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 Notebook for Manchester - August 1991

Semaphore Signals in Switzerland Today

From Eisenbahn Amateur, 7/91, by Stephan Frei

In contrast to Germany, where semaphore signals are still being installed new in places, admittedly with electric power (e.g. Munich North marshalling yard avoiding line), mechanical signalling is now quite rare in Switzerland. This article describes the mechanical signals remaining in the second half of 1990, although of course there is no guarantee that the signals listed still exist today. Unless otherwise stated, entry signals are twin-armed, all others single arm.

The last semaphore signals in Region I are exit signals from Biel marshalling yard; a four-arm gantry at the western end, and a single post at the east. The one remaining folding disc (Klappscheibe) in this region is the entry signal at Puidoux-Chexbres on the branch from Vevey.

The only semaphores in Region II are on the Seetalbahn; entry signals at Waldibrücke, Eschenbach, Mosen, Menziken (single-arm) and Beromünster; some of these have recently been repainted. Waldibrücke and Mosen, however, are now normally unstaffed and their signals are normally set to the clear position. Waldibrücke's entry signal from Eschenbach, and also Eschenbach's entry signal from Waldibrücke, are very well placed for observation from the adjoining road. The three single-arm semaphores, one with a short arm, at Lenzburg Stadt now carry black/white crosses marking them as out of use - this branch of the Seetalbahn was closed to passengers in June 1984, and Lenzburg Stadt now has just four daily freight trips worked by an Ee 3/3. At nearby Wildegg, a very rusty example serves to protect the Gipsunion plaster works private siding.

Most of the country's remaining mechanical signals are found in eastern Switzerland. The last really spectacular gantry is at Romanshorn; one signal each for the southern exits from tracks 2 - 6, a second arm for track 6 and one signal in the other direction for movements from Uttwil to the marshalling yard. A separate semaphore controls track 1, and there are a number of others in the station area. Smaller gantries, partly dismantled, exist at Wil and St. Gallen.

Arnegg (from Hauptwil) and St. Margarethen (from Lustenau) both have semaphore entry and exit signals combined with disc advance signals; St Margarethen's advance signal is actually located in Austria. Maienfeld has mechanical entry and through signals, only the exit signals being colour lights. Along the shore of Lake Constance, Münsterlingen, Altnau [being replaced, May 1991], Güttingen and Uttwil have some mechanical signals. Most of these signals on the old North Eastern Railway routes are located to the right of the track for visibility by steam locomotive drivers. All these wire-operated signals will no doubt be replaced by colour lights at an early date, removing the need to maintain a supply of spare parts.

Mechanical shunt signals (clearing signals) of the type which show crossed arms to mean "stop shunting, clear the line" - known colloquially as Sägeböcke (sawhorses) - remain in service at Kerzers, Biel yard, Wildegg, Brugg, Wil, St. Gallen, Romanshorn, St. Margarethen and perhaps elsewhere. The gantries at Romanshorn and Wil carry them. A great rarity is the blue square with white cross protecting the SBB sidings against MOB movements in the goods yard at Montreux.

Perhaps the last mechanical signals on a private railway are the two disc signals at Herisau on the Appenzeller Bahn which protect the line to Gossau from Movements on the line to the Bodensee - Toggenburg workshops, although they no longer serve any purpose and are permanently in the clear position. We should not forget the famous disc signal at Wiesen on the Rhaetian Railway, although of course this is actually preserved as a museum piece. There are also a number of German semaphore signals within Swiss territory on the Schaffhausen - Trasadingen line (Table 763).

Brig - Visp - Zermatt 100

The BVZ celebrates its 100th anniversary in 1991, although unfortunately the service has been severely interrupted and a damper put on the celebrations by landslide damage. We translate here one of the articles from the commemorative special issue of Eisenbahn Journal, which includes a most superb selection of colour photographs, and the news report from Loki 7/8-91 about this summer's problems.

