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 - November 1992

Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere: Railways of Martigny

Part 1: Martigny - Orsières

Ths small town (pop. 11,309) of Martigny lies at the confluence of the Drance with the Rhone river at the point where the Rhone valley makes a right-angled turn. It is also the junction of the Simplon and St.Bernard pass roads. Martigny has been an important stop for travellers since Roman times, as evidenced by the first-century temple excavated in 1976 and now incorporated in the Gallo-Roman Museum of the Pierra-Gianadda Foundation. The town's best-known landmark is the Bataz tower, a ruined 13th century fort on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river; there are also a number of interesting 17th and 18th century buildings, and the stained glass in the Town Hall is said to be a sight to see.

Martigny is well served by rail, with its station on the Simplon main line also playing host to two private railways. The metre-gauge line to France will be covered in our next instalment; first we will take a look at the standard-gauge link to Orsières and Le Chable, the Martigny - Orsières Railway.

The MO railway owes its existence to the British Aluminium Company, which needed a rail connection to a planned aluminium works at Orsières. It was intended to continue the line through the Val Ferret to Courmayeur in the Italian Aosta valley. In the event, neither the exnetsion nor the aluminium works ever materialised. The line from Martigny to Orsières was opened on 1 September 1910, and was electrified from the beginning at 8 kV AC, 15 Hz. It is a hilly route, with a maximum gradient of 37 per mille and minimum curve radius of 175 metres. Initial motive power was two passenger motorcoaches and two electric baggage vans for freight working. Passenger traffic was very modest, until the area - known as the Drance valleys - was developed as a winter sports district; freight traffic has always made a major contribution to revenue.

To carry the materials for the construction of the Mauvoisin Dam, a short branch line from Sembrancher to Le Chable was opened on 5 August 1953, takin the company's total route length to 25.7 km. This hydro-electric dam is a remarkable structure, with a concrete wall 237 metres (778 feet) high. As part of the preparation for the project, the MO electrical supply had already been altered in 1949 to the SBB standard 15 kV 16.66 Hz system, and the new branch followed this standard. The track and bridges were also strengthened to allow SBB locomotives to run through to Le Châble with the heavy cement trains.

In 1955, a new ABDe 4/4 motorcoach was obtained to supplement the ageing stock; from 1962-65 a full stock modernisation was undertaken with three new ABDe 4/4s (6-8) and matching driving trailers (31-33: see cover picture) as well as three coaches (B 41-2). These vehicles were of the standard type delivered to various private lines at the time, based on the SBB RBe 4/4 design. HAG makes an H0 model of the type, available in MO colours, but it is a rather old model and costs a great deal; Swiss modellers have been known to kit-bash the Lima SBB RBe 4/4. In 1983 a further example of the type (ABDe 4/4 9) was purchased by the MO from the Regional du Val de Travers (RVT). Of the original 1910 motive power, only freight motor De 4/4 no. 4 remains. For the marshalling aidings and industrial spurs at Martigny, a shunting tractor was bought from Germany in 1982. Another diesel tractor shunts at Orsières and Le Châble.

The normal passenger service is one train per hour between Martigny and Orsières, with a connecting railcar running between Sembrancher and Le Châble, railhead for the international ski-ing resort of Verbier which can be reached by bus or cable car.

Aku Modellbahnen: A LOKI visit

From LOKI 10/92, by Urs Häni

It was a visibly harrassed Andreas Kull who opened the door to our reporter. The reason for the stress, he explained after greeting us, was not the `recession' which everyone is talking about, but the problems of commissioning a new workshop whilst simultaneously maintaining production to meet the demand. This is being achieved, as evidenced by the pile of boxes containing freshly-painted models. Uninitiated visitors might be surprised to find the proprietor of the company with paint stains all over his trousers and shirt. Working by hand leaves its traces, however, especially when using the airbrush, the principal tool of Mr Kull's trade.

