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 Manchester Archive June 1993

The Birsigtalbahn

Based on Schweers and Wall, Schmalspurparadies Schweiz.

Baselland Transport AG was formed in 1974 by the amalgamation of the Birsigtalbahn (BTB), the Birseckbahn (BEB), the Trambahn Basel - Aesch (TBA) and the Basellandische Ueberlandbahn (BUeB). The combined organisation has stabslished a tariff union and engaged in a far-reaching modernisation programme to bring these outer-suburban lines into line with the city tramway system.

Early Days

Of the four consituents of the BLT, the Birsigtal line is the only one to have been officially built as a railway rather than a tramway, and for 100 years was worked as a railway. The Birsig valley, between Basel and French border, was avoided by the main line railways and in the 1880s proposals were made for a narrow-gauge local line from Basel to Thirwil, where it would divide into two branches, one to Reinach and the other the Flüh-Mariastein. A concession was issued in 1886, and on 4 October 1887 the first part of the line, from Basel to Therwil, opened for traffic. The line was worked by steam tram locomotives, and terminated in Basel at Steintorstrasse. In 1888 the BTB was extended into Canton Solothurn to terminate at Flüh near the national border.

Traffic developed rapidly, with commuters during the week and citizens of Basel heading for the countryside at weekends, and the annual passenger total soon reached the million mark, aided by the line's unusually low fares. When the company tried to increase fares to the level of other lines in 1892, the commuters `went on strike'; another curiosity of the early days, according to Peter Willen, was the free carriage of commuters' home-cooked lunches into the town centre. In connection with the construction of the Basel city tramway between Barfüsserplatz and Morgartenplatz in 1900, the BTB was shortened slightly, to terminate at Heuwaage. The noisy little steam locomotives smoking through the city streets were unpopular with the citizens, and were really underpowered for the traffic on offer, so the company decided to adopt electric working at 750 V DC, and the first five electric motorcoaches entered service on 2 June 1905. (The voltage was increased to 900 V in 1928, according to one book.)

In the neighbouring Birstal, the Birseckbahn opened in 1902, and in 1907 the tramway to Aesch which served Reinach and removed the need for the BTB Reinach branch originally planned. Instead, it was decided to extend the line from Flüh to Rodersdorf, most of this extension line lying outside Switzerland in Alsace. Thus, when this line opened in 1910, the BTB became an International Route! [A word about European history might be appropriate here: the people of Alsace (German: Elsass - Capital: Strasbourg) traditionally speak a dialect of German and it was a German province during the period of construction of the BTB, having been annexed in 1870 as a result of the Franco-Prussian war. It was restored to France in 1918, only to become part of Germany again from 1940 until 1945 when it again returned to France.]

Plans were made other extensions, from Flüh to the pilgrimage centre of Mariastein and from Rodersdorf back into Alasce to Pfirt (French: Ferrette) in the Sundgau valley making connection with the railway to Altkirch. However, these ideas came to nothing. During the two World Wars, the service beyond Flüh was suspended, but otherwise traffic continued to expand, requiring parts of the line to be converted to double track (from 1924) and more motorcoaches acquired, some on hire from other lines. After World War II, the fleet was depleted by a collision between two trains in 1952 and a fire at Oberwil depot in 1953. Second-hand eplacements were obtained, and the service struggled on until 1965/66 when new modern trains were finally purchased. The delivery of these cars started the transition of the BTB to a purely commuter line, with freight traffic transferred to the roads and driver-only operation of trains on a regular-interval timetable, a pattern which continued for another 20 years.


In the early 1970s, the Basel-Land Canton government [Basel Canton was divided into two half-cantons, Stadt (city) and Land (country) in 1833 after a period of civil unrest when the city refused to give equal rights to the country people] developed a grand plan for its public transport system, involving the merger and modernisation of the four narrow-gauge systems. The remaining privately-owned shares in the four companies were bought out by the Cantons and the Swiss Government, and the Birsigtalbahn company ceased to exist at the end of November 1974, although the legal contract was backdated to 1 January. On the First day of December, Baselland Transport AG came into being. The first result of the merger was that all lines were given service numbers in the tramway series, and the BTB became line 17, the number being carried on placards at the front and rear of trains.

