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 Notebook February 1994

A Unique Oldster: CFt4 961

Prototype & Model, from LOKI 1-94, by René Stamm & Christian Zellweger.

For a change, this time we will describe a unique vehicle, the SBB driving trailer ordered in 1946 and delivered in 1948 as CFt4 961. The famous Re 4/4 (now Re 4/4 I) locomotives were designed and ordered in the early 1940s, during World War II. The design included remote control connections to enable a double-headed train to be worked by one driver. It was also intended that trains could be worked with a locomotive each end, using light-steel coaches fitted with the necessary control wiring. This would eliminate the need to run-round at termini, but many trains would not require the power of two locomotives, so the engineers' thoughts turned to the idea push-pull working with a driving trailer in place of one loco.

In 1946, when the first Re 4/4 entered service, railways had no experience of pushing trains at the speeds planned for the new motive power, up to 125 km/h and faster speeds round curves as defined by the new 'R' classification letter which these locos were the first to carry. (Push-pull working of long suburban trains was practised in France, but with steam locomotives running at maximum speed of 90 km/h.) The SBB decided, therefore, to use a prototype driving trailer for tests, and the order was placed with SIG of Neuhausen in 1946.


The resulting vehicle is very much a member of the light-steel family, resembling half a baggage van fitted with an Re 4/4 loco cab and spliced on to half a second-class coach. It follows the standard light-steel construction technique of welded steel sheet on a steel skeleton. Entrance to the passenger section is by twin three-part folding doors at the centre of either side, to a vestibule from which a sliding door gives access to the 16-seat compartment. The seats were originally third-class, formed from wooden slats on a tubular steel frame and with integral overhead luggage racks. Sometime in the 1960s, the seats were upholstered. At the coach end is a vestibule containing a toilet compartment and a 'Notsitz' or occasional seat. The baggage section , with a floor area of 16 square metres, has the usual large sliding doors each side, and is fitted with a secure postal compartment and bicycle hangers.


When new in 1948, the coach was painted in standard green, as it remains today. It was numbered CFt4 961, and carried the old Swiss cross loco on each side, along with all three sets of initials SBB, CFF and FFS. On abolition of third-class in 1956 it became BFt4 1990, and from ca. 1959 BDt 1990. Presumably also in the 1950s, the left-hand side cab door was welded shut and the lettering changed to SBB CFF one side, SBB FFS on the other. The introduction of the international number system saw it rechristened BDt 50 85 82-33 900-0, as it remains today. A couple of years ago it gained the the new SBB logo, nicknamed the 'Pleitegeier' or 'bankrupt.' Another recent change has been the removal of the gangway drop plate and the driving end, thus spoiling the classic Re 4/4 I look.

Life and Times

The unique vehicle has seen service on various parts of the SBB system during its lifetime. It spend the 1970s and early 80s around the Bern - Biel Delémont axis, but today it enjoys the good life in the sun trap of the Ticino, where it works the Locarno and Luino branches from Bellinzona, rarely troubled by severe winter weather. [Other trains on these lines use a slightly later model of driving trailer, generally similar but without the passenger compartment.] However, an influx of new NPZ units is likely lead to the withdrawal of 'our' coach at the end of 1993.

Before old 961 is allowed to go for scrap, someone should consider the possibility of preserving it as part of a typical train of the 1950s, with a rake of light-steel coaches and one of the original Re 4/4s of the 10001 - 10026 series. The baggage area would be an ideal base for a minibar, when on special train duty, and the push-pull facility permits great flexibility. We hope that the SBB and museum authorities will take note.

The Model

Only one ready-to run model of this prototype coach has ever been offered: a limited run in H0 from Metrop. An illustration of the prototype appeared in their 1987 catalogue, and two years later the model itself was illustrated, with catalogue number 780. Matched with an Re 4/4 I, available from various makers, and the Liliput light-steel coaches, it makes a realistic and typical train of the light-steel period. The price of the Korean-built brass model was 395 Sfr.

It is generally a good-looking model, representing the coach in early Era IV condition with welded-up left-hand drivers door, old logo and computer number. There are unfortunately a couple of typographical errors in the type code and number on the car side.

Busy Days on The Rhaetian Railway

From Eisenbahn Amateur 11/93, by Bernhard Eng

The heaviest traffic on most of the RhB's lines is carried during the winter sports season from late January to early March, especially weekends. Saturdays are the busiest of all, except possibly the Sunday of the Engadine ski marathon. Only the Bernina line is busier on fine summer days, although the summer Glacier Express adds to the receipts of the Disentis line.

Last winter, not only was it a good season for winter sports, but the best skiing conditions occurred during the school holidays in Basel, Zürich and some German cities. The result was that the RhB was almost overwhelmed by tourist traffic. Scheduled trains had to be loaded to the maximum permitted length; especially impressive were the expresses on the Albula main line, where trains of 15 bogie coaches can be run. These were supplemented by additional trains, also long, and also baggage specials, which often bring out unusual motive power. On top of all this and the heavy freight traffic, there must be added the car-carrier service between Thusis and Samedan for motorists who do not fancy the winter conditions on the Julier Pass.