Motive Power of the BVZ 1891-1991

Steam Power

The Visp - Zermatt Bahn began operation with four steam locomotives built by SLM of Winterthur. These small 0-4-2 outside-framed rack tanks, HG 2/3 1-4, were named Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Mischabel and Gornergrat. They had four cylinders, the two outer driving the wheels and the two inner driving the Abt rack pinions, which ran on separate axles parallel to and supported by the driving axles. The steam was controlled by piston valves, and a system of bypass valves was provided for use when coasting. The rack drive was worked as a separate two-cylinder engine, mounted on a separate frame independent of the suspension.

The two separate drives gave a relatively high steam consumption, but as the six rack sections of the BVZ are relatively short, the boiler could just manage an adequate steam supply to all four cylinders. The rack wheels were driven by cranks and coupling rods. Both adhesion and rack valve gears were controlled by a common worm and wheel drive. This system was not ideal for best performance when both machines were working, but it was thought best that the crew should watch for obstructions on the track rather than make fine adjustments to the controls. The boiler was mounted horizontally on the locomotive frames. The pipes carrying steam to the cylinders ran through the smokebox. Separate regulator valves were fitted for the rack and adhesion machines, operated by levers mounted one above the other. Ramsbottom safety valves were fitted, as was steam sanding gear. Water was kept in a tank each side of the boiler, and the coal supply was kept at the rear of the cab.

Like all rack railways, special braking equipment was fitted. To absorb energy during downhill running, the Riggenbach counter-pressure braking system was fitted, operating on both adhesion and rack machines. Additionally, the Hardy automatic vacuum brake was fitted, operating on all the coupled wheels and the rack wheels, as well as the wheels and rack-braking pinions of the coaches in the train. Steam braking was also available, as well as an adhesion handwheel brake and separate handbrakes for each rack wheel. The railway management was very satisfied with these locomotives, which fully lived up to expectations. Soon after the opening of the line, however, it became clear that four locos was not enough for the traffic on offer, and in 1893 a fifth machine was ordered: it was given the name Saint Théodule. Between 1902 and 1908 three more were delivered, Weisshorn, Breithorn and Lyskamm, the class thus comprising nos. HG 2/3 1 to 8.

The usual load for one of these small but powerful engines was two eight-wheeled coaches, totalling around 45 tonnes. Such a train would be worked up the 25 per mille adhesion gradients at 25 km/h, and at 7 km/h on the 125 per mille rack gradients. The locomotives have always hauled their trains on this route; after 1920 some heavier trains were worked by banking with a second loco, the drivers communicating with each other by whistle signals. In the course of their lives, various modifications and improvements were made to the class. Around the turn of the century, new vacuum and steam brakes were fitted, and they were fitted with so-called 'smoke-burners', on the Langer system. From 1913, superheaters were fitted, leading to a reduction of up to 18% in coal consumption. No. 1 did not receive these improvements, and was little used after 1916. The others averaged between 10,000 and 15,000 service km each per year.

On electrification of the line in 1926, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Mischabel, Gornergrat and Saint Th<130>odule were withdrawn, and Lyskamm followed in 1935. The other two of these excellent locomotives were more fortunate, however. No. 7, Breithorn, was overhauled in 1959 at Biel SBB works for duty during the rebuilding of the line's overhead wiring in 1960. It remains in BVZ stock as a museum loco today and hauls specials from time to time. No. 6, Weisshorn was sold in 1941 to the Hovag company at Ems on the RhB, where it served as works shunter until 1965 when it was placed on a pedestal in Chur. In recent years it has been returned to service by the group dedicated to reopening the Furka Mountain section of the Furka Oberalp as the DFB museum line.

