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 - June 1992

New Steam Locomotives

From Loki 5/92, by R.W. Waller and C. Zellweger

In 1971, the SLM company (Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik) published a book to celebrate its centenary. In the chapter on steam locomotives, the book reads: "design first developed in 1914 for the Liligri Railway of India continued to be built, with various technical improvements, until 1952 . . . after this last example (works no. 4073) the dynasty of Winterthur-built steam came to an end." On 12 March 1992 this statement was proved to be wrong, as two sparkling new steam rack locomotives emerged from the works.

100 Years and Going Strong

The only railway in Switzerland now regularly steam operated, the Brienz-Rothorn Bahn (BRB) celebrates its hundredth birthday this summer. A brief history: after a building period of rather more than a year, the first engineers' train made the 7.6 km journey to the Rothorn summit on 31 October 1891. The public opening took place on 17 June 1892. Services ran in summer only until the severe drop in receipts caused by the outbreak of World War I resulted in closure on 9 August 1914. The line remained closed for 16 years, finally re-opening in 1931. By this time it was the only steam-powered rack line, a factor which led to a much wider appreciation of its charms. To improve the frequency of service at busy times, three diesel locomotives were placed in service in 1973/75.

Sprightly Oldsters

As well as the line itself, the BRB's five oldest engines are also celebrating their 100th birthday. These centenarians are not pampered museum-pieces, either; they must work in regular service with heavily-loaded trains, climbing 1,680 metres each trip. No problem? Well, try it on foot on your hundredth birthday and see if you can do it in an hour, even with a five-minute rest at Planalp, the halfway station. The BRB also has two 'modern' steam engines, built in 1933 and 1936.

In Austria, there are two rack mountain lines included in the network of the Oesterreichische Bundesbahn. The line from St. Wolfgang to the Schafberg (Salzburg province) has a couple of diesel railcars to help out its steam power, whereas the Schneebergbahn in the east of the country relies entirely on steam. All these Austrian engines date from the opening of their lines, the newest being 92 years old. The very fact that these old-timers are still in regular service reflects great credit on their builders and operators, but owes much to the simple mechanisms of the steam locomotive. How many of today's diesels and electrics will still be working in 2092?

The Attraction of Steam

It is all very well running 100-year old engines, but they are expensive to run in terms of both labour and fuel. Both the BRB and the ÖBB have for some time been investigating possibilities for the future. Electrification and diesel operation were considered, as well as new steam locomotives. Electrification was considered uneconomic because of the high capital costs involved. Diesel would certainly be a cheap option, but it is clear that the steam trains are a major part of the tourist attraction of these mountain lines; the ÖBB commissioned an opinion poll at St Wolfgang, which showed that 78% of passengers preferred to climb the Schafberg by steam, with only 3% putting the diesel railcars first. Most passengers would pay more for the steam train, according to the survey.

So how to get hold of some new steam locomotives? One could build some more to the old design, but to do this would be to ignore all the improvements which have been made in modern times to the basic steam design, which can bring its running costs down towards those of an electric or diesel loco.

Incredible, but True

The railways were convinced by the arguments outlined above, and SLM Winterthur agreed to restart steam locomotive manufacture after a 40 year break. The design is the brainchild of Roger Waller, an SLM engineer who from 1982-84 worked for the South African Railways, where he got to know David Wardale. Wardale is famous for his many improvements to steam locomotive design, culminating in the "Red Devil" 4-8-4, the World's most powerful narrow-gauge steam engine with an output of 4500 HP.

Orders were placed for a prototype series of three locomotives, Swiss classification H 2/3:

Brienz - Rothorn - Bahn No. 12 (Works No. 5456)

ÖBB No.999.201 (Works No. 5424)

Loco no. 1 of the Montreux - Glion - Rochers de Naye railway, which is electrified but intends to use the new loco to enhance its tourist attraction, with a secondary use on works trains when power is switched off.

Options have also been taken to order a production series of twelve locos; eleven for the ÖBB and one for the BRB.

