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 - October 1991

Editors's note: Lucerne was the destination of my first Swiss holiday, and I have always been fascinated by its rail network, especially the lines serving the rural/industrial areas to the north.

Theodor Lutz (1841-1900) and the Seetalbahn

Based on Die Seetalbahn, by Waldburger and Senn, 1983.

On the collapse of the railway-building mania, a young engineer from Zürich, Theodor Lutz, was left unemployed with a family to support. While looking for a job, he occupied himself by developing his theories on roadside railways. He reasoned that with the coming of railways the country roads were becoming less busy, and there was plenty of space to lay rails along part of their formation. This way, he thought, the station would always be in the centre of each town and village, rather than in a distant field. Of course, he was not to know that a few years later the internal-combstion engined road motor would be invented, and proceed to take over the world.

Lutz's publications attracted the attention of Dr. Meyer, a lawyer from Hochdorf, who was a member of the committee which had been formed to establish a railway in the Seetal. The idea of a standard-gauge roadside line, and especially its low building cost, seemed to him just the medicine to revive the ailing Seetalbahn project. On behalf of the Committee, Meyer arranged a meeting with Lutz to try to interest him in the project. To the engineer, this enquiry was a glimmer of hope. He immediately surveyed the valleys between Lucerne and Aarau, and with great enthusiasm embarked on his plan for a roadside line. A year later, in 1878, the plans were completed, but Lutz was attacked by other engineers, who thought his idea for a standard-gauge roadside railway was crazy. In the Seetal, however, the idea was received with great enthusiasm, although little progress was made in securing the necessary finance. Lutz himself made strenuous efforts in this direction; making no progress with local bankers he travelled to Paris, returning with little but vague promises and good wishes. He threw himself so much into the Seetal project that his family, left behind in Zürich, suffered considerable hardship. In Summer 1880, he resolved to travel to London to try his luck with the financiers there. Imagine the feelings of his hungry family as he travelled to strange foreign lands whose languages he could hardly speak, trying to raise money to build an obscure branch line in some Swiss backwater!


After weeks of anxious waiting, good news finally arrived: on his 39th birthday, Lutz had signed a contract with the London bankers to finance "his" Seetalbahn. When the Cantons and Communes heard that English finance had been found, they belatedly offered the project their support. Compared to the difficulties he had faced so far, obtaining permission from the Lucerne and Aargau authorities to build his line at the roadside was fairly easy, and when the "Lake Valley of Switzerland Railway Company" was registered in London (Nov. 1880) and Bern (Feb. 1881) the way was clear to start building. Mrs Lutz and her children packed their belongings and headed for a new home in unknown territory. No doubt the children revelled in the journey, first by the Nordostbahn to Affoltern am Albis, then by horse and carriage across the Freiamt and over the Lindenberg. The railway's English connections were viewed with some suspicion by the locals, as shown by the fact that the Lutz family, who were the first sttangers to come to live in Hochdorf for some time, gained the nickname "the Americans". Later, of course, the locals became accustomed to visitations by Gentlemen from London. Lutz was provided with an English-speaking secretary to facilitate his communications with head office.

On 28 April 1882, just before the opening of the Gotthard line from Rotkreuz to Chiasso, the first sod was cut for the Seetalbahn, and on 15 October 1883 the first trains covered the 42km main line between Emmenbrücke and Lenzburg. Two branch lines were later added, from Beinwil to Reinach (1887, extended to Beromünster in 1906 - see EZ 2/89 and the Feb.1990 Notebook) and from Lenzburg to Wildegg (1895). The English-based company remained in charge until 1922 when the SBB took over; in 1909/10 the system was electrified, becoming one of the first examples of single-phase AC electrification. This 5500 V 25Hz electrification was converted to the SBB standard in 1930, and the line remains very much alive today, complete with its hundreds of level crossings! The short branch from Lenzburg to Wildegg saw its passenger services replaced by buses in 1984, although freight trips still run and steam excursions have recently been instituted; table 651 still claims that the buses are running 'on a trial basis', even in 1991.

