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 - December 1992

Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere:  Railways of Martigny, Pt.2

Martigny - Châtelard, based on Schmalspurparadies Schweiz, by Schweers & Wall, 1986.

The Martigny - Châtelard railway (MC), sometimes known as the "Alpen-Metro", is an 18 km metre-gauge line which, at the Franco-Swiss border amongst the mountains, continues as a French State Railways (SNCF) line to the resorts of Chamonix and St Gervais, giving a total route length of around 80 km. The line also gives access to a number of mountain tramways, which will be described in the next episode. It is very much an alpine route, with gradients of up to 70 per mille on adhesion sections and 200 per mille on the Strub-type rack, and has the unusual feature of third-rail electrification for part of the route. The French section is adhesion-only, but with a centre Fell rail for braking purposes (see Notebook April 92) allowing a gradient of 90 per mille (1 in 11). The original rolling stock was built according to a theory used for the Paris Metro, with every axle of every vehicle powered by its own motor, even freight stock. At one time, the MC network included a street tramway in the town of Martigny; in 1931 this became a separate line, until closure in 1956.


A line to Mont Blanc was first proposed in 1888, and in 1890 a concession was issued for a metre-gauge line from Martigny to Châtelard. A long dispute about the exact route to be taken prevented any progress, however, and it was 1901 when the Valais Canton government finally ruled on the matter, by which time the first part of the French section, from St. Gervais to Chamonix, had already opened (25 July 1901). The builders faced severe difficulty in getting the line up to the communities of Salvan, Le Tretien and Finhaut, which lie on a ledge high above the Trient valley, and it was decided to use a rack rail on the climb from Vernayaz. With a view to later through running on to the French system, the same power supply of side-contact third rail DC at 500 volts (later increased to 830 V) was chosen. The top of the Fell braking rail on the French section was set at 60 mm above running rail level, so the Strub rack rail on the MC was to be set unusually high at 138mm above running rail level; thus the rack wheels on Swiss stock would clear the Fell rail on the French line. The MC ran through the streets of Martigny on the way to the SBB station, and the third rail would be too dangerous to passers-by, so the valley section from Veryanaz to Martigny was powered by a more normal overhead wire, and MC motive power had to be fitted for both systems.

Construction work began in 1902, and in 1903 the MC bought from SLM of Winterthur a steam locomotive, HG 2/2 no.1, which was used for works trains and later as a traffic reserve; it was sold to the Mont Blanc Tramway in 1921. The complete line from Martigny to Châtelard-Frontière was opened to traffic on 20 August 1906, followed on 24 October by the commissioning of the tramway from Martigny to Martigny-Bourg. The connection to Chamonix was first provided on 1 July 1908 on the opening of the Argentière - Vallorcine - Châtelard-Frontière section of the French line, with its tunnel under the Col des Monets. (The Chamonix - Argentière section had opened on 25 July 1906.) Electric power worked the line from the beginning, initial motive power was five rack/adhesion motorcoaches (BCFeh 1-3 and 11-12) for passenger traffic and two locomotives (HGe 2/2 2-3 [is this right?] for freight. Three more rack/adhesion BCFeh 4/4 cars (13-15) were added in 1908/9, and the class of eight worked virtually all the through passenger traffic until 1957. They were not TGVs by any means, with their maximum speed of 35 km/h reduced to 9 km/h (5.5 mph) on the rack sections. Two adhesion-only railcars (BCFe 4/4 21-22) were also purchased in 1908; these could work on the rack section only if propelled by a locomotive.

In 1921, work began on the construction of the Barberine dam and the associated SBB hydro-electric power station at Châtelard-Giétroz, and a heavy traffic in construction materials was gained by the MC. The existing locomotives could not cope, so the SBB funded the purchase of two 400 HP motor vans, Feh 4/4 31-32, as well as additional freight wagons. After the completion of the works, four covered vans were transferred in 1926 to the SBB Brünig line, but the remainder of the stock remained on the MC. The two old locos therefore became redundant, and were sold in 1931 to the Bex - Villars - Bretaye company. In 1935, 31 and 32 were rebuilt with a passenger compartment, becoming BCFeh 4/4.