New Steam Engines

As already explained, a completely new design was prepared to take advantage of modern techniques. It was considered essential, however, to make the outward appearance of the newcomers as close as possible to the traditional design. Over a thousand engineering drawings and countless calculations were needed before construction could begin. Over 80% of the parts of the loco are actually built in the SLM factory, in contrast to modern diesels and electrics where SLM only builds between 30% and 40% of the whole; this is not surprising as there are no longer any makers of steam locomotive parts to whom work could be sub-contracted. SLM did need help from some specialist makers, whose reaction to the intention to build some new steam locos began with amazement, then passed through sympathy to euphoria. They embarked on the project with enthusiasm, and co-operated fully in the search for an improved design.

One-person operation: The loco is designed to be worked without a fireman. At Western European wage levels, this is a prerequisite if running costs are to compare with those of diesels and electrics. To assure safety, electronics have been used for the first time on a steam locomotive, to monitor the vigilance of the driver and apply the brakes if the maximum allowable speed is exceeded.

Lightweight construction: The infrastructure limits the total weight of a train to 32 tonnes, so the only way to increase the number of passengers per train is to reduce the weight of the locomotive and/or coaches.

Quick preparation: Loadings on mountain lines are heavily dependent on the weather. Traditional steam locomotives take a considerable time to get ready from cold, so spare engines have to be got into steam even on bad mornings in case the weather improves and there is an influx of customers. Diesel and electric locos have always had a great advantage here, but the SLM engineers have cleverly included an electric immersion heater in the boiler which can be connected to an external supply and produce 10 Bars [150 PSI] of steam pressure in 10 minutes ready for the oil firing to take over.

Modern fabrication methods: "Rivet counters" will be disappointed with these new locomotives, as no rivets have been used. Frames, boiler, cylinders, cab and water tanks have all been fabricated using the latest welding techniques. All components are manufactured to fine tolerances, making them easily interchangeable and reducing the necessary stock of spares.

Effective boiler insulation: even on the best tourist days a mountain loco only works for eight or ten hours, spending the rest of its time in the depot, unless the company can popularise moonlight rides! The new machines include a valve to isolate the boiler; combined with good thermal insulation, most of the steam pressure can be retained overnight, requiring only a top-up from the electric heater before starting service.

Oil firing: The three prototypes are designed to burn light heating oil, but are capable of conversion to coal-burners if necessary. This flexibility is one area in which the steam locomotive has the advantage of the diesel. In fact it has even been found on test that when burning oil the combustion quality and exhaust emissions are better than a diesel engine, which may disappoint photographers when the new locos enter daily service.

Thanks to all these state-of-the art features, one locomotive should be able to propel 120 passengers, instead of the maximum of 80 managed by the old engines.

TEE a la USA pt. 2

From LOKI 5/92, by Franz Eberhard

The RAm units had a tendency to give trouble, and not just because of design errors: "Spaghetti carelessly discarded by the chef was sucked into the ventilation system of the power car, and fed into the motors" on one occasion, according to an anecdote which appeared in the national press in 1974. On another occasion, a unit working from Amsterdam caught fire as it arrived in Basel SNCF station. the fire was quickly extinguished by the local fire brigade.

If one of the two diesel motors failed, the unit could still continue, but assistance would be required on hill sections. In Switzerland, Ae 3/6 I and II, Ae 6/6, Re 4/4 II and RBe 4/4 (see LOKI 9-91 p. 30/31) carried out this duty from time to time, with the aid of an emergency coupling.


By agreement between the SBB and NS, all five sets were maintained by Zürich depot "G" which was rebuilt and enlarged for the purpose. Three new roads were laid inside the shed, two of which were supported un pillars to allow work on the underside of the units. A three-tonne crane and a 5000 litre lubrication oil tanks were installed, and six extractor fans to remove diesel fumes. Outside the depot, a diesel oil tank with a capacity of 60,000 litres was provided. From 10th to 22nd February 1958 Zürich main works carried out its first servicing of the class (no. 501), the others following at intervals of 14 days.

In 1963, the agreement was altered, and maintenance was taken over by the NS works at Tilburg. From 1966, however, some overhauls of the trailer cars were carried out in Switzerland.