All around us are stocks of the products of famous large manufacturers, waiting for the Aku repainting and lettering treatment. The emphasis is on the waiting, because the Aku (Aku = Andreas Kull) team is very small: Rosemarie Ostschwald, Kull himself and a professional model maker whose services the firm shares with Roland Born of Rapperswil. The cooperation with the Born company is very significant; Kull paints models for Born, and in return Born produces masters for the etching process. It is no surprise, then, that Born stocks the whole range in his specialist shop in Rapperswil, and Kull intends to stock the Born range in the little shop he is planning to open at his Mülligen (Aargau) headquarters.

The planned shop will also offer at reduced prices any Aku models with sub-standard moulding or livery printing which cannot be sold through other model shops. There is no plan to undercut the normal prices of perfect models, as Kull is concerned to protect the livelihood of the shops which provide his main income. He has been in business for ten years, and is known throughout the trade for his thoughtful and serious attitude.

An Aku-Born project currently being planned is the Knie circus train; the Epoch II/III version will be sold by Born and the Epoch IV version by Aku. Also proposed is a range of 0 gauge wagons, although these are at present only at the planning stage and it will be over a year before they are on the market. Painting and lettering work is also undertaken for other manufacturers: the 0 gauge wagons in the Allmo range are painted and lettered by Aku, as were the Hag 'Bourret' Re 4/4 II and the Bemo 'cyclists' van.

Beginnings We asked Mr Kull how he got started in the hobby, and received the standard reply about running Märklin toy trains as a child. He soon began to add details and improvements, but collecting became his main obsession; at one time he had over 500 locomotives and hundreds of coaches and wagons. His main love was steam and diesel motive power; of the SBB electrics his roster included only the classics such as the Ae 4/7, Be 4/6 and Crocodile. Today his model-collecting hobby centres on the railways of Scandinavia: he corresponds and exchanges models with a Danish modeller who is interested in Swiss railways.

The Aku company was founded in 1983; the first model wagon was produced in that year while he was still working for his father in the plastics industry.

High Costs, Limited Runs

At this point we ask the 64,000 dollar question: why are Aku models so expensive compared to the products of the large manufacturers? Mr Kull explains, with some frustration, that the moulding tools for one wagon cost at least 40,000 Francs to produce. A big firm can amortise this capital cost at perhaps 10 Francs per item sold, but Aku must share the cost over a small production run. The high interest rates at present make this problem even worse.

To keep costs reasonable, a standard underframe moulding is used for a range of wagons. The cost of modifying the tools has prevented the fitting of modern close-coupling mechanisms to the existing range, although future products will be so fitted. Each model is produced in a limited run of 300 to 600 examples; these limited runs are really where the small manufacturer can succeed by producing the type of model, such as a restaurant car or postal van, of which any train has only one example. In the planning stage is a postal van, which will be produced in the liveries of different Epochs, giving a total production run of perhaps 2000. Success in this sort of enterprise depends very much on the correct estimation of the size of the market.

Planning of a Model

The first stages in the production of a new model are the choice of a prototype and a photographic survey of the chosen vehicle. Often, this phase takes place on weekends and holidays, as many as a hundred photographs being taken of one wagon to allow preparation of detailed specifications for the toolmaker. The appropriate buffers, wheels and couplings are chosen from the existing range and discussions held with the toolmaker. The moulds are made, and a test moulding produced; minor corrections to the moulds can be made at this stage. Thus are created the moulds for the axleguards, underframe, body, roof and windows.

If manufacturing is not held up by mould faults or late delivery of parts, the next step is the assembly painting and lettering, carried out in the Aku workshop which is equipped with a high-quality Tampo printing machine. Wagons are also sold in kit form, which saves costs in assembly, although the packing stage needs rather more effort. Around four times as many ready-built wagons are sold than the kit versions.

Swiss Epochs

Aku models are predominantly based on Swiss prototypes. From the beginning, Aku has offered wagons for the Epoch III modeller, in 1950s livery, numbering and lettering. At first, these products were something of a flop, but recently a group of modellers interested in the grey wagons of Epochs II and III has established itself and the models now sell well; this parallels similar developments in modelling in neighbouring countries.