The street-running section of the line from La Batiâz through the streets via Martigny-Ville to the SBB station was replaced in 1931 by a direct route running parallel to the SBB main line. The section from La Batiâz to the town centre was abandoned, and the remainder, along with the tramway to Martigny-Bourg, became a separate undertaking known as the TrMB which worked all services with 1906-built Ce 2/2 four-wheeled trams 41-42 until closure in 1956.

In 1957, modernisation of the MC began, and three new ABeh 4/4 railcars, no. 4-6, were obtained, supplemented in 1964 by two more cars numbered 7 and 8. These have a maximum speed of 50 km/h, and can climb the rack at 25 km/h. They normally work on the push-pull principle with driving trailers 63-68. Some of the old cars were scrapped, but 14, 15 and 22 remain, used mostly as engineer's stock although not reclassified. 1921-built cars 31 and 32 are also still in stock.

The building of the new Emmosson high dam, which replaces the original Barberine structure, again created a boost to freight traffic, and two new cement wagons were bought in 1970. These introduced a new MC innovation, as they were fitted with cameras on their platforms so that they could be propelled up the hill by a single-manned railcar, the driver getting a view of the line ahead on closed-circuit TV. Four Zürich tramcars were bought in 1974, perhaps for use as shunters - no further details are to hand about these vehicles, which are not on the current stock list. There are two electric tractors, Te 2/2 91-92, built in 1962, which are listed by Appleby and Russenberger but not by Schweers and Wall, so records are confused, as we often find. In 1980, a new 3-car passenger unit was obtained, formed of BDeh 4/4 power car 501, driving trailer 601 and centre-car 701; recently this unit has received the eye-catching new Mont Blanc Express colour scheme. Currently the line's most modern vehicle is a Beilhack self-powered rotary snowplough, no. 204, which can be used on works trains in the summer.


The MC today begins at the SBB Martigny station, 467 metres above sea level. As far as Vernayaz, the train runs parallel with the SBB Simplon line and the Cantonal main road. The line's depot is located at Vernayaz, which is also the point where the rack-equipped climb up the mountainside begins, and the overhead wires gave way to the third rail system. The depot tracks have always had overhead wires, for the safety of personnel. The line bridges the Trient river, and climbs at 200 per mille (1 in 5) for 3.7 km to Salvan, gaining 477 metres of height in the process. On this section, at least as far as the 419 metre-long loop tunnel, travellers should sit on the right-hand side of the train for a panoramic view of the Rhone valley. From the end of the rack, through Salvan to the summit at Finhaut (1228 m.a.s.l.) the train climbs by adhesion, with maximum gradient of 70 per mille (1 in 14). At Salvan the informed passenger will transfer to the left side of the car for the run along the ledge perched high above the valley of the Trient. From Finhaut to the national border, the train runs downhill, before climbing again to the connection with the French service at Vallorcine. The 2.8 km of line from the frontier to Vallorcine are owned by the SNCF, but served by MC trains. There were a few workings by SNCF trains to Châtelard but these have now ceased. In summer, there was for many years a daily through working of an MC driving trailer to Chamonix, but this does not appear in the current timetable. However, this is soon to change as the MC and SNCF are jointly ordering six new railcar sets which will be used on a regular through service between Martigny and St Gervais. Two of these Beh 4/8 units will be owned by the MC, and are expected to be delivered in 1993.

Scene and Miscellany

Editorial Jottings by Christian Zellweger, from LOKI 11-92

The renamed German model & railway magazine MIBA recently showed its readers a cross-section of (from the German point of view) foreign magazines: three French, two Italian, and one each of Spanish, British, Dutch and, last but not least, one Swiss: LOKI. The reviewers are very positive about our journal: "The main focus us naturally on Swiss themes, understandably when there is no other country in Europe where the railway plays such a dominant and diverse role. The rest of the world is not forgotten, however." There follows a detailed and positive discussion of the various articles.

The LOKI editors and publishers are gratified by the praise from such a well-established journal, which was first published in 1948. Like any mother and father, we are flattered by such praise of our child, especially when it comes from the competition: seems we'll have to buy someone a drink at the next Nuremburg fair . . .