The long-term BLT plan was to integrate its lines with the city tramway system and purchase new state-of-the art trams to operate the network. In 1978/79, thirty Be 4/6 articulated cars were ordered for service on the Dornach and Aesch lines (now routes 10 and 11), and in 1980 a further 36 trams for the Birsigtal. To prepare the BTB line for tram operation, further double track was installed, and reversing loops were laid at Basel Heuwaage, Ettingen, Flüh and Rodersdorf. A new central depot for the whole BLT system was built at Hüslimatt between Oberwil and Therwil, the traction voltage was reduced to 600 V DC and new signalling was installed. During this rebuilding the old BTB trains continued to work; only one line of the new double track sections was used, as the tracks were too close together for the old trains to pass. Driver training on the new trams began between Flüh and Rodersdorf in September 1984, and on the might of 28-29 September the service was completely handed over to the new trams. R.J. Buckley, writing in 1983, states that the arrangement of the points (check gauge?) of the BTB was unsuitable for tram use; if so the BLT track engineers must have been very busy during the changeover night.

The plan to integrate the BTB with the Basel city tramway (BVB) was delayed for political reasons and line 17 continued to terminate at Basel Heuwaage, although a rail connection existed for non-passenger use. A tunnel connecting the line with city tram route 7 at Binningen had been proposed in 1981, but was rejected by a referendum. Eventually, it was decided to improve the layout at Heuwaage and build an additional curve at Theater; the trams began to run through the city centre on 25 October 1986. Line 17 was combined with BLT line 10 (the Birseckbahn) under the route number 10, Dornach - Aeschenplatz - Theater - Heuwaage - Rodersdorf. The number 17 is now used for a Mon-Fri peak hour working Ettingen - Heuwaage - Barfüsserplatz - Schifflände - Claraplatz - Wisenplatz, connecting the Birsigtal with the city centre and the industries in the Kleinhüningen area. This route runs through on to route 14, which was originally the BUeB, another constituent of the BLT, although route 14 is worked by the BVB (Basel Verkehrsbetriebe) to compensate the BLT for the workings of the latter's trams within the city.

Although the BTB is now worked entirely by trams, it is worked as a `pure' tramway (with no signals and drivers expected to stop `on sight') from the city only as far as Hüslimatt depot. Within this section, signals are provided for the three remaining single-track (or gaunteletted?) sections in the Binningen area. From Hüslimatt to Rodersdorf, full railway signalling is used on the block system with main and repeater signals. All the cars are fitted with automatic control systems which will apply the brakes if a red signal is passed. Sadly, from the spotter's viewpoint, Appleby and Russenberger have decided that the BLT is a tramway, and have omitted it from their seminal work Swiss railways: Locomotives and Railcars published in 1991. The BTB is still a railway in the SBB timetable, however, appearing as table 505. Currently, cars run every ten minutes most of the day, all starting from the Birseckbahn terminus at Dornach (connections with the SBB) and running through the city. Alternate off-peak trains terminate at Flüh, the others continuing to Rodersdorf.

Route and Traction

The route length of the BTB from Heuwaage to Rodersdorf is 16.1 km, the steepest gradient is 28 per mille and the sharpest curve 40 metres radius. In its short length, the lines passes through Basel Stadt half-canton, Basel Land half-canton, France, and Solothurn canton. The canton geography in this area is complex indeed, with a confusion of little enclaves. There are no tourist attractions to occupy the guide-book writer, but the scenery is pleasant enough. The crossing into France and back on the way to Rodersdorf is a mildly underwhelming experience: take your passport but do not expect a very thorough customs examination. Leymen station is in France and has a customs office, but it is usually unmanned.

The BTB started life in 1887 with two metre-gauge G 3/3 steam tram locos, no. 1 Basel and 2 Blauen built by SLM of Winterthur. They were joined by similar locos 3 Birsig (1888), 4 Landskron (1890), and 5 Blochmont (1896). These were sold after electrification, and some saw service on the construction of the Bernina line and the RhB Scuol-Tarasp route. 2 and 4 survived until 1921 on the private line serving the Georg Fischer engineering factory.

Electric working began in 1905 with five BCe 4/4 motorcoaches built by SWS/Alioth and again numbered 1-5. An additional car, BCe 4/4 6, arrived from the same maker in 1908. 1 was scrapped in 1951, and 4 and 6 were lost in the 1953 fire. 5 was renumbered 4 in 1959, and in 1966 the surviving cars 2-4 were sold to the Biel - Tauffelen - Ins line. CFe 4/4 motorcoach no. 1 was hired from the MOB from 1918-22. A new car BCe 4/4 7 was bought from SWS/BBC in 1923; it remained in stock as an engineers' machine until 1985, and is now owned by the Tramclub Basel. The next new power arrived in 1951 in the shape of BCe 4/4 8-9; sadly 9 was badly damaged in the depot fire when it was only two years old, and had to be completely rebuilt. Two old 1908-built cars were bought from the MOB to keep the service going. These were originally MOB 21-22, and kept these numbers until 1956 when they became BTB's second numbers 5 and 6 (are you following this?)