Electric Locomotives

The electrification of the line was first proposed during World War I; the original plan was for a 2000-3000 V DC system with passenger and freight traffic both handled by railcars, as was the fashion at the time. Nothing was done, however, and by 1927 when serious plans were being laid, the bold decision was taken to go for the high-voltage single-phase AC system, a novelty for a rack-and-adhesion line. An order for four 480 kW locomotives (HGe 4/4 11 to 15) was paced with the Oerlikon company, which constructed the electrical parts, subcontracting the bogies to SLM of Winterthur and the locomotive body to SWA of Schlieren. They were specified to haul a 60 tonne train at 45 km/hr on the adhesion sections, 16 km/hr on the 100 per mille rack sections and 14 km/hr on the steeper 125 per mille rack stretches. Maximum axle load was to be 12 tonnes, and a luggage compartment was to be incorporated. The stipulated maximum weight of 46 tonnes caused the engineers some headaches; a vertical arrangement of the motors in the bogies had to be adopted to provide drive to the two sets of rack wheels as well as the four axles, which has led to some problems due to the large angular momentum. A light air-cooled transformer was adopted, and some aluminium was used in the body structure, sophisticated features which caused a sensation among the experts of the day. 11 to 14 were delivered in 1929, followed in 1930 by no. 15.

The success of this advanced design feat is shown by the fact that the locos were later uprated from 480 to 680 kW, and are still giving good service over 50 years later. Like their steam predecessors, safe braking was a prime consideration, and the automatic vacuum brake powers brake shoes on each wheel as well as a band brake on each axle; the two brake cylinders are located between the bogies. Additionally two brake handles are fitted in each cab, working crosswise on the brake shoes of one and the band brakes of the other bogie. As already mentioned, the HGe 4/4 incorporates a baggage compartment with a capacity of 2 tonnes, at the Zermatt end. The power controller has twelve notches; originally the driver was required to stand up, but in the course of time seats were fitted. When operation by driver alone became the rule, dead-man's apparatus was fitted; if it is not operated, the brakes are applied and power switched off after 30 metres.

In 1938 an additional locomotive was ordered, which became HGe 4/4 16. This loco was substantially the same as 11 to 15; the bogies are of the same design, although the body design was substantially different. The cabs were at the ends of the frame, with only a small platform. Electrical parts were again supplied by Oerlikon, and mechanical parts by SLM. The body was of light steel construction rather than aluminium alloy, and the baggage doors were of the sliding type rather than hinged. An improved air-controlled vacuum brake was fitted. BVZ 16 was in fact the prototype for the Furka Oberalp HGe 4/4 31 - 37 class built soon afterwards. In 1951, no. 16 was badly damaged in an accident; the body and underframe were beyond repair. A new locomotive was built incorporating some of the original electrical equipment, and remains in service today. [Compiler's note: expert opinion at SRS slide shows has always been that no. 16 originally looked the same as the others, only receiving an FO-style body in the 1951 rebuilding, but it seems this is not the case.] On the introduction in 1990 of the techncally advanced new HGe 4/4 II locomotives 1 - 5, the old 11 - 14 have been retired to act as reserves and for 'historic locomotive' duties. No. 15 is to be rebuilt as a diesel-electric (HGm 4/4) for use when the overhead power is not available. No. 16 was fitted in 1987 for push-pull one-man operated working for use on the Täsch shuttles.


The twin motorcoaches bought in the 1960s, ABDeh 6/6 2031/2 and ABDeh 8/8 2041-43, greatly increased the line's passenger carrying capacity. They can haul trains of 125 and 175 tonnes respectively and can run up to 55 km/h on the adhesion sections and 30 km/h on the rack. The articulated ABDeh 6/6 class weigh 71 tonnes and have a power output of 88 kW. The ABDe 8/8, which consist of two permanently-coupled cars, weigh 86 tonnes and have a power output of 1180 kW; they carry the names Brig, Visp and Zermatt.