As much as 18 per cent of Aku production goes for export, to Japan, New Zealand and Australia as well as our European neighbours. Amazingly, the proportions between kits and ready-made models are exactly reversed for this export trade. At present Mr Kull is considering producing German-prototype models, and is on the lookout for an idea which will complement the large ranges.

Current Projects

Next year marks the tenth anniversary of Aku, and it is intended to celebrate this by publishing a new catalogue and issuing a special set of three wagons with special lettering. Other projects under way are for open wagons of the BLS and SOB, and a set of signs and accessories such as post boxes.

The Northlander Story, Pt 2

From LOKI 10/92 by Karl Zimmermann and Christian Zellweger.

We will never forget our visit to the Chief Mechanical Officer of the Ontario Northland Railway at North Bay in Summer 1979. Mr Moorehead, with his feet propped on the desk, welcomed us heartily to his enormous office. He showed us around the depot and works, answered our questions despite our rather poor English, and supplied us with working timetables and other papers to facilitate photography. In the end I had to ask him what he thought of "our" trains. He smiled gently and said (rather like Asterix and Obelix talking about the Romans) `They're crazy, these Europeans'; and then, more practically: `I don't understand it. All four motors are fully sprung, using complicated and intricate mechanisms which would find no place in our robust North American railway equipment.' He was right in principle perhaps, but European engineers have to use such devices to keep trains within the permitted axle-loads of their railways. Size and weight are not obstacles on the other side of the Atlantic, however, as can also be seen in other fields such as automobiles and aircraft.

The ONR found that the strange foreign machines created considerable maintenance problems, so much so that their operating cost per mile was almost twice that of the traditional North American diesel. Mr Moorhead and his colleagues resolved to replace the power cars as soon as they could with standard American locomotives; in fact they were supplanted by General Motors FP7 Bo-Bo diesels in 1983, and scrapped in 1984. The coaches continued in service until early 1992, when it became known that they too were to be replaced.

Last Run

Toronto Union Station, 9 February 1992: On track 1, ready for departure at 12 midday, stands a train which appears, externally at least, to be in its last days. A coat of grime covers the once-fashionable yellow and blue colours of this pocket-sized streamliner. The large 'Northlander' lettering on the coach sides, with its stylised letter N, seems washed out and faded. These impressions do not mislead: in exactly 10 hours time and 482 miles away at Cochrane in northern Ontario, a chapter in transatlantic railway history which began in 1957 will come to an end. One of the replacement trains, composed of three seating coaches and a cafeteria car all rebuilt from vehicles previously used in Toronto suburban service, is already under way on the southbound working.

Shortly before departure, we join the train, noing that there are so many passengers that the last run of a TEE set in Canada is as good as sold out. On board the short train, headed by its FP7 loco, conductor Sam Cox shows us to our compartment and collects out tickets. As we take our seats, he tells us that this is the last run with these coaches. 'So we're making history', says the lady sitting next to us. The mood in the dining car, which opens for business as soon as ticket checking is finished, is festive and light-hearted, perhaps surprising when one thinks that the replacement trains with their cafeteria cars have no need for a full dining car crew. As diners take their places, waiter Don Lavalle shows an elderly gentleman to our table. 'We have a birthday boy among us' announces Lavelle to the assembled company. 'How do you know that?' asks the old man, amazed. 'Don't you remember, we both have the same birthday'. 'Oh yes, we share a birthday, but I are retired and you have to work'. 'Not after tomorrow', replies Lavalle. Talking to our companion during the meal, we discover that he 85 years old and has been travelling on the train from Mushoka since 1907. Since retirement he has been riding the Northlander about once a month. `In the old days there were wooden coaches, with gas lamps hanging from the ceiling', he recalls. 'When I was a kid, I remember putting my hands over my ears when the gas was lit from a wax taper, as there would often be a loud bang.' We ask him what he thinks about the new trains. 'I'll tell you when I've ridden in one', he replies. Soon, at Grevenhurst, he leaves the train, to return to Toronto on the southbound train.

