Swiss Railways Manchester 1990s archives

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.

Swiss Railways Manchester Notebook February 1991

Portrait of a Station: Samedan RhB

Based on Die Modell Eisenbahn, 1/90

Samedan, (accent on the "e") probably the busiest station on the Rhaetian Railway system, is of great interest both to modellers and traction enthusiasts. In our minds, it is more important than the RhB's world-famous resorts with fine-sounding names like Arosa, Davos and St.Moritz.


Samedan lies in the Engadin valley, at a height of 1705 m above sea level, 5 km east of St. Moritz. Samedan (not St. Moritz) is the administrative centre of the Oberengadin district, and is the location of the District hospital. From the railway viewpoint, Samedan is junction between the Albula line from Chur to St. Moritz, and the route to Pontresina, the Bernina pass and Tirano. Another line, the Unterengadin branch to Scuol-Tarasp, also joins the main line two km to the east, at Bever, but Samedan is the main changing point for this line also. Only one train per day makes connection at Bever.


Samedan lies on the Champagna plain, across which the Inn and Flazbach (flowing down from Pontresina) rivers meander. It is a town of stately old houses; the Planta house, built around 1600, is today used as a museum, and has featured on a stamp. The church of St. Peter and St. John. above the town, is even older. The building of the railway between 1898 and 1903 brought a great enlargement of the town to three times its population in the year 1850. Today, the population is around 3000. The first cable car in the Engadin, built in 1907, climbs to Mouttas Muragl, a height difference of 700m which is the second greatest in Switzerland. Its route lies entirely within the Community of Samedan. On the other side of the Inn river, Europe's highest airport was opened in 1938.

Rail Operations

With the exception of the two seasonal "Bernina Express" workings, all express passenger trains stop for between two and seven minutes at Samedan. Albula line freight traffic is sorted here for Engadin, Bernina and Unterengadin traffic, and there is considerable freight handled at the station itself: in 1989 42,000 wagonloads received and 7000 dispatched. Often, two station pilot locomotives are required to handle the traffic. Traffic for the local area includes heating and fuel oil, groceries and building materials. Through traffic for the Bernina includes wood and livestock for Italy, and (depending on international market prices) oil imports. Local passengers are catered for by regular shuttle services, and there is also the car-carrier service to and from Thusis, by which motorists can, for 77 francs, avoid the difficult drive over the Albula pass. The basic service, shown in timetable 983, consists of wagons attached to scheduled passenger trains, but at busy times in winter when roads are blocked by snow, extra car-carrier trains operate.

A locomotive depot (60 drivers) and a train staff depot incorporating the signalling and power supply control centres, completes the railway infrastructure. Around 14 stations are remotely controlled from Samedan control centre, covering the Scuol-Tarasp line and the Albula as far as the middle of the tunnel, where control passes to Filisur station controller. The stations in the Engadine are controlled separately; Celerina has a Domino panel installed in 1969, St. Moritz a switch control dating from 1952, and Pontresina was equipped in 1977 as control centre for the Bernina line as far as Poschiavo. Altogether, the RhB at Samedan employs 170 people at this important crossroads.

Rail History

The line of rails extending from Thusis reached the Engadine on July 1 1903. At first, Celerina was the terminus; the line into the posh resort of St. Moritz follwed a year later. If the projected RhB extensions had ever been carried out, the line today would continue over the Majoja pass the Ciavenna in Italy. Similarly, the Scuol line was meant to continue to Pfunds where it would have connected with the Reschen-Scheideck line (see ME 2/90). From Zernez, a branch would have run through Ofen Pass into the South Tirol . . . one could fill a book [see Swiss Express!] with stories of these proposals! We will not mention the planned connection from Davos to the Engaine over the Scarletta Pass, or the Septima line from Thusis to Castasegna proposed in 1884. A Lukmanier line, proposed in 1864, failed because the local people preferred to be on the Gotthard route. In the 1930's, a project for a Bernadino line was in the news.

Back in the realms of reality, in 1908 the Samedan - Pontresina connection was opened, giving a direct connection to the Bernina line, and saving the need for through customers to go in and out of St. Moritz. This line includes, on embankment, a 3km long straight - very unusual on the curvacious RhB system. Punt Muragl, the intermediate halt, was once a fully-fledged station with crossing loop instead of the present signle-ended siding; the possibility of reinstating this facility the break up the 5.3 km section is being considered.

The Pioneer Line

The Lower Engadine line was opened five years later in 1913, and was electrified at 11 kv AC from its opening, a pioneering development by the mountain narrow gauge; the similar BLS electrification from Frütigen to Brig opened 14 days later. The first locos were the seven Ge 2/4 1-B-1 type, augmented by the larger Ge 4/6 1-D-1 type. Amazingly, examples of both these classes can still be seen in Samedan today. With luck, Ge 2/4 221 or (bebuilt) 222 will be on station pilot duties, and Ge 4/6 3/3 353 is pressed into service at peak times, to replace a failed loco, or on charter specials. The well-known Ge 6/6 I "Crocodiles" of the 1920s can also be seen, normally only on the daily mixed train over the Albula. Although the Company undestands very well their nostaligic appeal, their maximum speed of 55 km/hr is an obstacle to their increased use when service train speeds are being increased, and the capacity of the single lines is limited.