Peter Willen has sent in a cutting from the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung of 29 June 1992, with the banner headline '50 Jahre Loki & Helmut'. Turns out that this is nothing to do with our magizine, but the 50th wedding anniversary of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his wife, whose first name is Loki!

Stocking Fillers for the RhB Modeller

from LOKI 11-92 and 12/92


A genuine 1992 novelty, which will be very well received, is a model of RhB bogie tank wagon Uah 8138. These tanks run in block trains as well as mixed freights. The Bemo model is the variety of wagon with a full set of chassis frames, which are accurately reproduced as well as the cross-members and brake equipment between the bogies. A small number of detail parts are supplied for attachment by the purchaser, mostly the brake blocks which produce a very realistic effect when they are fitted in line with the wheels.

Another interesting new release is the set of four flat wagons loaded with rail, which will look good either in a freight train or hauled by a little engineers' tractor. The two outer wagons have brake platforms, and the rail lengths which extend over the whole set of wagons are moulded in flexible plastic so that they can bend to curves in the track while in transit, as seen in real life.

Undoubted bestseller of this year's Christmas releases will be the new Bernina line coach. This is the short first-class coach as used on the through Bernina-Express workings from Chur to Tirano, so it will appeal to modellers of the RhB main line as well as followers of the Bernina itself. The Bemo toolmakers deserve a bouquet for this little masterpiece: to better represent the attractive red livery with dark brown window band they have moulded the body in sections. This gives a sharp joining line netween the colours without painting problems.

D + R

The new wagon models from this firm feature a new design of close coupling and associated mechanism especially for H0m gauge. Latest model to carry this coupler is the RhB tank wagon. This represents a very different prototype from the Bemo model described above: it is the type of wagon with a load-bearing tank which does not have full-length solebars. These are common all over the RhB system, especially the Bernina line. The model is well-detailed, and the realistic double-spring bogies have braked blocks which are in line with the wheels. Alternative Bemo-style couplers are provided, and are easy to fit; the only other separate detail parts are the four brake hoses. At present, three different running numbers are available, with more to come.


From this firm (Forchstrasse 94, 8008 Zürich: tram 11 stop Hegibachplatz, open Tue-Fri 1330-1830, Sat 0900-1800) come yet more RhB wagons. Some are repainted Bemo items such as a "Walser" bogie van, which is an addition to a range of the Haik-v type which also includes Calanda and Volg, all at 89.50 SFr. A completely original product is the modern bogie ballast hopper, type Fad. These etched brass models are available in brown and grey versions with choice or handwheel or lever-operated hopper doors and various running numbers. The price - SFr 229.50 (<156>100) each.

STL Models

The new release from this company, the heavyweight steel RhB bogie coach, STL claim a world exclusive in the form of self-coupling rubber corridor connections! This idea, which has actually been done before in 0 scale, is not some feat of electronic miniaturisation, but a couple of small permanent magnets on the end of each connection, which attract their counterparts on the adjacent coach (providing of course that it is an STL model!) when pushed together. The system will also work on curves, and gives an effect superior to even the best close-coupling systems; it will be subjected to a full test by LOKI in due course.

It is easy to be distracted by playing with this new device, rather than properly reviewing the rest of the model, which has much in common with STL's earlier open-platform coach and enjoys an equal level of detail. Brake shoes, handrails and roof vents are supplied for addition by the buyer. At the moment, various running numbers from 2221 to 2229 are available in the shops, in a variety of liveries: old green/cream, green with old and new lettering, and red with new lettering. At a later date, the mould tools will be altered to produce the rebuilt version, known as Spitzenverkehrswagen or peak-traffic coach by the RhB.


Yet another track-cleaning wagon, this time based on the Bemo bogie van in grey, Walser or Rhazüns liveries, is offered by Ms-Modell, Postfach 412, 4016 Basel. The complete wagon costs 70 SFr, or you can buy a kit for the cleaning device for 25 SFr. Replacement cleaning rubbers cost 10SFr.


