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 August 1993

Maid of All Work: SBB BDe 4/4 Railcar

From Loki 7/8-93, by René Stamm

Although the SBB built motorcoaches in small numbers before World War II, such as the 'Red Arrow', the 'Jura Arrow', and the three RFe 4/4 prototypes, it was not until the end of the 1940s that the national system followed the example of the private lines and caught on to the advantages of this type of traction. A design was prepared for a motorcoach which would work principally on local passenger trains with around 200 seats, but with the capacity to haul extra coaches, express goods or cattle wagons when required. Push-pull operation, and remote control of other power units in a train was also specified, with a view to operation of lightweight expresses, and suburban services requiring fast acceleration.

After the usual tendering process, a first order for 13 cars was placed in 1948, followed in 1952 by a further 18. Principal constructor of the mechanical parts was Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Machinenfabrik (SLM) of Winterthur, although three cars were in fact built by Schindler Waggon AG of Pratteln (SWP). Electrical equipment was mostly by Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO), although Brown Boveri & Cie (BBC) and Sécheron of Geneva (SAAS) supplied parts of the high-voltage circuits and drive gear.

Design Features

The BDe 4/4 follows the general design features of the classic light-steel coach design which was under construction in large numbers at the time. The body was integrally-constructed in welded steel, the sides roof and floor all being steel sheet reinforced by angle sections. The car featured a cab each end, a luggage space, a toilet and a passenger area with seats for 24 non-smokers and 16 smokers. The seats had the standard steel tubular frames and imitation leather upholstery. Entry to the passenger area was by two vestibules fitted each side with twin two-piece folding doors, and the luggage area has a wide sliding door each side. The design of the front ends was dictated by the need for a standard connecting door, leading to a characteristic functional appearance.

The bogies, with their welded frames, were of the same type as fitted to the Re 4/4 I locomotives. Some of the class were originally fitted with a BBC design of drive train, but they were gradually replaced with the SAAS equipment as fitted to the rest. The layout of the electrical equipment was planned to maximise usable load space inside the car, so the oil-cooled transformer, rectifiers and compressor were mounted under the floor. Switchgear and other small equipment was located in a cabinet in the luggage area, and the motor cooling blowers were mounted above the cabs each end. The cooling resistances for the rheostatic brakes were fitted on the roof above the passenger compartment, and the single pantograph was on the roof above the luggage area. The cabs were laid out for the driver to work in the seated position, and the driver was provided with a control handle having 18 driving and 8 braking positions. Air and electrical braking was used, and also in each cab a handbrake which operated on the wheels of the adjacent bogie.

Modifications and Livery

The major changes made to the class over the years include modifications to the driving gear wheels from 1956, and from 1958 the multiple-working wiring was enhanced to operate doors and train lights. From 1963 to 1970, the roof-mounted braking resistances were enlarged and re-arranged, and the bogies of the three SWP-built cars were replaced by the standard type. Since 1988, some (1621/3/9/31 as of May 93) have had their end connecting doors welded up at the luggage end.

In 1952 there were still three classes of travel and these cars were third-class (C) and luggage (F) only, and as they were driven on all four axles the class code was CFe 4/4. Initially, the running numbers were 841 - 871. The owner's name was carried in all three linguistic abbreviations SBB CFF FSS on each side. After 1956, when third class was abolished and the class became the familiar BDe 4/4, the trilingual abbreviations were replaced by the more familiar SBB CFF on one side and SBB CFF on the other. In 1959, they were renumbered to 1621 - 1651. Since 1988, overhauled cars have carried the new SBB logo and modernised trilingual abbreviations.