Special Workings and Unemployment

With few exceptions, Swiss workings for the class were confined to the Basel - Zürich and Zürich - St.Margrethen lines. Occasionally, diversions via Aarau - Olten or Eglisau - Koblenz occurred. Following a derailment on 10 December 1964 at Möhlin, the TEE L'Arbalète was diverted via Stein-Säckingen to cross the Rhine by the Koblenz - Waldshut link. Test runs after overhaul and driver training sessions were occasionally observed on the Zürich - Romanshorn route. On one occasion, brake test runs were made on the Gotthard line.

On the cessation of TEE working the surviving Swiss unit RAm 502 and the three Dutch sets found themselves out of work. No. 502 was used for a few inspection trips over the newly-constructed Heitersberg line before its electrification was complete. For at least one of these two trips, two EW I first-class coaches were added to the rear. After a farewell special run to Konstanz for SBB staff, 502 was banished to Glarus depot for storage, later being moved to Zürich Wollishofen. The three Dutch sets were placed in storage at Utrecht.

In an attempt to find work for the four luxury sets, discussions took place with a view to removing the diesel engines and converting them to the Dutch 1500 V DC electrical system for internal service in Holland, but nothing came of this project. In 1975, tests were made for a potential buyer to see if the units could negotiate sharp curves; 502 was pushed around the industrial tracks of Zürich Free Port by an SBB diesel. Eventually all four sets were sold in 1977 to the Ontario Northland Railway of Canada. More about this in a later issue.

Personal Postscript by an SBB driver

The RAm units were not particularly popular with their staff, or their passengers. Staff disliked the noise and heat, and many passengers felt they were not up to the required standards of comfort, especially towards the end of their careers. They certainly did not live a quiet life, but I think that Hans Joachim Ritzau goes too far in his book Railway Criteria (1978). Discussing the Aitrang disaster in which 501 was derailed and destroyed, he claims that "The Swiss RAm unit was technically antiquated, and unsuitable for this [German] route: those who permitted it to be operated on the TEE Bavaria were grossly negligent" and "the 26 dead and 24 seriously injured were victims of inadequate construction".

Nevertheless, these trains had a certain fascination which remains today. Waiting in a passing loop somewhere in the Bözberg line, one would hear the distant earthy drone and roar of the diesel engines a long way off. The noise would increase as the train approached until the red and cream "monster" thundered past. Or perhaps from inside a station building one would hear the distant humming of the diesels, and go outside to stand alongside the impatient-sounding power car with its smell of exhaust. Somehow, one felt gripped by a desire to climb aboard and make a long journey!

Over the years the class gained a variety of nicknames: "Ölfass" [oil drum], "grosser Töff", "Petrolchuchi", and the obvious "Brumm" ("Brumm-Brumm" when two units ran in multiple.) Today, the RAm units are just a footnote in European railway history, but the system is less exciting without them.

The Rhätische Bahn Push-Pull Rebuilds

Based on a comprehensive treatise on RhB centre-entrance coaches in Eisenbahn Amateur 3/92, by M. Schaub.

The six RhB centre-entrance AB composite coaches 1513-1518 were built by SIG in 1956 for operation on the main line, the Arosa line and the Bernina as far as Alp Grüm. They were the first RhB coaches to have upholstery in the second class section rather than plain wooden benches. The upholstery was brown leather, changed to red (smoking) and green (non-smoking) during their complete overhaul in 1972/73, at which time the covering of the partitions and walls between windows was also altered from green leather to oak-patterned Formica. Public address wiring was also fitted at this time, and linoleum laid on the floor which until then had been plain wooden boards. On overhaul from 1985 onwards, the upholstery has again been replaced by a softer fabric type: brown in second class and red (smoking) or green (non-smoking) tartan in first.

As delivered, these cars had 23 first-class seats and 30 second class, with just one toilet. All were delivered in green livery, with a silver stripe and yellow lettering. The red livery took over from 1985. Until 1989 1513-1515 were fitted with the roof-rod electrical connector used on the Arosa line. From 1989 to 1991 1513/7/8 were rebuilt as driving trailers (see below) while 1514-16 were fitted with electrically controlled outward-swinging plug doors for use in the one-person operated push-pull trains. All carry the name of the railway in German on one side: 1514 has the Romansch name on the other side, whilst 1515 and 1516 have it in Italian.