Vacuum train braking is fitted, as well as an air-operated band brake on each axle. There is one traction motor on each bogie, all wired in series, and the motirs can be switched to act as generators for braking purposes. The power controller has 19 steps, and the brakes can be set to any of 29 positions, essential for precise regulation of downshill speed on such a steeply-graded route. In the early 1980s, the ABDeh 8/8 class were rebuilt with improved primary and secondary suspension, and fitted with push-pull and one-man operation equipment. These days they are often used on the Täsch - Zermatt shuttle service.

In 1975-76 four motor baggage cars, Deh 4/4 21 to 24, were delivered. Built by SIG, SLM and Secheron, they were named Stalden, Sankt Niklaus, Randa and Täsch. These cars were specially built for push-pull service, and can handle 90 tonnes on the 125 per mille gradients. They are also used on freight trains. Mechanically they are based on the Furka-Oberalp Deh 4/4 class, but their electrical equipment is the same as the SBB RABDe 8/16 railcars sets no. 2001-4. The service brakes are shoe type with spring storage, and for rack braking there are band brakes operating on the driving axles. The handbrakes operate on the motor shaft, in conjunction with additional brakes on the axles. The aluminium-bodied cars weigh 49 tonnes and have a power output of 1100 kW at a maximum speed of 65 km/h adhesion and 35 km/h rack.

Multi-purpose Locomotives

The BVZ has been engaged in a huge investment programme in recent years, including the rebuilding of Zermatt Station and the building of a completely new depot at Brig-Glis, and is part of this it was decided in 1985 to replace the HGe 4/4 class with new machines at a cost of 29 million francs. The 'Taktfahrpan' interval timetable required a reduction in journey time, and the old 'crocs' were not really up to it. The new HGe 4/4 II type. numbered 1 to 5, are part of an order for 21 locos placed jointly by the BVZ with the FO (eight) and the SBB (eight). This joint purchasing has many advantages, including a reduction in design costs, simplification of the supply of spare parts, and exchange of experience between engineers in case of any problems. In the case of the FO and BVZ, also, there exists a long-term plan to replace the present joint terminal station in Brig by a new through station, in which case locomotives could work through between the two lines. The new locos are considerably more powerful that the existing railcars, and can work either in conventional or push-pull mode. Furthermore, a new design of differential drive mechanism makes better use of adhesion drive while on rack sections; the rack drive only needs to supply two-thirds of the tractive effort, saving much wear of the rack wheels and rails.

The newcomers all carry names: Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Dom, Täschhorn and Dent Blanche. The first was delivered on 12 June 1990, and the second on 10 July, in time to work the heaviest trains in the peak summer season. They have allowed the weight of trains to be increased from 90 to 130 tonnes, and even so there is enough power in reserve to easily recover from most delays in departure. They are currently allowed to run up to 80 km/h on adhesion sections, and 35 km/h on the rack.

An Unwanted Birthday Present

Report by Urs Jossi

On 18 April 1991, over a million cubic metres of rock came loose from the mountainside near Randa, and thundered down into the St Niklaus valley. The road and rail alignments were not totally destroyed, although the overhead wires were lost. It was however thought unsafe to continue rail traffic over the affected section, as there was a grave danger of a further fall which might engulf a train. A bus service was instituted between Herbriggen and Randa.

The geological state of the area being very uncertain, the railway company immediately decided to alter the course of the line to allow for the new situation. It was expected that about a kilometre of new route was required; in the meantime only freight traffic would run to keep the motor-free town of Zermatt supplied. Trains were worked over the affected section by Furka-Oberalp diesel HGm 4/4 62.

On May 9, as had been feared, a second, even bigger, landslide fell, and this time the railway was totally buried in rubble and boulders. The BVZ must now build the new section as quickly as possible; it is not entirely clear when this will be completed, but optimists hope that through services might resume sometime in August. In the meantime the bus service continues; sadly Mr Jossi does not say how freight is being worked.