The future of the line has been the subject of much discussion, with the Beromünster line regularly under threat. Various options have been proposed, varying from the building of a new direct link between the Lucerne - Olten line and the Seetalbahn at Wadlibrücke, to replacing the whole thing by lorries and buses. For now, however, the RBe 4/4s still race the cars along the roadside with their comfortable light-steel coaches, and the Ae 6/6s still work the short pick-up freights.

Some Imaginary Layout Ideas

After the opening of the Seetalbahn, the area became the subject of a number of other rail projects. During the planning of the STB, there was some uncertainty as to which shore of Lake Halwil it would follow. When the line was built on the left bank, various proposals were made for a branch along the other shore from either Boniswil or Mosen to Meisterschwanden, with a possible extension in the direction of the Freiamt and the Limmat valley. Part of this latter route was used by the Wohlen - Meisterschwanden line, opened in 1916. In the early days, it was also intended to extend the Wildegg branch to Schinznach Dorf (previously known as Bötzenegg).

A very interesting project from before World War I would have built a standard-gauge electric line from Hochdorf to Hohenrain, with gradients up to 70 per mille. Cable car lines have also been suggested, to run from either Beinwil or Birrwil to the viewpoint known as the Homberg.

The Wohlen - Meisterschwanden Bahn

Based on Grosser Eisenbahn-Atlas Schweiz, by Bützer and Jeker.

The WM in its present form only came into being after much argument about the track gauge. The first plan of 1888 was for a narrow-gauge tramway which would have allowed through running to the adjacent Bremgarten - Dietikon line. Supporters of a standard-gauge line pointed out that a freight interchange with the SBB would encourage industrial development in the area, and with support of the company Bahnindustrie AG of Hannover, it was this plan that eventually prevailed. A concession was issued in 1911, but it was 1916 before the line opened, due to wartime shortages of materials. The line actually runs from Wohlen on the SBB to the town of Fahrwangen, but as the neighbouring lakeside resort of Meisterschwanden contributed a tenth of the funds, the terminus was named Fahrwangen - Meisterschwanden.

As expected, the line created an economic revival in the area. Many commercal enterprises settled themselves between Wohlen and the Halwilersee. Until 1965, the WM's accounts declared an annual profit, and from even from 1941 to 1945 dividends were paid to the shareholders. Two bogie coaches were acquired to modernise the passenger stock, but after the war road competition began to eat into passenger figures. Freight traffic, however, tripled, and by 1959 freight revenue was higher than passenger takings. In 1960 the line bought its first Em 2/2 diesel-electric locomotive (no. 101), for shunting at Wohlen and in the works sidings of Ferrowohlen AG. In 1968, it was joined by a larger Em 4/4 diesel no. 151, which is similar in appearance to the SBB Bm 4/4 type as modelled by Lima.


In 1964, it was decided to re-electrify the line on the SBB 15kV AC system. This greatly simplified the working of Wohlen station, as it allowed both railways to use the same tracks when necessary. For the new system, two new BDe 4/4 railcars and a driving trailer were bought in 1966, similar to those built for the GFM, MO, MthB and RVT about the same period, and modelled by HAG. Most trains are formed of railcar plus driving trailer, although an old centre car may be inserted when required, and on Sundays a railcar only works the service. Also in stock are a 1915-built Ta 2/2 battery tractor and an old BDe 2/4 railcar used as reserve and engineers' transport. The depot and works are at Fahrwangen - Meisterschwanden station, which also has a siding serving a shoe factory.

Despite the expensive re-elctrification programme, the line was under threat of closure in the 1970s, but now appears to be reasonably safe in the hands of the Canton Aargau authorities, who seem to be very much inclined to support public transport of all kinds. A pleasant way to reach the line from Lucerne is to take the Seetalbahn train to Birrwil (where trains normally cross), then walk down a very steep hill to the lakeside pier where there is a popular restaurant. The Halwilersee boat (very reasonable at half-price with a Swiss Pass) will take you across (or around the lake if you have more time) to Meisterschwanden pier whence it is a fairly strenuous 2km uphill walk to the WM terminus. Alternatively the WM company runs a connecting bus service which calls at Boniswil-Seengen Seetal station. The whole area is reminiscent of some of the the best of British scenery, and is popular with the inhabitants of the northern cities, yet never mentioned in most English guidebooks.