Modellbau-Atelier Pirovino, of Bannwaldweg 20, 7206 Igis, Graubünden, are offering the Bemo oil tanker (see above) complete with a very realistic airbrushed weathering job.


Rail Culture, from LOKI 11-92 by Dr. Hans Peter Häberli

[Note: The Notebook compiler does not necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed in this article.]

Her ears hear the closing of the doors, and the body feels the motion of the S-Bahn. Her eyes see the green of the fields, the brown of the old stone walls and the blackness of the tunnels. Mostly, she reads the paper. For twelve years she has been riding daily between Effretion and Zürich, and knows the surroundings well. After the tunnel between Wipkingen and Oerlikon the familiar grey wall. Suddenly, a flash of colour. A quick glance outside, and for a fraction of a second the impression of the sun, a bridge: then it's gone . . .

'It appeared one morning, about two years ago.' That's all that Kurt Egloff, Oerlikon station manager, knows about it. He has no idea who sprayed the picture of the sunset, the silhouette of a city, the train crossing a girder bridge. Nor when: 'Presumably at night, between one and four o'clock when no trains are running' he suggests.

Anyway, it is the work of a master-sprayer. 'It takes years of practice to create a work as good as that' says architect Peter Schweizer of Pratteln. In the USA, a colour book has been published called Subway Art, featuring the spraywork on the trains of the New York underground railways. The sprayer must work quietly, surely, quickly and purposefully, and there is great skill in the control of the amount of paint from the various spray cans to achieve the mixing of colours. In short, spraying is a genuine art form. If you don't believe it, try it yourself. On your own house please: concrete walls are reserved for the experts . . .

The master-sprayer of Oerlikon must have prepared his work in advance. That's part of the job. Preliminary sketches on paper would have been made, with notes on the exact colours to be used. Sometimes, comic-book figures and scenes are used as a pattern.

In the Shadows of the Night

Next task is to buy the spray cans. A work like this uses three cans (at between 5 and 12 SFr. each) per square metre, explains Peter Schweizer. Sometimes, stencils are used. The Oerlikon painter must have had helpers, to create such a work in one night. Someone to hold the ladder, perhaps, someone else to pass him the stencils and paint cans. First he would have sprayed the whole area in a light cream, then added the blue and pink with the help of stencils. Next, the setting sun would have been created by mixing yellow and orange. Using black, he would then have added the bridge, train and other details. As a last touch of genius, he has painted the headlight beams of the train.

Graffiti is temporary art, an art for our time. Rain, air pollution and train brake dust gradually take their toll on the murals, washing out the colours and covering the details. The works are also threatened by the efforts of other sprayers: the Oerlikon work has suffered from this. Peter Schweizer would like the best examples to be varnished so that they could be cleaned if necessary.

Creative Chaos

Many people, of course, think that all graffiti is daubs and scrawls, and should be cleaned off immediately. According to well-known art expert Dr. Willy Rotzler, however, it is a clumsy but amusing form of wall decoration, and the best examples are works of genuine creative inspiration. They represent 'the protest of youth against our bourgeois, tidy society: a plea for creative chaos.'

Railwayman Kurt Egloff likes the Oerlikon sunset. 'But why', he asks, 'did the sprayer not come and ask our permission? We could then have assured his safety by letting him work in a better place such as a pedestrian subway. Instead, he puts himself in danger and we have to get the police to try and keep him away.' According to Dr. Rotzeler, however, the thrill of the illegality and the urgency to complete the work as quickly as possible are all part of the essential spontenaity of the medium. When the work is done by agreement, the liveliness is lost.

None of the vast array of graffiti on the approach to Basel SBB is officially sponsored! 'Almost every time you look out of the train window, you see some new mural', says Peter Schweizer. The colours and shapes breathe life into the drab concrete walls. All the way into Basel the landscape is concrete either side of the tracks, above and below the tracks; a cold, dead world of trains and cars, iron and stone, the worst kind of city planning. The graffiti artists give it all life, with their comic figures and fantasy landscapes.