The Biggest Fan

Another diner on this last ride is Doris Zwald from Zürich-Oerlikon. For the last twenty years she has been a Swissair flight attendant, and is now spending the bitter-sweet last few hours of an extraordinary love-affair with these trains. She is determined to record the event, and is festooned with camera, video and tape-recorder. After joining us in the dining car for the home-made soup (an ONR speciality) she shows us the album of photographs she has brought with her illustrating the trains' career.

She first saw a TEE train in 1959 when travelling to school, and has been following their career ever since. On the last run in Europe (24 May 1974) she rode in the cab from Amsterdam to Zürich. The following year, she volunteered to act as waitress on the test runs arranged for ONR management, and through the contacts thus made with ONR officials she was able to take her place on the official opening run in Canada on 28 May 1977. 'This train's been lucky for me', she muses. 'I have met all the right people.'

At Trout Creek, we cross the southbound train which is running an hour late, composed of the 'new' stainless-steel coaches hauled today by a GP 38-2 diesel as the FP7 is in works for overhaul. Doris records the crossing on video from the footplate. At North Bay, a few miles further on, the train leaves the tracks of the Canadian National Railway for the Ontario Northland, and the VIA Rail train crew gives way to an ONR team. The dining car staff are also changed; as night falls I partake of the last complete meal ever to be served in the Northlander, and return to my typical European-style compartment to listen to the song of the diesel's air horn as we roll through the night towards Cochrane.

On the Scrap Line

The fate of the TEE trains was sealed on 9 September 1991, when train 1987 was deflected by a faulty turnout linkage and rammed into a freight train. Unit 1985 was already out of service with mechanical problems, leaving only two workable trains. One of these, 1984, suffered damage to its locomotive cab after a collision with an articulated lorry. The loco continued in use as heating generator, but had to be hauled by a valuable ONR freight diesel. Now all are out of service, and in the words of Doris Zwald, 'The diesel TEEs are no longer alive, but they still run in our memories...'

LOKI Aktuell 11-92

Test Runs

The promised test runs by dual-voltage trams from Karlsruhe finally took place in Switzerland from 14 to 19 September. Nos. 808 and 810 operated timetabled SBB locals between Vevey and Morges and Nyon - Geneva, on the TSOL in Lausanne, on the Martigny - Orsieères (MO) and on the GBS (Gürbetal - Bern - Schwarzenburg) line of the BLS group. The vehicles are triple-articulated cars, Be 4/8 in the Swiss classification system, and can run on the 15 kV AC power of Swiss and German main lines as well as the 750 V DC found on tramways including the TSOL, which would thus be able to extend its service back to Lausanne CFF along the main line. The other railways are interested in their lightweight construction, which saves energy; operating costs on a typical local service would be around half that of a traditional railcar train and a third of a locomotive-hauled service.

Some more technical details: Seats 100, standing places 240. Length 37.61 metres, weight 58 tonnes. The two outer bogies are powered by a 245 kW motor each, giving a maximum speed of 100 km/h. The cars, built by ABB and Henschel, have microprocessor control, a cab each end and automatic couplers. The floor is 1 metre above the rail, reached by three steps, so it is not a fashionable low-floor design. The weight of 580 kg per seated passenger can be compared with various other types of train: the RBe 4/4 works out at 1062.5 kg, the RABDe 12/12 'Mirage' unit 850 kg, whilst the RABDe 8/16 'Chiquita' (albeit temperamental and unpopular) weighs in at only 536 kg. The 'Red Arrow' railcars built in the 1930s weighed as little as 466 kg per seat, but they were built for use on lightly-loaded branch lines rather than heavy-duty suburban operation, and did not have normal couplings or corridor connections between cars.