News in Brief

From various sources

Exotic Foreign Food

In the current timetable, Zürich is served by restaurant cars from no fewer then eight countries: Switzerland (SSG), Germany (DSG in the Eurocity Rätia, Otto Lilenthal, and Schweizerland ), Czechoslovakia (Train 368/9 to and from Prague - to reserve a place ring Prague 547663), Austria (Wagons-Lits Company in various Eurocity services), Hungary (the Wiener Walzer to Basel), Italy (EC Rafaello), France (EC L'Arbalète) and Spain (EC Pablo Casals).

RhB Slows Down

Chronic late-running of Albula expresses has finallly been recognised by the management, and eight minutes added to the schedule between Chur and St Moritz from June 1991.

MIB: Freight Bonanza?

The traffic changes on Swiss private lines for 1990, as published in Eisenbahn Amateur, make interesting reading. Percentage changes only are given, with warnings in some cases that the lines in question carry very little freight traffic and therefore that freight figures are fairly meaningless. The famed Meiringen - Innertkirchen, for example, show a 250% increase in freight traffic! On a more serious note, it is not hard to see which lines could be candidates for closure: the Aigle - Sepey - Diablerets records a 13% drop in passengers, and the Bex - Villars - Bretaye a 14% decrease. The Berner Oberland Bahnen, on the other hand, increased their passenger traffic by 26% in a single year and their freight carryings by 13%. The Le Pont - Brassus near Vallorbe in the Jura has increased its passenger carrying by 30%, and a number of others are well into the plus area. Freight carrying seems to show a general decline at first glance, although the increases by the RhB (6%) and BLS (18%) are the most significant.

Fun with a Paintbrush

A Basel art gallery owner, joining in the 700th anniversary spirit, has bought eight Gklm four-wheeled goods vans from the SBB, to be transformed into rolling Art Objects by Swiss artists, including Tinguely, Luginbühl and Spoerri. The art-train had its first public view on 9 June, and is planned to tour the country and perhaps abroad. It will be interesting to see if the model manufacturers latch on to this - presumably they would have to pay royalties to the artists. Does Daniel Bourret get paid for every one of those lurid Re 4/4 II locos which seem such a popular model that Winco sold all the Hag examples they could obtain?

The Rütli comes to Knutsford

A good time was had at the anniversary event staged by the Swiss people of North West England in Tatton Park on August 3. Many hundreds of local Swiss turned up to form a remarkably orderly queue for beer and sausages and watch the Bernese Mountain Dogs, Crossbow-shooting and Phil Donbavand's and Steve Crebbin's layouts, kindly invited by the organisers. It was nice to become an honorary Swiss for the day, even if it was in a hot tent smelling of old socks (sorry, cheese) with a noisy generator just outside which blew one of our power units and caused some most un-Swiss operating difficulties by load-shedding at intervals. Still, at least the layouts did run on the alfresco power, unlike the much-heralded video which went on strike for better electricity. Thanks to Bernhard and his colleagues for their hospitality.

Many Happy Returns?

August 1991 is being celebrated as the 700th anniversary of the country, based on the meeting said to have been held alongside Lake Lucerne in 1291 at which an agreement was made between Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. The Swiss Confederation as we know it today actually dates from 1848, but everyone likes a good celebration, and 1291 is the date everybody knows, the Swiss equivalent of 1066. It may well be that the 1990s see the country at another crossroads in its history; however happy the Swiss people may be with their unique system, many are wondering how long it can stand alone against events in the rest of Europe once 1992 has dawned.

Austria's application to join the European Community has been accepted in principle, and Sweden is next in the queue. The big question is, should Switzerland join? The arguments are many and complex, but from the railway supporter's point of view one cannot help feeling that it would be a disaster if the country were forced to accept heavier lorries, deregulated buses and all the other 'free-market' ideas which are currently so popular. Perhaps Europe will see sense and adopt Swiss ideas . . .

Whatever happens, your compiler offers his best wishes to all the Swiss People and thanks for staging some of the happiest days of his life.

First published 1991 - this edition April 2009