Fahrwangen - Meisterschwanden terminus would make a beautiful model, although one would have to modify the track layout slightly as there is no way of running round a train except to push it back up the gradient outside the station and let it roll back into to another siding. Or perhaps this could be done by using some sort of retaining pin in the track? The WM line itself is built on Lutz principles like the Seetalbahn, but with even stiffer gradients of as much as 44 per mille (1 in 22.7) along the roadside down to the factory at Vilmergen where a diesel loco is usually found. After a run alongside the SBB line the railcar tucks itself into a bay on one side of Wohlen station, where there are some tree-shaded tables outside the station buffet with a good view of the action. The SBB line at the point, table 653 Aarau - Arth-Goldau, is an important freight feeder to the Gotthard and many heavy freights may be seen. To return to Lucerne, one can take the hourly local through the Freiamt area, passing the old monastery town of Muri, and change at Rotkreuz to a Zürich - Lucerne service. However, the narrow-gauge line to Dietikon begins in the street outside Wohlen station, and is also very much worth a ride - but we will save this for another issue.

Maid of All Work, Pt.2: More on the RBe 4/4

From Loki 9/91, by Franz Eberhard

The RBe 4/4 cars are fitted with the type IIId multiple-working system, which means that they can be driven from the following classes of driving trailers:

DZt 91-33 910 to 915, 91-33 920...959

BDt 82-33 910...955

BDti 82-03 906

Bt 29-34 900...983

A maximum of three RBe 4/4 cars can be controlled from one driving trailer, although only a single unit is allowed to propel a train. However, a so-called "Doppelpendelzug" is permitted, having one RBe 4/4 at each end. The RBe 4/4 can work in multiple with Re 4/4 II, III, IV and Re 6/6 locomotives, up to a maximum of twelve working traction motors.

Weak Points

When they were first delivered, there was a severe shortage of motive power, and the RBe 4/4 cars were immediately placed in service on very heavy trains. 11-coach push-pull trains were worked on diagrams involving 1234 and 1522 km of running per day. After only five weeks in service, the first two cars, 1401 and 1404, had amassed over 50,000 km each! Not surprisingly, failures were more common that they are today. On one occasion, a fault in the bracket supporting the magnet for the automatic train protection system caused a derailment at Gland in Canton Vaud, an incident which led to questions in Parliament. Problem child no. 1, however, was the electrical braking which was incorporated in the 1964 production series.

The body suffered from various unpleasant vibrations and rattles, which also damaged the traction motors; in 1980, 75 motors had to be rebuilt, followed by another 41 in 1981. Another common failure has been in the electro-mechanical tap-changing controller; this is being removed in the current overhaul in favour of a thyristor system. Most dangerous of all, it was found that the stamping of control numbers on the wheel tyres was leading to cracking - until they could be replaced, the cars were restricted to 5 km/h below normal maximum speed when passing over diverging pointwork.

Trial Runs

Most famous test runs took place in May 1960 when 1406 was tested in Germany. Trials were carried out on the DB lines from Kottenheim to Niedermendig in the Eifel, and between Mayern and Andernach - the latter line being un-electrified. The tests related to the establishment of an international standard loading gauge and running quality standards. Measurements were also made on the new-type Brown Boveri pantograph fitted with the wider German/Austrian type of head. On the un-electrified section, power was provided by DB pacific-type steam locomotive 18 323.

Other test runs in the early days included a climb of the 26 per mille Gotthard gradient with a loan of 210 tonnes, a speed of 75 km/h being reached briefly. 140 km/h was reached in 1964 during a test of the electrical brakes between Frauenfeld and Winterthur. In 1965, RBe 4/4s were used to test driving trailers built new for the MThB, MO and WM on runs between Münchenstein and Laufen. Units have served as test beds at various times for cross-coupling between bogies (1401), mechanical friction dampers (1448) and Oerlikon speed control (1466).


The only withdrawals to date have been 1419 following a collision with a shunting movement at St. Triphon, and 1454 which was destroyed by fire. After a head-on collision at St. Léonard with an Ae 3/5, 1426 was rebuilt with a new body and new bogies. It can be distinguished from its sisters by the large gangway fall-plates on each end.