As planned, the BDe 4/4 became a familiar sight on local trains, especially on branch lines, with some use in early years on lighter expresses. Well-known workings for the class include the connecting link from Vevey to Puidoux-Chexbres, 'privately' owned but operated by the SBB, where the shuttle train is a BDe 4/4 with a driving trailer, occasionally enhanced by one or two wagons. In the last few years of the Beromünster branch, an attempt was made to save costs by working the service with a single, driver-only operated, BDe 4/4; sadly this did not prevent the service being transferred to a road bus with slightly more seats. The introduction of the new NPZ railcars in recent years has largely displaced the class from city suburban workings, and further deliveries combined with more branch closures will render the BDe 4/4 redundant by 1995 except perhaps as staff transport. The steel bodies are beginning to suffer from corrosion, and by May 1993 three (1633/8/48) had already been scrapped.

BDe 4/4 for the Modeller

The unglamorous BDe 4/4 was for many years ignored by the model manufacturers, and it was 1986 before even a limited-edition brass model became available in H0, followed in 1991 by the mass-produced (but still expensive) Hag model. Lemaco promise one of their super-detailed limited editions for 1994. In 0 scale, hand-built models are available for the wealthy, but the N gauge fan is still completely unserved.

Hag H0

Hag offered a model of an SBB railcar for many years, but it was really based on a private railway design, resembling a BDe 4/4 with the cab fronts of an RBe 4/4, and is best consigned to the collector's glass case. The scale model of the BDe 4/4, which finally appeared in 1991 after a couple of years of promises, has a die-cast aluminium body giving a pleasant solid feel and good adhesion weight. The sides and ends are carefully modelled with good detail. The problem of the corner cab windows, which creates a coarse effect on the firms' Re 6/6 luckily does not apply to this model. The buffers are sprung, and correctly come in flat and domed pairs, and the lifting points on the body sides are well represented. The very tricky roof detailing has been superbly carried out, with an excellent representation of the protective mesh covering the resistances. A full set of seats, moulded in brown, is fitted, as the motor bogie is at the luggage end.

In fact, there is only one thing which spoils the model's appearance and has led to much adverse criticism: the window glazing plain plastic sheet behind the casting and therefore the windows are set much too deeply. [Soon after the model's appearance, the Hag company submitted an article to Eisenbahn Amateur justifying this by claiming that moulded flush windows would not be transparent enough.] However, the inventive Aku company are working on a set of flush windows, which should be in the model shops soon.

The pantographs are a realistic SBB design, although with a somewhat widened head for reliable collection in the model. A hidden switch allows the model to operate either from track power or from the overhead. The high-quality Hag-88 motor is fitted, driving both axles on one bogie, and all four powered wheels are fitted with traction tyres. The NEM standard coupler mounting is installed, allowing the modeller to fit his or her favourite type of coupler without trouble. DC versions currently available represent 1645 with the latest SBB logo (cat. 153) and 1640 in 1960s style (cat. 155.) Hag also sell an ABt driving trailer, but it is out of scale and cannot be recommended.

Metropolitan H0

The Metropolitan hand-made brass model, released as a limited edition in 1986, is also an accurate and well-detailed model, although the roof resistances and their cover are not really up to the standard of the Hag version. The windows look much better, though, thanks to the thin etched brass sheet from which the body is made. The model drives on one bogie and the pantograph can be switched in if required. Only one version was produced as BDe 4/4 1623, Metropolitan catalogue number 749; the new logo did not appear on the prototype until 1988. A excellent model of the matching ABt driving trailer was also produced, as cat. no. 779, but sadly both this and the BDe 4/4 are now sold out, so if you want one you will have to search the classified ads and swapmeets.

Oensingen - Balsthal

Based on Normalspurige Privatbahnen in der Schweiz by Peter Pfeiffer

The OeBB is very popular with Swiss rail fans because of its interesting stock and the supportive attitude of the management, who regularly stage special events; it is high time we took a look at its history, route and attractions.


Between the towns of Oensingen and Balsthal in Canton Solothurn lies the 'Klus', a notch cutting across the Weissenstein range of hills. For centuries this formed part of a principal route from the south via the Passwang and Wasserfallen passes into Canton Basel. In 1873, work on a railway through the Wasserfallen pass began: the boring of a tunnel between Reigoldswil in Basel and Mümliswil above Balsthal was pressed ahead, but after a year the money ran out; the project was abandoned and Balsthal's first chance of a rail link was lost.

