 April 1887 Mr Heiniger-Schell of Burgdorf and Mr Pümpin-Herzog of the Bern Building Company were given a concession to build the line to Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. On 29 September 1888 the contracts for financing and building the line was signed, and a joint-stock company was formed. This company was committed to build the line at a cost of 2,850,000 Francs and open it on 1 July 1890. Building was taken in hand immediately, and presented few serious problems. By May 1889 building works between Interlaken and Burglauenen and between Zweilütschinen and Lauterbrunnen (Sausbach) were in full swing. Large engineering works other than a few bridges were not needed, except a 60m tunnel and a 75m galley on the Grindelwald branch. The engineers did, however, have to pay careful attention to the likely locations of avalanches, landslides and floods. Around 1200 Italian labourers worked on the construction of the line, which was built to the same standards as the Brünig railway. Many residents of the valleys were still opposed to the construction of the line, but most were eventually silenced by the amount of income which it generated for them.
Originally the Interlaken - Lauterbrunnen line was planned as a purely adhesion operation, but the route in the narrow valley proved to be across unstable rock formations, so a new course involving rack-and-pinion working was adopted. All main line rails were laid by the end of April 1890, when testing of the first three steam locos began at Grindelwald; an occasion marked with a party which captured the enthusiasm of the local people. By the end of 1890 the complete line had been offically inspected, and was ready for traffic.
The opening celebrations were held on 29 June, and on 1 July timetabled services began, using initially four steam engines and 16 coaches. The line was an immediate success in its first summer, working at the limits of its capacity on sunny days. In winter, however, the line ran at a loss. In 1893, the company applied to the government for permission to cease winter operation, but this was refused. Until 1914, the road coaches continued to run in competition, but each year they carried less traffic. Traffic on the BOB increased greatly with the opening of connecting lines to Mürren (1891), the Wengernalp (1893) and Schynige Platte (1893). The Schynige Platte Bahn company, however, got itself into difficulties and sold out to the BOB in 1895. The SPB had no road competition, however, and contributed to the financial improvement of the main BOB system. In the years to 1913 sufficient profits were made to pay a dividend to the shareholders.
When the line was being built, electric wirking was intended, but steam was decided upon because at the time there was little experience of the use of electric power on mixed rack and adhesion lines. In 1907, a suitable system was designed, and on 12 June 1912 a General Meeting of the company voted to electrify the line. A 1500 V DC system was decided on, and a loan of 1.6 million francs approved. By the end of October 1913, the electrical installations were ready, and in December the first locomotive arrived. Further locos were delivered in early 1914, and the electric train service began on 9 March 1914.
The years of growth came to a sudden end with the 1914-1918 war, which hit the company just after its electrification was completed. Traffic sank to a third of its former level, and income was no longer enough to cover operating costs. Many other tourist lines were also affected, and in 1918 an Act of Parliament provided assistance in the form of bridging loans to allow them to continue operation. The BOB was able to claim this assistance, although it only showed a deficit in the war years of 1914-18 and 1940 and the world financial crisis of 1932. In all other years traffic improved, despite the increase in use of the motor car after the first war. Profit margins were small, however, leading to a noticeable lack of maintenance. Necessary renewals and improvements had to be postponed. After 1945, economic recovery began. People began to catch up on the holidays they had missed; the BOB urgently needed new equipment to carry them.
Thanks to the Assistance to Private Railways Act, the BOB again received financial aid in 1948. 3.2 million francs of Government money and 1 million francs from the company's resources were invested in three new motorcoaches, a number of coaches, and a new station at Grindelwald along with numerous other technical improvements. Later, the Railways Act of 1957 recognized the importance of private railways to the poorer areas of our country and their important contribution to the national economy, and the BOB benefited from more large-scale investment. In 1961 five new motorcoaches were ordered, being delivered in 1965. A number of new coaches were placed in service in 1967, and a number of structural renewals were carried out, including a new depot at Zweilütschinen.
A gradual recovery began; the line became an important carrier of the tourists who came in ever-increasing numbers to the world-famous Jungfrau-Region. Five more new motorcoaches entered service between 1979 and 1986, and new coaches delivered in 1987 included some driving trailers which allow push-pull working for the first time. Other recent investments include the complete rebuilding of Zweilütschinen station in 1986-88, the enlargement of the depot in 1987-88, and a renewal of the overhead traction wiring. Future plans include moving the track in places to shorten the journey time. Today the BOB is a modern, efficient undertaking which can look to the future with confidence and forms a vital part of the infrastructure of the Lütschine valleys area.
This month taken from some magazines I bought in Switzerland in June 1990.
The new signal box at Zug and the double track from there to Cham (table 660, Zug - Luzern) came into use at the beginning of May. Closed at the same time was the loop to the line to Affoltern am Albis; trains from this line will now reach the Cham line by a crosover near the former Kollermühle station. The double track between Wetzikon and Aathal (table 740), and the rebuilt Aathal station, opened in mid-May.