After rebuilding by Landquart Works in 1989-91, AB cars 1513/7/8 became BDt driving trailers 1731-1733. The original first-class section has been refitted with 33 second-class seats, with the result that some of the seats are out of line with the window bays. The bay nearest the centre entrance has folding seats to accept a wheelchair. The doors have been replaced by the swing-plug type and the old second-class section has become a baggage section with large sliding doors; the single toilet remains. A completely new cab with twin windows for the driver has been built at this baggage end. All have public address and a passenger stop button, and are lettered in German one side and Romansch the other.

To complete the train sets, which usually work with the rebuilt Ge 4/4 I locomotives on services such as Filisur - Davos, four second-class centre-entrance cars (B 2337 - 40) of the same 1956 design have also been rebuilt with new doors etc. 2337/8 are lettered in German and Italian, the other two in German and Romansch. The other coaches of this batch, B 2334-6, retain their original doors and roof-rod connectors and are normally used on the Arosa line.

[Quirky postscript by CH - In front of me as I type hangs a famous SWITZERLAND poster featuring the classic view of the Landwasser bridge set off by a nice all-red train consisting of four (and presumably more) centre-entrance coaches hauled by one of the 501 series ABe 4/4 motorcoaches. It strikes me now that this picture must have been tampered with for artistic effect, as at the period when an ABe 4/4 would have hauled such a train the coaches would certainly have been green. Further evidence is provided by the fact that the retoucher has also coloured the doors red. Who said a photograph can never lie?]

Loki Aktuell 5/92

(with some items from elsewhere!)

NEAT Referendum

Opponents of the scheme for new Alpine base tunnels just managed to get the 50,000 signatures needed to force a referendum: only 50,051 signed, the lowest successful number in Federal history. Some of the names have since been ruled invalid, but the government have decided to continue with the vote on 27 September.

Karlsruhe Trams in Switzerland

Two trams from Karlsruhe [Germany] are expected to arrive in Basel on 11 May for a two-week trial on various Swiss lines. These cars have attracted much attention around Europe as they have been designed as dual-voltage (750 V DC and 15,000 V AC) to allow them to run through from the Karlsruhe light-rail system on to the main lines of the DB. The SBB is to test them on the Geneva - La Plaine line (see next item), and perhaps also on the Seetalbahn roadside route. Also interested are the Lausanne TSOL (see last Notebook), the Martigny - Orsières. the Gürbetal - Bern - Schwarzenburg (BLS group), and perhaps other private lines.

Geneva - La Plaine SBB

This line is electrified on the French 1500 V DC system, as it forms part of the international main line to France. For many years, local services have been in the hands of the two BDe 4/4 II motorcoaches 1301 and 1302, which were built in 1956/57 to the same basic design as the other BDe 4/4 units. They are usually accompanied by their matching driving trailers, Bt 50 85 29-07 901 and 902.

These trains are reaching the end of their lives, and replacements must be found. Up to now it has been assumed that standard French units would be purchased, but this idea seems now to have been dropped, and the following options are under consideration:

  • Karlsruhe dual-voltage tram - 6.7 million Francs each
  • Vevey Engineering tram, TSOL style - 4.5 million Francs each
  • Dual voltage version of the SBB NPZ unit - 8.85 million each

According to an SBB press release of April 1992, it has now been decided to order four units from Vevey Engineering. This 22-million Franc order will no doubt be good news for Vevey, which has been a little short of orders lately. The design will be based on that for the Lausanne system, a twin-articulated unit with multiple-working capability.

New PTT locomotive

The Swiss Postal organisation has taken delivery of a new electric shunting loco, Ee 3/3 14, of the same design as those recently delivered to the EBT and BLS groups. A test run with a train of bogie open wagons took place on 28 February, and the locomotive is now allocated to Lucerne.