Three years later, in 1876, the 'Gau-Bahn' main line between Olten and Solothurn was opened, but the nearest station to Balsthal was at Oensingen, 4 km away. The area's industries, notably the Klus iron works and a cellulose (now paper) factory, soon felt the lack of a direct rail link. However, it was 1899 before the Oensingen - Balsthal railway saw its first trains. The line is 4.3 km long, with a ruling gradient of 12 per mille, and the dept and works are at Balsthal. The passenger service began on 17 July 1899, with eleven trains each way - a very intensive service by the standards of the day. Initial stock was two 0-6-0 E 3/3 locomotives and a few coaches, later joined by a bogie steam railcar.

Electric Traction

The line escaped nationalisation, and was electrified on the Swiss standard 15 kV AC system during the wartime coal shortage, the first electric trains running on 3 October 1943. Three small electric locos, Ce 2/2 101-103, delivered between 1943 and 1947, worked both passenger and freight for several years. These are the same as the SBB Te III tractors 121-138, which were also built by SLM over the same period; they are rod-coupled and have a tapered 'bonnet' top. (The HAG model is sold in OeBB livery by Roundhouse of Zürich, AC or DC, 398 Francs.) 101 was sold in 1958 to the SBB, who according to Pfeiffer used it for shunting at Oensingen; there is a small mystery here, though, as in my books the shunter at Oensingen today is a smaller Te I no. 21. Can anybody help?

Also in 1958 the OeBB obtained the first of what Appleby & Russenberger call its 'motley selection of second hand stock' in the shape of a 1935-built BLS lightweight railcar Be 2/4 721, which became OeBB 201. These cars were very advanced for their time, with a total weight of only 34 tonnes; the other example, 722, is now in the Lucerne museum. In 1974 no. 201 was joined by one of the famous ex-SBB 'Red Arrow' railcars, no. 1007 of 1938 which became OeBB RBe 4/4 202 and has recently had a full overhaul. The increased weight of freight trains by the 1980s became rather a struggle for the little Ce 4/4s, so when the SBB retired the De 6/6 'baby crocodiles' from service on the Seetalbahn in 1983, the OeBB saw its chance to buy a machine which would be able to work heavy freights and also have nostalgic appeal for its enthusiast specials. It has retained its SBB livery and number, but sadly it is currently out of service awaiting transformer repairs, as described in the January 1993 Notebook.

In the SBB's regular interval Taktfahrplan, express trains in both directions are booked to cross at Oensingen, concentrating passengers on to one of the two half-hourly trains, and it was felt that a two-car train was needed. An old ABDe 2/8 set was therefore obtained from the BLS in 1982 and became no. 203, but sadly in 1985 it was damaged beyond repair in a collision. Its replacement is a really exotic item, a three-car unit of Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB: West German Railways) class 425. This train dates from 1935, and was originally DB 425.120, 825.020 and 425.420. For the enthusiasts' and nostalgic trains, the OeBB also has a collection of old coaches including some Seetal-type open platform cars and a restaurant car. Various steam locos have been used on these 'Chluser-Schnägg' specials, the current star being an ex-SBB Mallet, also described in the January issue. On July 3/4 this loco, no. 196, was planned to spend the weekend on the SBB Aarau - Zofingen line, helping the celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of the village of Safenwil.


Each year the OeBB stages a railway festival, and this year's will take place on September 4/5, under the banner 'modern local trains.' On 26 September, Red Arrow 202 is to work a special to Lake Geneva, and from 11 to 15 October there will be what are described as 'practical courses' on the crocodile loco, with supporting attractcions for all the family. Presumably this is to raise money for the loco's restoration: for further details try the Solothurn Tourist Office on 010 41 65-22 49 59.

What scenic attractions are there in the area of the OeBB? Well, ignoring the Von Roll steelworks, the line runs pleasantly alongside the Dünnern river for most of the short journey, before turning a right-angle into Balsthal in the shadow of the castle of Alt Falkenstein. ('Unfortunately overly restored.' - Michelin Guide.) Balsthal town centre has some interesting old buildings, and mill building of 1773 now houses a museum of paper-making.