The electrification of the Lower Engadine line was successful, and when the first World War led to a severe coal shortage, the RhB decided to adopt the same system for the main line. In 1919, Albula trains "gave up smoking", although the working time table continued to list water pick-up points for a further five years. Steam locomotives remained in occasional use: in the days when many hydro-electric stations were being built, it was sometimes necessary to switch off or remove the overhead wire to transport the bulky generators etc., and fossil fuel came in to its own again.

Today three steam engines are available for "Nostalgia" duites: 101 year old G 3/4 Tank engine no. 1, and elegantly-proportioned G 4/5 tender locos 107 and 108, in addition to the pioneer electrics mentioned above. Other early locos still in existence are Ge 2/4 205 on a plinth at Winterthur Technical College and 207 which has pride of place at the Lucerne Transport Museum. Other, rebuilt Ge 2/4s still work as shunters; their original drives have long since been replaced by Déri motors (transmission ratio 1 : 1). Finally, early AEG-built loco 391, which worked on the Engadine line from 1913 to 1980, is now in Berlin Transport and Technical Museum.

Operations Today

Samedan is fully equipped with electrical signalling, installed in 1967. The orginal signal cabin between tracks 2 and 3b is now used as a store; the new spacious control room in the main building has a panoramic view of operations. Shunting is controlled by radio messages as well as fixed signals; although this is a Romansch-speaking district, German is predominantly used for this purpose. At seven strategic points around the layout are small control panels which can be used to operate the points when released by the signalman. This feature permits nocturnal operations such as snowploughing to take place during the hours that the control room is closed.

Four platform faces serve this busy junction. Whenever possible, it is arranged that passengers changing trains need only cross the same platform. Through track no. 1 is rarely used by passenger trains. Expresses between Chur and St.Moritz normally use track 3, which is 310 m long and can hold 15 coaches plus a Ge 6/6 II loco. An interesting feature of the track plan is the scissors crossover between tracks 3 and 4, which faciltitates shunting and also allows two short trains to use the same platform road. If necessary, the first train to arrive can be stopped at a singal clear of the crossover, and a second short train can run past it into the same platform. Thus the tracks are divided into 3a and 3b (usual track for the Pontresina shuttle) and 4a/4b.

Biggest locos, Busy times

The heavy expresses from Chur require the line's most powerful locomotives, the Ge 6/6 II no. 701 - 707 of 1800 kW. The older Ge 4/4 I types were only allowed beyond Filisur on these trains if piloted by a Ge 2/4. Remember, the Albula line, even though it is a masterpiece of engineering, has a ruling gradient of 35 per mille, putting both the Gotthard and Lötschberg in the shade!

In 1984/85, Samedan station buildings and locomotive depot were rebuilt, in traditional Engadine style. The ticket office was fully modernised and in 1990 has been re-equipped with the latest ticket and reservation equipment. The station's peak times are holiday weekends, especially in February, the Engadine cross-country ski marathon in March and the times when cattle are brought to and from the alpine pastures. This latter traffic has decreased lately, from as many as 1000 wagons per year to around 400. The working of all this traffic, which is increased during bad weather by the special car carriers, over steep, curving single track lines requires railway operating skills of the highest order on the part of Station Manager Georg Voneschen and his staff.

Railway fans can gain information about train arrivals by watching the indicators mounted on the catenary supports which show the station from which the next train will arrive - B (Bever), P (Pontresina) or C (Celerina). To return the favour, the station staff would like to request that you cross the line by the subway. Please do not swarm across the tracks to get a photo of a rare type of loco.

For the future, the RhB plans to to alter the layout at the east end of the station. The platforms will be extended, new pointwork installed and a 250 m long shunting neck laid on the south side of the main line towards Bever; the bridge to carry this over Promulins Street has already been built. This will keep shunting movements clear of the congested single track main line.

News Items from EZ 12/90

Re 4/4 460 Roll-Out

In the presence of Hans Eisenring, chairman of the SBB board, the first "Locomotive 2000" was brought out of the ABB company's Tramont assembly plant at Zürich on 12 November 1990. The pantograph was raised for the first time on the works track. After test runs within the works, 6100 kW (8300 HP) locomotive 460 000-3 will be delivered to the SBB in Spring 1991. The new machine, jointly built by SLM and ABB, weighs 81 tonnes, has a maximum speed of 230 km/h (143 MPH), and is equipped with bogies which turn the axles on curves. Each locomotive costs seven million francs. 24 have been ordered, and another 75 are planned for the expansion of lorry-carrying services.