The Devil Looks for Details - A Driver's Tale

From 1984 for some years, the shuttle service on the Travers - Pontarlier line was an RBe 4/4 railcar running solo. Each morning the car was attached to the rear of a BDe 4/4-powered service from Neuchâtel to Travers. It then spent the day working the Pontarlier service. While the allocated Bernese driver had a breakfast break, a Neuchâtel shunting driver brought the RBe 4/4 from the depot, and attached it to the BDe 4/4 set. The Bernese driver thus arrived shortly before the departure of the train. As soon as the brake test was complete, the Neuchâtel driver retired for a coffee break. This procedure worked well, and everyone had plenty of practice.

But increasing use of the Les Verrières service by cyclists was causing a problem, as the RBe 4/4 has no van area. So someone in headquarters had an idea - an old BDti driving trailer with open platform and van space was to be added to the railcar. This coach was apparently pressed into service with such enthusiastic haste that somebody forgot to tell all the drivers. So, one morning, a Bernese driver arrived as usual just before departure. I wonder what that old coach is doing on the back of the Travers train, he thought. None the wiser, he climbed into the cab of his RBe 4/4, which was on the rear as always, and found to his consternation that the controls were locked. As he was wondering what to do next, departure time arrived, the driver of the main train saw the right-away signal and applied power. Unfortunately, after a short distance, the deadman's device in the cab of the driverless driving trailer brought the train to an undignified halt . . .

The error was quickly realised, air pressure restored and the journey was continued without too much delay. Messages were passed to the depot's other drivers, and this very oddly-matched train became the regular performer. [More recently, BDe 4/4 cars working with their usual driving trailers have taken over this duty. - See the January 1991 Notebook for more on the Travers valley.]

News Items from Loki 9/91

Lok 2000 Learns to Walk

The first Lok 2000, no. 480 000-3, has ventured cautiously into the world, making a number of trips away from the ABB company's test track. First run was a radio test around the Zürich area on 18 July; it was marshalled between a test coach and three light-steel coaches, with Re 4/4 II 11397 as power at one end and S-bahn loco 450 007-0 at the other. A brake test run was made from Seebach to Zürich depot on 31 July, with three brake vehicles.

Emmental-Burgdorf-Thun Special

On 30 June a special excursion for a youth gathering was run to the branch terminus at Wasen im Emmental, consisting of four coaches hauled by Re 4/4 141. This train was actually too long for the run-round at Wasen, so electric tractor Te III 121 was marshalled at the rear to return the train to Sumiswald. This tractor, once classified as a Ce 2/2 locomotive, is normally used as shunter at Sumiswald, also working a weekday trip carrying raw materials to a nearby wire welding factory. [See June 1991 Swiss Express for more on Wasen station, but beware: the track diagram on page 18 does not agree with the photo on page 19]

Metre-Gauge News

On 30 June 1991, the last RhB Ge 4/4 I locomotive in green livery, 610 Viamala, entered Landquart works for rebuilding. On the MOB, a Bern government economy drive has put the project for a third rail from Zweisimmen to Interlaken "on the back burner", but there is still a chance that it will go ahead.

Air-Tight Coaches

In Austria and Germany, it has become necessary to modify some coaches for high-speed lines to protect the interiors against pressure waves caused by passing trains, especially in tunnels. This involves special sealing of the doors and windows, and modifications to the air-conditioning. The traditional 'straight onto the track' type of toilet is definitely banned on these services, to prevent passengers from getting their own back. These "Druckertüchtigt" coaches have the small letter p in their UIC vehicle codes.

SBB Panorama Coaches

On 4 July the first SBB Panorama Coach, SRm 61 85 89-90 200-5, was rolled out of the Schindler factory in Altenrhein. It is the first of a batch of twelve which are to be used in international service. Each has 54 first-class seats, within the 19-metre long and 1.6-metre high window area. Each of the exchangeable safety-glass window units weighs 140 kg. During the winter timetable they will be used on various IC services on a test basis, in preparation for introduction in Spring 1992 on the Chur/Interlaken - Amsterdam, Zürich - Venice and Geneva - Milan services. There are no plans, at least at the moment, for further examples or second-class versions, but Schindler designers are currently working on a metre-gauge version.

First published 1991 - this edition April 2009