From Balsthal one can catch a PTT postbus (table 412.15) which runs up into the hills to serve the village of Ramiswil. On certain journeys, however, you can ask the driver to carry on to the summit tunnel of the Passwang pass (943 m), from whence there is a walk of about three miles up to Passwang summit (1204 m) from which there are panoramas to both north and south, the northerly view stretching to the Rhine river and the Black Forest. From the summit you can return to the Passwang pass where once a day in summer a bus returns to Balsthal at 16.30, or there is another route (230.55) at 16.36 down the other side of the pass through the Lüssel valley and past the Thierstein castle to the SBB station at Laufen on the Jura main line. Another postbus (412.20) runs from Balsthal over the Ober-Hauenstein pass (731 m) to Waldenburg in Basel-Land Canton, terminus of the unique 750 mm gauge Waldenburgerbahn. The OeBB seems well worth a visit if you can tear yourself away from the Alps: there is a frequent service including a daily mixed train, and with a little planning an interesting walk or circular tour could be contrived, well within reach of Lucerne.

The New Glacier Express

by Klaus Eckert, from Eisenbahn Kurier 7/93

Low clouds and chilly rain met the representatives of the press as they assembled at Zermatt station on the morning of 12 May. The ocaasion was a demonstration run of the latest version of the famed Glacier Express, a first-class only train which from 23 May runs as train 902 08.54 Zermatt - St Moritz and train 905 10.00 St Moritz - Zermatt. Both trains have a restaurant car between St Moritz and Brig, and are principally formed of panoramic coaches, although we are assured that at least one conventional first-class car will always be provided for the benefit of photographers and others who enjoy leaning out of the window. From the outside, the train presents a total mixture of body styles and liveries, but this is less important than the internal comforts.

In 1990 the Furka-Oberalp and Brig - Visp - Zermatt railways placed a joint order for the bodies of 14 panorama coaches with the Italian firm of Preda. The bogies were provided by SIG of Neuhausen, and indeed the bodies contain many Swiss parts; the Alusuisse aluminium body extrusions, the electrical equipment and air-conditioning are by ABB, and the windows by Verres Industriels SA. The overall design concept, however, is very much Italian, from the famous firm of Pininfarina. The design parameters were as follows:

A high level of comfort for the eight-hour journey between Zermatt and St Moritz;

  • Maximum window area to give the best view of the alpine scenery;
  • New and attractive appearance;
  • Provision for parties with at-seat refreshment service;
  • Passengers to travel with their luggage.

The resulting coaches (10 for the FO and 4 for the BVZ) catch the eye immediately thanks to their angular styling and large window area, 14% greater than the traditional first-class car. They are equipped for 90 km/h running, and have full air-conditioning: a first for a metre-gauge coach, thanks to the weight saved by the light alloy structure. The 'sandwich' construction of the floor and roof, as well as weight saving, also helps with sound insulation. The FO coaches have the added feature of an environmentally-friendly closed toilet system. Each group of four 1st-class seats has a large table, and plenty of space for luggage. The purchase price of each vehicle is 1.5 million Swiss Francs.

Learner Driver: RABe in the Black Forest

from LOKI 7/8-93, by Manfred Oberg

On 19 February 1993, at around 10.00, SBB RABe 1051 crossed the German border near Thayngen, and opened a new chapter in the history of the train sets originally built for Trans Europe Express service. From 23 May, they would enter public service as 'Eurocity-Sprinters' between Zürich and Stuttgart, and testing and staff training were necessary. This day's run extended only as far as Singen am Hohentwiel, the pupose being to test the newly-fitted German-type Indusi I60R cab-signalling equipment, with its receiving magnet fitted on the right-hand side of the train in the direction of travel. No serious problems were found, and the train returned to Zürich.