100 Years of the Sihltalbahn

The Sihltal - Zürich - Uetliberg (SZU) is taking delivery of a birthday treat in the shape of six double-deck coaches. Each of the 26.8 metre long, 45 tonne cars, with 136 second-class seats, is costing the company two million Francs [£800,000]. They are basically the same as the 285 SBB cars on the Zürich S-Bahn, with a few minor differences, especially the livery which is ruby red and dark grey. Upholstery is velour, and passenger signal buttons for request stops are fitted. Smoking compartments are not provided, and the door controls have been modified to allow the doors to be kept open in summer during station layovers. The cars have toilet compartments, but they have not been fitted out and are sealed off.

New RhB Coaches

The Schindler factory at Altenrhein has begun delivery of 17 new coaches for the Rhaetian Railway. Eleven are short versions suitable for the Bernina line (3 first, 6 second and one brake-second) and six are full length cars for the main line (three each first and second class.) All should be in service by May 1993. [Good news for railfans is that the photograph shows traditional drop windows are fitted.] Also new in service are eleven bogie vans built by Josef Meyer AG.

Panorama News

From 23 May 1993, SBB Panorama Cars will work over the Gotthard line in the new Eurocity Ticino. Two further cars have been ordered (at 1.5 millon Francs each) from Schindler Waggon for use on the narrow-gauge Brünig line between Lucerne and Interlaken. They will have 48 seats, and will be suitable for through running over the BLS and MOB if the much-discussed third rail from Interlaken to Zweisimmen is ever laid.

Useful Steam Loco

After working the Summer steam specials on the old Hauenstein route, the SBB C 5/6 [2-10-0] steam engine 2978 returned to Western Switzerland under its own steam on 24 August, towing three shunting locos which were needed at Biel works for repair.

GFM Christenings

On 4 September, to commemorate its 50th anniversary, the Gruyère - Fribourg - Morat named two of its railcars after local communities. BDe 4/4 142 (built 1972) is now Semsales, and the new set BDe 4/4 121 + Bt 221 is now called Remaufens. In October, BDe 4/4 122 was to be named La Tour de Trême and BDe 4/4 141 Gruyères.

RABe to Stuttgart and Frasne

From 23 May 1993, a new fast service will operate on a trial basis between Zürich and Stuttgart, using the RABe (ex-TEE) sets currently used over the Gotthard as the Eurocity Manzoni. Also in the summer timetable the connection by RABe set from Bern to the TGV Paris - Lausanne service at Frasne will be re-instated, having previously run from 1984 to 1987. In those days, the sets were still in the red and cream TEE livery, whereas today they are in `Railfreight Grey'.

New Addition

The Bremgarten - Dietikon (BD) has donated open wagon G 147 (built in 1919) to the Furka Bergstrecke group which intends to convert it to an 'Aussichtswagen' or open coach.


The four prototype Re 4/4 IV locomotives 10101 - 10104 of the SBB carried various experimental liveries (two locos had different schemes on each side) from delivery in 1982 until 1986 when they were given the now-standard red scheme, but adorned by large lettering advertising the `Rail 2000' plans. Now, however, the SBB considers the new Re 4/4 460 class as the image-carrier for the scheme, and the Re 4/4 IVs have been returned to more normal inscriptions in the current style with large lettering and logo. The loco number appears on the cab front.

Sprightly Veterans

The centre-entrance version of the SBB light-steel coach is now down to its last few examples, causing a sudden interest among railway photographers; the twice-daily Ae 4/7-hauled mixed train from St Maurice to Bouveret has lately been a regular photogenic haunt of the type. However, it is only a short trip over the the frontier to the Italian North-Milan Railway (FNM) terminus at Como near Chiasso. The FNM has bought a number of these coaches from the SBB in recent years; the photograph in LOKI  shows FNM coach no. 930.51 freshly-painted in lime-green and light grey. This vehicle was built in 1953 by SIG as SBB third class C4ü 6046, later reclassified as second-class C4ü 5796 and finally B 50 85 20-39 045-3.

Belfort Link Really Closes

The passenger service between Delle and Belfort (see previous Notebooks) which was reprieved at the last minute for the Summer of 1992, has definitely ceased from 27 September.

First published 1992 - this edition April 2009