The new generation came in 1965-6 in the shape of ABe 4/4 11-16, built by Schindler/Brown Boveri. These 27-tonne, 520 HP, cars could carry 12 first-class and 32 second-class passengers, and were supplied with seven matching driving trailers Bt 21-27 and two centre coaches (B 61-2). Six older coaches (B 51-56) were also upgraded for further use. All wore the traditional livery of blue and white. In 1973 all trains became second-class only, and in 1985, after tram conversion, 12, 13, 15 and 16 passed to the AOMC at Aigle for further service. Their subsequent careers in Switzerland and Austria can be traced by a close study of back issues of the Notebook. Some of the driving trailers may be found today on the Aigle- Sepey - Diablerets (see last issue).

The tramway era began in 1984 with Be 4/6 articulated trams of the BLT 231-266 number series, built in 1980/81 by Schindler with Siemens electrical equipment. In 1987, a centre, low-floor, section was spliced in to no. 231 to make it a Be 4/8. The experiment was a success, and a number of others (232-248?) have been similarly modified; many trains at present seem to comprise one Be 4/8 and one Be 4/6 working in multiple. Livery is yellow with a broad red stripe; the cars are single-ended with doors on the right-hand side only, all termini and turnback points having reversing loops.

Bourbonnais: The Gotthard Railway D 3/3

From LOKI 5/93, by R.Stamm & S.Christen

In 1874 and 1876, the Ticino valley lines which later became part of the Gotthardbahn (GB) bought a total of six 0-6-0 steam locos of type C 3 T (from 1902: D 3/3). These Munich- and Karlsruhe-built engines, of a design nicknamed the `Bourbonnais', were intended for goods traffic. From 1881 to 1895, the Gotthardbahn purchased a further 33 locomotives of the same basic type. The first 16 were also built in Germany by Maschinenfabrik Esslingen, but from 1890 the Swiss Locomotive Works at Winterthur became available, and the last 17 were home products. The purchase price of one loco at the time was between 53,000 and 66,400 Francs.

Withdrawal of the type began in 1906. 19 were still in service in 1920, but by 1925 all were gone, although some saw further service in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The six original locos (GB 41 - 46) differed in many ways from the later delivery, and only four survived to carry SBB numbers (GB numbers plus 3400) after nationalisation of the GB in 1909. The last two disappeared in 1912. The later locos were GB 51-83, and became SBB 3451-3483 in 1909.


Despite the ancient origin of the design, the locos were very pleasing to the eye. The three axles were placed nearly symmetrically, with an equal overhang at each end of the locomotive. The low tender and open-backed cab added to the harmonious appearance, although giving little protection to the crew; the last batch had the cab roof extended rearwards which slightly improved matters. The slim boiler was adorned only by the chimney, steam dome and a sand dome. The positions of these domes varied between batches, as did the total wheelbase (between 3670 and 3770 mm), although all the GB-ordered locos had a driving wheel diameter of 1330 mm.

The two-cylinder engine, with outside Walschaerts valve gear, had a tractive effort of around 6500 kg and generated about 600 HP. In 1906, no. 83 was fitted with new cylinders controlled by Lentz valve gear, and a Pielock steam drier. Locos 51-66 had a boiler pressure of 10 atmospheres [c.150 PSI] increased to 12 atm. on the later machines. The outside-framed four-wheel tender could carry 4.5 tonnes of coal, and 8.5 cubic metres of water in a horseshoe-shaped tank. The loco and tender weighed around 70 tonnes in full order, and had a maximum speed of 55 km/h.