Driving School

On 24 February instruction of the Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB) training staff commenced. The next day, the first run was made to Offenburg and back as Dienstzug (Service Train) 81750/81751, with a maxiumum permitted speed (Hg = Höchstgeschwindigkeit) of 140 km/h. The Black Forest line (Schwarzwaldbahn) is a cousin of the Gotthard line, both having been engineered by Robert Gerwig, although the ruling gradient on the Black Forest route is 'only' 22 per mille. The RABe gave no trouble on these gradients, and the run was repeated on the next day.

The driver training programme began in earnest on March 1st, the pupils being 16 DB drivers from Bw Singen (Bw = Betriebswerke, what the SBB would call a Depot.) These drivers are already familiar with SBB motive power in the form of the Re 4/4 II, which have worked all expresses between Singen and Schaffhausen since September 1989; apparently they have nicknamed them 'Viertele-Loks' - quarters-locos. The Singen quarters-drivers wasted no time on the instruction course, no doubt inspired by the Sprinter ideal ...

Well-loved Veterans

Everyone concerned was impressed by the quality of these 30-year-old trains. It seems that the radio link to the travelling technician was used principally to request cups of coffee! Thanks, Mr Technician of Zürich depot: we'll try and treat your RABe's as well as you treated us!

On 23 March, we made our first trip to Stuttgart to check the planned timings for the service. We made the Schwabian metropolis at the appointed time, and found we were quite an event: a driver from Baden bringing a Swiss train into Stuttgart! We received a warm welcome, and some technical gossip ensued. The train returned via Singen to Zürich, and during May the test run was made twice more to gain experience. Since 23 May, two public return trips per day have been made without problem. Although relatively old, in my opinion these trains are superb and ideal for this high-class duty. The only comparable train I have known in my 25 years of driving has been the German TEE diesel sets of class VT 601, another legendary product of the TEE era.

RABe Timetable

EC 158 Uetliberg: Zürich HB dep. 06.30, Stuttgart Hbf arr. 09.13.

EC 159 Uetliberg: Stuttgart Hbf dep. 16.52, Zürich HB arr. 19.50.

EC 154 Killesberg: Zürich HB dep. 18.11, Stuttgart Hbf arr. 21.00.

EC 155 Killesberg: Stuttgart Hbf dep. 06.56, Zürich HB arr 09.50.

Centenarian:The Schynige-Platte-Bahn

from LOKI 7-8/93, by Dr. Hans Peter Häberli.

The modern train of the Berner Oberland Bahnen (BOB) pulls out of Wilderswil towards Zweilütschinen. The alighting families hurry noisily to the waiting train of the Schynige Platte railway, hoping to secure the window seats, and the vintage electric locomotive pushes its two coaches out of the station.

Brand New Antiques

As the train starts to climb, one becomes conscious that perhaps not all the passengers appreciate the 10 km/h rate of progress. The nervous rhythms of the twentieth century leak from walkman headphones, while the pensioners talk of how things were different in the old days. But nothing has changed on the railway, according to Peter Wenger, head of the BOB publicity department. 'Four of these locos were built for the line in 1914, and the other six were transferred from the Wengernalp line,' he tells us, 'the coaches are a mixture of original and second-hand, and we now have the first of a new type built in the old style.' Purists may look down their noses at this idea, but it is really no different popular styles in architecture, painting and furniture design. Elsewhere in the railway world, the Brienzer Rothorn line now has a newly-built steam locomotive.

Nostalgia: Trump Card?

The railway hopes that the old and new coaches will be indistinguishable to the lay person, who will see only a general atmosphere of nostalgia. And indeed, as the train clambers up the 250 per mille rack section and through the Rottenegg tunnel, with little He 2/2 13 of 1914 struggling for its maximum speed of 12 km/h, people do notice: especially the dubious comfort of the wooden seats. The effect is enhanced by the unmodernised overhead wiring masts, and of course the timeless grandeur of the alpine scenery. The atmosphere of the SPB is more complete in this respect than any of the museum operations in the lowlands, with their welded rail, concrete sleepers, colour-light signals and massive high-speed catenary masts.