A minimum platform height of 25 cm above rail level has been fixed for stations served by the new double-deck trains. It is realised that this is still unsatisfactory - it will be raised in time. At a number of such stations (e.g. Effretikon, Glattbrugg, Rapperswil) where the platforms have been raised, post and baggage trolleys cannot be taken across the line by subways and crossings at the platform end are not practical. Movable trolley ramps are therefore being installed. These normally lie flush with the platform, being lowered to a sloping position when required. The ramp does not project into the loading gauge in either position, but is only allowed to be used when a Karrensignal (Karren = trolley) operated from the signal box shows an illuminated letter K to prove that there are no trains coming.
The "Underground Mills" near Le Locle-Col des Roches have been newly developed into a tourist attraction. Since April 1990, an ex-SBB Cafeteria Car has served as restaurant, resting on the remains of the siding which once connected with the main line. To deliver the vehicle, a temporary track was laid across the main road. Meanwhile the SBB are planning to introduce McDonald's Burger outlets on trains for those who enjoy eating unspecified parts of animals..
Chemins de Fer des Montagnes Neuchâteloises
The metre-gauge CMN is engaged in rebuilding 3.8 km of its line between La Chaux-de-Fonds and La Sagne, to permit 60 km/h running. Two new motorcoaches have been ordered from Vevey Engineering for delivery in 1991-2, and a new depot is being built at Les Ponts-du-Martel. The CMN was formed by the amalgamation of the PSC (Ponts-Sagne-Chaux-de-Fonds - opened 25.7.1889) and the RdB (Régional des Brenets - opened 27.8.1890). It has been decided that 1 September 1990 is the centenary of the company, and steam trains will run in celebration, running on Saturdays and Sundays (and other days if chartered by groups. From 1 to 23 September, the steam service will be between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Les Ponts-du-Martel [table 222] and from 29 September to 14 October on the Le Locle - Les Brenets line [table 214].
All this seems a good opportunity for someone to visit these little-known lines in the Jura and bring back some slides. Le Locle is also served by the SNCF (typical French service, three times a day) as well as the SBB and CMN, to add the the railway interest. What is the lake boat service like at Les Brenets? I believe it takes you to see a "famous" waterfall on the French border, and the lake is surrounded by cliff faces resembling the facial profiles of famous people from history. And what on earth are these Underground Mills at Le Locle? Any volunteers?
Bad Day at Alp Grüm - by Charlie Hulme
After a walk around Tirano (closed, as always) we returned to the RhB station for our train home, shuffling past the surly border guard onto the platform. Track 2 for the 14.00 to St. Moritz, claimed the sign, but all that was happening in track 2 was much shunting of some coaches, while two motorcoaches sat empty in track 1, and various tourists stood around looking puzzled and some cows peered at us through the ventilators of the vans on an adjacent siding.
At 14.01, a conductor appeared and began gesticulating impatiently at us all to join the motorcoach on track 2. Not wishing to disturb Swiss punctuality, your compiler attempted a nifty dash across the platform, only to catch his foot in some point mechanism and dive headlong in the direction of no.43's underframe details. Hoping no-one had seen this (some hopes) I scrambled aboard, and inspected my ruined brand-new trousers (C& A £14.99) and schoolboy-type grazed knee which was bleeding in a rather embarrassing way. When we started, I vanished into the WC with some plasters from my first-aid kit, during which time we stopped at Campocologno and a Swiss customs man checked Joanna's passport but totally ignored me still locked in the toilet. When I emerged we were still at Campocologno in the middle of some interminable shunting, and the friendly driver appeared brandishing the official RhB first aid box.
Eventually the train got going, but as we climbed towards Bernina summit it became clear that something was wrong. After a couple of stops in section while the driver carried out first aid to the power unit, we reached Cavaglia where, after some discussion, the stationmaster appeared with a length of string which appeared to solve the problem. At Alp Grüm we decided to alight, wait for a through train to Chur and investigate the Alpine Garden ... the station track and platforms are being rebuilt and I nearly fell over again getting off the train, much to the amusement of the driver, the alpine garden is derelict, and we couldn't see the famous view for mist.
Oh well, let's have a beer in the station buffet, then. Have you ever said "Zwei Bier, bitte" and received the reply "Milch?" - eventually we got some warm beer. As we waited for the train we saw the thing which is never supposed to happen. The first train to arrive ran into the further track, and while people were getting off this, a train in the other direction arrived in the nearer loop, narrowly missing them. Then, to make our day complete, we discovered that this normal express to Chur is timetabled to wait at Pontresina for half an hour, during which time it is overtaken by the rip-off supplementary fare version full of coach-tour fodder.
We're going back to the Montreux Oberland Bernois next time - it's safer!
First published 1990. This edition April 2009