These first 24 locos are planned to operate with new push-pull passenger trains. The SBB have been making rather heavy weather of obtaining these coaches, however, principally for financial reasons. It is planned to order a prototype series of 15 cars in 1991, which will be fitted with electronic customer information displays. Meanwhile, the costs of the various Bahn 2000 rail improvements appear to be climbing well over the original budget of 5400 million Francs.

Pendolino Tests

In January 1991, it is planned to test an Italian-built "Pendolino" tilting train over the Lötschberg line and various SBB routes. These units are claimed to be able to take curves as much as 30% faster than normal trains.

Zürich S-Bahn news

According to the Schweizer Eisenbahn Revue 11/90, the new class 450 locos are giving trouble. The problem centres on damage to the rubber elements in the new type of flexible drive, caused by vibration, the reason for which has not yet been found. Test runs are being made with no. 450 000 to try and discover the cause. One remembers the early days of the Re 4/4 II: the rubber secondary suspension system of the these machines gave problems and had to be replaced by conventional coil springs.

Line S7 is now mostly operated by double-deck trains, releasing "Mirage" RABDe 12/12 units which in turn are replacing "Chiquita" RABDe 8/16 sets on the Winterthur - Stein am Rhein line. This line had been temporarily worked by RBe 4/4 railcars with push-pull sets. Incidentally, for anyone puzzled by the reference last month to the "Chiquita" units losing their yellow livery and therefore needing a new nickname - am I right in saying that Chiquita is a Swiss brand name for bananas?

Line Closures again

In the 1991-93 draft timetable, three SBB local passenger services are labelled as likely to be withdrawn during the period. These are Travers - Pontarlier (worked by BDe 4/4 two-car trains), Solothurn - Herzogenbuchsee (Re 4/4 I and coaches) and Beinwil am See - Beromünster (RBe 4/4 three-car trains). In the case of the last-named, at least, the Canton has announced their objection to the closure.

On the BLS, the local service between Spiez and Frutigen is similarly threatened. The inhabitants of the lower Kander valley will presumably welcome this idea, as the bus stops will be nearer the villages. Another casualty of the BLS timetable change is the so-called "Blue Train", IC 341, 10.56 from Bern to Donodossola which has been formed of just three refurbished standard coaches in blue livery. This is the only daytime train to run non-stop from Spiez to Brig, but sadly it has failed to attract sufficient passengers.

New RhB Bridge

The new bridge over the Hinterrhein near Thusis will be one of Switzerland's biggest railway bridges when it is complete in 1993. The main arch of the double track structure will have a span of 94 metres; on the RhB only the Langwies bridge (100m) will be greater. The present, single track, steel girder, Hinterrhein bridge is currently the second longest span on the RhB at 81.9 m. The new double track section will be from Thusis to Sils.

Locarno - Lugano Expresses Flop

In the current SBB timetable, a "Kolibri" [humming-bird] NPZ unit operates a two-hourly service between the two Ticino towns, stopping only to reverse at Giubiasco. This has not been sufficiently popular, despite the attractive rolling stock and fast run (40 minutes rather than an hour) and from June 1991 will be reduced to just two each way daily.

Push-Pull on the Brünig

Six Deh 4/6 motor baggage cars are expected to be converted to adhesion-only De 4/4 for locals on the Luzern - Giswil and Interlaken - Meiringen sections. The driving trailer cars will be converted from coaches in the AB 401 - 412 series. Coach B 737, the first to be wired as an intermediate car, has already emegred from the works. It has been running on the Luzern - Stans - Engleberg line, with LSE driving trailer ABt 21, on locals between Luzern and Wolfenschiessen.

The Red Carpet

The SBB will roll out the red carpet on request at Zürich Hbf. Any passengers wishing to receive the royal treatment should ring 01/245 34 73; the charge is between 150 and 200 Francs.

MOB news

At the end of October, Montreux Oberland Bernois twin railcar ABDe 8/8 4002 was dispatched to the ACMV (Vevey Engineering) Villeneuve works for overhaul. Be 4/4 1004, one of the motorcoaches bought from the RBS line, has been working school trains from Chateau d'Oex to Rossinière, and in the evening to Allières (returning ahead of train 133 which arrives at Chateau d'Oex at 1719).

Stock Shortage

The Rheineck - Walzenhausen Bahn (RhW) has only one railcar, type Beh 1/2. From January to March 1991, no. 1 is being overhauled at Landquart RhB works, so passengers must go by bus.

Sugar Beet Campaign

Two photos in EZ 12/90 illustrate contrasting workings for the annual sugar beet harvest. On page 8 two Swiss-Express Re 4/4 IIs double-head beets in Eaos bogie opens (see last month's notebook) from Yverdon to Frauenfeld along the shore of lake Neuchâtel at Vaumarcus on 24 October 1990. On page 10, a view on the same day on the Yverdon - Ste Croix metre-gauge line as Be 4/4 3 and Ge 4/4 21 bring down a single Eaos loaded on four Vevey transporter bogies.

First published 1991 - this edition April 2009