Nevertheless, this pretend time travel can only be one aspect of the journey. Peter Wenger is always looking for new ways to attract people to make the journey to the Schynige Platte and fire the enthusiasm of a new generation. Market research continues: how to people feel about their journey? are they interested in nature, the peace of the mountains? in the railway itself? To quote from the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus: 'Illusion creates happiness..'

Moving Mountains

As the climb proceeds, Mr Wenger shows us a reproduction of an old poster from the railway's archives. The view, framed in a tunnel mouth, shows the SPB train dwarfed by the famous trio of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau on the skyline. The original photo-montages on which this view was based are preserved, and show the same piece of railway with a different mountain in the background of each view! Another proof that you should never believe what you see in a picture: the creator has used an artist's shorthand to associate the railway in people's minds with a well-known image of the area.

As our train emerges from the Grätli tunnel, revealing a spectacular view which prompts a chorus of 'Oh's and 'Ah's from the passengers, Mr Wenger explains how the originals of these posters have become collectors' items. An example of this 1930 work by Alex W. Digelmann would fetch around 700 Francs today. The company has re-issued the poster as part of its centenary celebration; the new edition is a slightly smaller size, to ensure that no fraudster can pass it off as an original in the future.

After 50 minutes, our journey ends and the passengers take to their feet for the walk to the Schynige Platte, as the evening sunshine turns to rain ...

Centenary Offers

Until 24 October, there is a special SPB-plus ticket available from any SBB station, at a price depending on distance. The offer includes the return trip to Schynige Platte, a visit to the alpine garden, a meal at the summit hotel, and a souvenir 'pin'. From Interlaken, one can buy a double ticket for an SPB trip plus a return to Kleine Scheidegg on the WAB for 90 Francs, with entitlement to a 25% reduction on the continuation to Jungfraujoch.

One weekend per month, with the last runs on 11/12 September, a steam train will run to Schynige Platte twice a day. Normal tickets are valid, with a supplement of 10 Francs per single journey.

News Items

Diesel Loco Notes

Always short of powerful diesel locos, the SBB has obtained a bogie diesel from a colliery company in northern France. It is a single cab machine, similar to the SNCF BB 63500 class, and has very strangely been given the SBB number Em 4/4 1110. This number is in the electric railcar series; diesel locos are normally 18xxx. It is normally kept at Morges.

The Südostbahn (SOB) and the Sihltal - Zürich - Uetliberg (SZU) are two railways with a shared problem: very steep gradients and a need for a powerful diesel loco for engineering duties. A search for a suitable second-hand engine for joint use has been under way for some time, and in 1990 was rewarded by a discovery of a machine for sale by the Mainische Feldbahnen near Münster in Westphalia (Germany). This was built in 1964 by Krupp and AEG as a prototype for possible export orders, and known as DE 1500. It was brought to Samstagern SOB works in a freight train in September 1990, and has finally emerged fully overhauled and allocated the number Am 846 461-2 in the new national unified system. It has been fitted with a new four-stroke 12-cylinder Caterpillar engine of 1350 HP, as well as magnetic rail brakes for safety on the gradients (up to 70 per mille on the SZU which normal trains climb by rack.)

Funicoli, Funicolar

The Stanserhornbahn, which runs from Stanstaad on Lake Lucerne to near the summit of the Stanserhorn mountain, celebrates its centenary this year. The upper sections were replaced by a cable car in the 1970s, but the lower section retains its original lower station and wooden cars, and the company is very enthusiastic about its heritage.

Panoramas Deported

Unsolved disputes with the DB about fares (SBB wanted a supplement on top of first class plus Eurocity supplement) have finally led to the SBB 'taking its bat and wickets in.' The allocation of the is now as follows: EC 51/56 Ticino Zürich - Milan, 3 cars; EC 163/162 Transalpin Basel - Vienna, 2 cars; EC 169/168 Robert Stolz Zürich - Graz, 3 cars.

First published 1993 - this edition April 2009