But there is a problem. Talk to any locomotive driver, and he will tell you stories of sprayers almost going under his wheels. So Mr Schweizer is trying to organize legal graffiti-happenings, and is hoping to recruit some of the 70 or so master sprayers believed to be working in the Basel area. Walls will be supplied, and also a tram provided by the city transport undertaking. Readers wishing to take part are invited to write to Hauptstrasse 34, 4133 Pratteln. [You can't miss it - it's the house covered in graffiti . . . C.H.]

LOKI Aktuell 12-92

Regional Bern - Solothurn

The new low-floor ABe 4/8 units described in previous issues are now entering service, after rectification of a few minor teething troubles. The photo, LOKI p.92, shows three sets coupled together for the press photographers.

Hotel Trains Ordered

In October 1992 a 200 Million SFr order was placed for 54 new sleeping cars for Hotelzug AG, a company to be jointly owned by the Swiss, German and Austrian railways. The Hotel Trains are planned to enter service in 1995, on the Basel - Zürich - Vienna, Vienna - Frankfurt - Cologne/Dortmund, and Zürich - Hamburg services. There will be two types, equivalent to first and second class, with 27 coaches in each batch. All will be equipped for 200 km/h running. They will be built by a consortium called ARGE-Hotelzug AG, comprising Schindler Waggon, Talbot, SGP, and ABB Henschel.

To be ordered next are 29 so-called "Billig-Schlafwagen" - cheapo-sleepers - which will be reclining-seat cars rebuilt from existing stock, and eight hotel-service cars with reception, bar and restaurant. The photograph in LOKI shows a full-sized mock-up of a compartment of one of the new sleepers, showing the curved windows of the upper deck of the double-deck design.

Veterans on Film

The SBB has been making a video of its veteran diesel and electric locomotives, which will be released in May 1993. It will include archive film as well as scenes showing today's working museum locos; in recent months numerous special trains have been operated for this purpose. Double-headed crocodiles have been seen on a Gotthard freight, as well as old Ae 3/5 10217 and Ae 3/6 III 10264 working passenger on the closure-threatened Monthey - St. Gingolph branch, the train including postal van Z4i 923 of 1939. Ae 3/6 II 10439 worked over the old Hauenstein line with a train of Feldschlosschen beer vans, pictured on LOKI p. 97. Other film stars have been Ee 3/3 "boot" 16316, Be 4/6 12320, Be 4/7 12504, Ae 8/14 11801, RAe 2/4 1001 Red Arrow, and pioneer diesel Be 4/4 II 18451, originally Am 4/4 1001.

Management Changes

[from Modern Railways 12-92]

The President of the SBB, Hans Eisenring, is retiring in January 1993 on health grounds, to be replaced by Benedkit Weibel, currently Director-General of the BLS. His post is to go to to Hans-Peter Faganini from the Federal Office of Transport, a man whom many have blamed for the recent policy of replacing local trains by buses.

Christmas Puzzle

Ten Transport Teasers

All facts from the 1960 edition of Switzerland's Amazing Railways by Cecil J. Allen

1. Which railway has an "Abrupt change of level at Grengiols"?

2. What "begins its journey inside the face of the precipice . . . " and has a journey time of 62 seconds?

3. "The teeth are machined out of what is, in effect, a flat-bottom rail." Who invented the system?

4. "not until 24 February 1905, nearly sixteen months after the expected date, did the two bores meet." Where?

5. "Meanwhile we have noticed the presence of electrical conductors, and the little Est steam locomotive has been replaced by a Swiss electric of massive appearance." Where is this "private entrance"?

6. "It is a startling experience to travel behind one of the diminutive 401 class locomotives. . ." What classification today?

7. "After 17 minutes of grinding upwards in the tunnel the train stops, and we are invited to descend." Which railway and station?

8. "Towards the end of 1952 there appeared a notable new Swiss Federal locomotive type." What class?

9. "Below the train, as it moves in a gingerly fashion around the sharp curve near F-----, there is a sheer drop of 1,400 feet to the bottom of ... " which valley?

10. "The most prominent object in view ... is the S---, a stream which falls over a jutting rock to be dispersed, like a bridal veil of spray, long before it reaches the ground 980 feet below." Which railway?

First published 1992 - this edition April 2009