New BP Tank Wagons

Over 60% of the bogie oil tankers currently in Swiss service have a tank wall thickness of 5 mm, and from 1998 (1996 in some cantons) new safety laws will require such vehicles used for petrol transport to have a 6 mm wall thickness. British Petroleum (Switzerland) is the first company to take delivery of new wagons meeting these new rules. The 20 new wagons have been built by Josef Meyer AG of Rheinfelden, and have a tare weight of 24.6 tonnes, giving them a load capacity of 65.4 tonnes: 15% more than older wagons thanks to modern design techniques. This means that their workings from the Mainz-Gustavsberg refinery in Germany can be reduced from 20 to 18 wagons for the same load. BP has ordered a further 20 wagons, and is embarking on a rebuilding programme for older wagons. By the end of 1992, 30-35% of the company's petrol transport will already be in wagons meeting the new specification.

SBB Timetable Changes

The new timetable comes into force on 31 May 1992, and with it the withdrawal of passenger trains between Porrentruy and Delle (table 240) and Solothurn - Herzogenbuchsee (table 415). The latter service is described as 'experimentally replaced by buses' but this seems to be no more than an official euphemism.

Panorama cars will work in the following trains (1st class + supplement): IC 755 Basel - Chur, IC 865 Basel - Interlaken, IC 890 Interlaken - Basel, IC 914 Zürich - Bern, IC 939 Bern - Zürich, 1796 Chur - Basel.

As well as the existing Eurocity Otto Lilienthal, as second day train from Switzerland to Berlin is introduced. Until 26 September a through EC Haveland will run, replaced after that date by a connection at Kassel-Willemshöhe out of the ICE Johanna Spyri. The night trains to Berlin are accelerated, and include through sleeping cars from Geneva and Berlin to Moscow.

Seetalbahn: Closures and Delays

The SBB was also planning to "bustitute" the Seetalbahn's branch line at the end of May, but a controversy has developed over the proposal. While Canton Lucerne has reluctantly accepted the closure, Canton Aarau has written to Federal Transport Minister Adolf Ogi in an attempt to delay the closure. The management of SBB Region II have made inadequate preparations for the closure, and cannot guarantee an orderly conversion to buses; it is now possible that the closure will be delayed until the autumn.

In recent months Canton Lucerne has been trying to obtain finance to divert the Seetal line to a new route away from the road between Wadlibrücke and Emmenbrücke, as originally agreed in 1979. However, the Federal Government seems unwilling to provide finance, so it is likely that road users will continue to die in collisions with trains.

SBB Coaching Stock Plans

The additional "Kolibri" NPZ units now on order will displace push-pull trains worked by Re 4/4 I locomotives. The ABt driving trailers from these Re 4/4 I sets are to be rebuilt to BDt (with a baggage compartment) for use with RBe 4/4 railcars. This in turn will release Dt and DZt baggage driving trailers which will be used to work more Re 4/4 II-hauled expresses in push-pull mode. Also in the next year, it is planned to rebuild some EW I second-class coaches to composites (AB), although without altering the window spacing for the first-class section. These will be used in Zürich S-Bahn trains, in place of old light-steel AB cars which will be withdrawn.

BLS News Items

Deutsche Reichsbahn diesel loco 106 325 was hired by the BLS last autumn to act as Interlaken Ost station pilot while power was switched off during engineering works. These works were suspended during the coldest weather, and DR loco crew returned home. Operations began again on 23 March, again with two German drivers who can also carry out minor repairs, and were expected to continue until 22 May.

To celebrate the completion of double track between Spiez and Brig, an ICE high-speed unit was planned to be hired from the German Railways from 6th to 11th May. On 6 May it was to be displayed at Bern, Thun and Spiez, and then take part in the grand opening ceremony on 7 May. On 9 and 10 May two runs from Bern to Brig and return were to be made in normal service.

Something of a "Pot-Pourri" occurred at Blausee-Mitholz on March 3rd, when an engineers' train ran through signals and collided with an approaching freight. One man was injured, and tractor Tm 27 was written off. Re 4/4 166 was seriously damaged, a further testimony to the weak body structure of the type.

First published 1992 - this edition April 2009