The locos spent most of their lives on the Gotthard line and in the Ticino, even after the line was nationalised in 1909; it was 1919 before some of the later batch were transferred elsewhere on the SBB system. As mentioned above, the first was withdrawn in 1906, and from then until 1925 they gradually went to the scrap merchants. Eight locos gained another lease of life, however. In June 1916 five were sold to the Hungarian State Railway (MAV). In the turmoil of World War I, at least one of these found itself in Romania, and in 1920 a further three were sold by the SBB direct to the Romanian State Railway (CFR). Later, another of the MAV machines seems to have somehow surfaced in Czechoslovakia. Sadly, none of the class have survived, the only remaining relic of the D 3/3 class being one tender, which later worked with 1896-built rotary snowplough Xrot m 100 and is now in the Lucerne Transport Museum. No information is available on which loco it originally worked with, or when it was transferred to snowplough duty.

An H0 Model

In an article in Die Modelleisenbahn 5-87, Siegfried Studer and Alfred Niederhäser showed how to produce a model of the D 3/3, based on the Rivarossi model of the French `Bourbonnais' 0-6-0, catalogue no. 40. This model has not been in production for some years, although it has been issued from time to time as a limited collectors' edition. It can be made into a passable representation of a GB loco by a repaint, modification to the sand dome and the front of the cab, and addition of some Swiss-style detail parts (lamps and whistle by HRF, air pump by Old Pullman.) Fuller details of the work required are given in the LOKI article.

Lugano - Cadro - Dino

Memories of a closed line, by Gerd Wolff, Pt.1, from LOKI 5-93.

In Eisenbahn Zeitschrift 1-91, seven railways radiating from Lugano were described. Three were narrow gauge lines, running to Tesserete, Ponte Tresa and Dino. Only one of these, the Lugano - Ponte Tresa, survives in modernised form today; the Tesserete line closed in 1967 and three years later the Lugano - Cadro - Dino (LCD) followed its example.

Today, walking from the lakeside along the Corso Elvezia towards the town centre of Lugano, one can still see many of the `rosettes' on the house walls which once secured the span wires for the LCD's overhead. At La Santa, the depot building survies almost unaltered as a bus garage. It is a well-proportioned structure with a pedimented classical facade pierced by three round-topped arches and still proudly carrying the inscription `Ferrovia Lugano - Cadro - Dino'. At some time, an extension with two extra tracks was added at the side to accommodate a larger fleet.

Holiday 1964

In 1964, we took a holiday in the Ticino. Long walks and visits to churches were on the itinerary, but a major objective was to ride the Canton's picturesque railways, which appealed to my wife as much as it they did to me. At this time, in addition to the 13 trains each way daily along its whole length, the LCD also provided a tram service on the town section to La Santa, which was worked by a little un-numbered tram (ex-Lugano tram no.4) and a large orange bogie vehicle, no. 10. The Lugano terminus was by the steamer pier known as Debarcadero Giardino. A run-round loop was provided, but not normally used as the local trams worked singly and the `long-distance' trains were formed of two motorcoaches with trailers between. Motorcoaches 1-4 and 9 were fitted with multiple-working equipment, and their trailers had suitable through wiring. Normally, the rear car was worked under power only on the uphill run; the modern car no. 9 worked on only two of its four motors when running downhill.

The Route

The line from Lugano followed the lakeside for a short distance, before turning into the Corso Elvezia; above the Piazza Independenza there was once a level crssing with the town tramway line to Cassarate. Near Molino Nuovo the line made a sharp right-hand turn into the Via Madonetta, crossed the Cassarate river on the road bridge to join the Via la Santa to run past the depot, and along a short length of the Via Pazalino. At Ospedale was a crossing loop, where the local tram working could be overtaken by the main line service. At the depot, the trailers and rear motorcoach were often detached, leaving one motorcoach to contine to Dino. However, the busiest train of the day, the 07.13 from Dino, was usually formed of three motorcoaches (front, middle and back) separated by two or three trailers, bringing as many as 400 people to school and work in Lugano.

The town section ended 100 metres beyond the depot, at the beginning of the steeply-graded curves. Beyond La Santa the line left the road to become a 'proper' railway with its own formation. To climb to Dino (482 metres above sea level) the line gained height by means of two wide loops between La Santa and Pregassona, followed by a long tunnel. Only Viganello had a crossing loop, the only other place where trains could pass being the terminus at Dino, which also had a two-track carriage shed. The small station building was already out of use in 1964. The waiting shelters at the intermediate halts were a standard design resembling a small chalet with open front with decorative wooden beams.

The upper part of the line had some significant engineering works, notable bridges over the streams which flow into the Cassarate river. Between Dino and Cadro there were two small stone viaducts, and two larger ones between Cadro and Davesco. Near Davesco there was a large steel bridge, and above Soragno a short tunnel. Between Viarnetto and Pregassona the line bridged the Cassone torrent. The half-hour ride from Lugano to Dino was filled with scenic views of the valley and back down to Lugano and the Lake. The Tesserete line ran up the other side of the valley, and also provided some splendid views. The trip to Dino [by bus today] also has attractions for the cultural historian: the parish church of S. Agata in Cadro with its 13th Century frescoes, the little Cristo Morente church in Dino with paintings by Bernadino Luini. The mountain village of Sonvico, lying above Dino at 606 m.a.s.l. offers Etruscan and Roman archaeological excavations, a church with 13th and 15th-century frescoes, and a superb panorama over Lake Lugano.

A Glimpse of the Past - by Charlie Hulme

Browsing around the Relic Shop at Keighley station I discovered a fascinating document entitled Through Services from London to Switzerland, dated May 15th 1930, and published by the Official Agency of the Swiss Federal Railways. In 1930, of course, the sea/rail route really was the only way to travel to Switzerland, and it is interesting to see how three of the four privately-owned British railway companies of the time competed for the traffic.

The Southern Railway offered the route we know today via Dover and Folkestone and Calais, Boulogne or Ostend. The LNER served the Continent from Harwich, and passengers for Basel could choose from Ships to Hook of Holland, Flushing (Vlissingen) in Holland or Antwerp in Belgium. The Hook of Holland service connected with the famous Rheingold express, whereas Antwerp passengers could use the Edelweiss.

What surprised me, however, was that the LMS Railway also got itself into the act by means of a boat train from London St. Pancras (dep. 22.30) to Tilbury, which had a ferry service to Dunkerque in France. This ship left Tilbury at 23.30 each night, arriving at Dunkerque at 06.00 next day. A daily service ran via Strasbourg to Basel, arriving at 16.52, and there was an additional summer-only through train via Delle to Interlaken, arriving at 21.07.

Meanwhile, back in 1993, there is only one through service left, from Ostend. We like to take the North Sea Ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge and ride the coastal tram to Ostend, but be careful: even if you can find someone who will sell you a ticket from Ostend rather than Dover, the fares structure often means that it is cheaper to buy a ticket from Dover and throw away the coupons for the ship. Alternatively, Euro-Domino passes can now be bought in Britain, even in Manchester. More about these in a later issue.

Via magazine Snippets

Chur Glass Palace

One of the most spectacular glass roofs in Switzerland is being built over the rail tracks and post-bus station at Chur. Designed to shelter passengers while giving them a view of the mountains, the stell and glass construction is 300 metres long, with a span of 52 metres.

Appenzeller Bike Van

The Appelzeller Bahnen has created a bicycle van to cater for tourists who would like to cycle down from the Appenzell hills into the Rhine valley at Altstätten, and return by rail. The van is an old four-wheeler, no. 214, with its sides decorated by local artist Ernst Krüsi with a landscape of green fields, blue lakes and blue sky.

The Pallet Story

Not many people know that the European standard pallet, that little wooden device which so efficiently oils the wheels of commerce, was created by the SBB. The 'Type 1 normal pallet', first adopted by the SBB in 1952, has long been an accepted standard; three million are in circulation Switzerland alone. The manufacture of new pallets (which must meet a 39-page specification) keeps about 20 Swiss firms in business, and the SBB works at Olten includes a department which specialises in pallet repairs. As many as 300,000 'kaput' pallets are put back in service each year, and the scrap timber left over is used as fuel for the works heating system.

A Wave of Pins

The little brooches featuring pictures of locos etc, known as Pins  are now featured in the SBB's range of publicity sales items. In that case, asked the SBB conductors, are we allowed to wear them? A top level meeting was held, and the ruling mas made: yes, but only one at a time.

Rail Card

For 185 Francs per year, one can now buy a card which, as well as giving half-fare rail travel on Swiss railways at all times, functions as a credit card.

Railorama: The Film

The SBB's new 60-minute video has three sections: holidays, travel and freight traffic. As a special bonus for rail fans, there are many scenes of interesting trains in the best landscape. It costs 54 Francs, and will presumably, like the pins, be available in Britain through MITV, who tell us they are to be the SBB's 'marketing partner'. An interesting thing about the video is that it reflects an increasing linguistic trend: separate versions are available with the soundtracks in Swiss German for Swiss viewers and 'High German' for Germans, as well as Italian, French and English.

First published 1993 - this edition April 2009