Costly Preparations

Even with its extensive collection of rolling stock, the RhB is stretched to the limit at these busy times, and careful planning is essential. Months beforehand, traffic levels must be analysed and reservations for groups and societies organised. Staff, locomotive and coach rosters and worked out and printed in a 30-page circular issued at the beginning of January to cover all extra workings from mid-January until the end of the season. Of course, the RhB's services must be matched in capacity with the SBB services arriving at Chur.

In previous years it has been quite usual for the journey from Chur to Samedan on a peak Saturday to take as much as 40 minutes longer than shown in the timetable. Drastic improvement have been made recently, however, based on the following maxims:

A few minutes added to scheduled running times reduces the strain on the timetable;

  • Trains heading for Chur have priority, because of the SBB connection;
  • relief trains from Chur to St Moritz to run behind the scheduled train, instead of before as previously. Groups and parties are booked on the relief train;
  • Fewer delays due to waiting for connections;
  • If trains from Chur are running late, connections for the Unterengadin line to be transferred to Bever;
  • More centralised control of passing loops allows optimal train operation.

On the Davos line, shuttles for skiers between Küblis and Davos have to be fitted between the extra through trains, and we should not forget the tobogganers' specials on February Saturdays between Bergün and Preda.

Stock Allocation

The scheduled and extra expresses on the St Moritz and Davos lines, plus the car-carrier trains, require the whole front-line fleet of Ge 4/4 II and Ge 6/6 II locos. The Ge 4/4 I class work the Scuol line, leaving the older machines, some dating back to the early years of electrification, to handle the rest of the traffic.

From the passenger coach fleet, virtually every workable vehicle has to be pressed into service. Even with the modernised steel heavyweight coaches, and the rebuilt 'Spitzenverkehrswagen' - peak service cars - there is still a stock shortage. The ex-MOB pullmans and other salon cars are used for first class accommodation, augmented by first-class coaches A 4063 - 4066, hired from the Furka Oberalp.

On the Bernina line, increasing numbers of day trippers from northern Italy is putting pressure on the available coaching stock. Relief trains to Disentis are worked by two of the power cars normally used on the Chur local services.

Baggage Trains

Specials are run for the holidaymakers' luggage, formed of a mixture of freight vans and baggage vans. These run every Saturday from late January to early March. A train starts from Scuol, dep. c. 10.30, to Samedan, arriving c. 1300. Its wagons are then added to a baggage extra which departs around 13.30 for Landquart. The return working leaves Samedan around midday, arriving in Scuol c. 15.00.

The Ge 6/6 Crocodiles usually work the Samedan - Landquart section, occasionally replaced by Ge 4/6 353 or an ABe 4/4 railcar. The Scuol trains usually produce one of the old Ge 2/4s, 221 or 222.

The Arosa Line

The shorter distance to Arosa brings it within reach of Sunday day trippers, so Sunday can also be a busy day on this line. A normal peak service can be worked with four train sets, each powered by two motorcoaches. This uses up the whole motive power available for the unique 2400 V DC system, although the ABe 4/4 30 - 34 series motorcoaches from the Bernina line can be pressed in to service if necessary, as they are fitted with switchgear to allow them to handle the higher voltage. On Saturday and Sunday mornings three or four of these old cars will be used on relief trains, following 15 minutes behind the service trains and return empty coupled to the service train, leading to the impressive sight of 11-car trains with three motorcoaches making their way through the streets of Chur.

Plans for 1994

It is hoped that the new section of double track on the SBB between Rossriet (near Maienfeld) and Landquart will improve the punctuality of trains arriving at Chur, as late-running incoming trains can ruin the service over the whole RhB system.

The late delivery of the new Ge 4/4 III Vereina-Locos leaves the motive power position the same as last year. One can therefore still expect to see the old locos in service on the baggage specials. New coaches are in service, however, in the shape of the new type IV standard cars, so perhaps some of the very oldest specimens will be retired.

A visit to the RhB on a February Saturday is recommended for all students of train operation, and the beautiful scenery is well worth seeing even if you do not indulge in winter sports activities.

The Flying Broom

from LOKI 1-94, by Christian Zellweger

LOKI reader Peter Backes of Saarbrucken sends us pictures of a device he found on one of his visits to the Gotthard north ramp. Alongside the upper Wattinger loop near Wassen stood a wooden post with four brushwood brooms fixed horizontally, one above the other. The brooms were places so as to very nearly touch the sides of passing trains.

This is not a new method of carriage cleaning: work is being carried on to increase the loading gauge in certain tunnels to permit increased use of Huckepack lorry-carrying trains. While this work is carried out, clearance in the tunnel is restricted, so passengers must be discouraged from sticking their heads out of the window while their train is passing through. Some might miss a train public address announcement, so just before entering the tunnel the brooms are placed to give a serious warning to any leaners-out just before the tunnel mouth. Such a device would be a talking point on any model railway layout, but be careful, as the slightest contact with the train will cause a derailment.

[I seem to have seen a picture of a similar device during the rebuilding of the Ricken Tunnel some years ago. Shades of the old Tri-ang giraffe car set - CH.]

Mont Blanc Express

From LOKI 1-94: Bernhard Studer reports on developments on the metre gauge international route from Martigny to St. Gervais in France.

The Montblanc Express badly needs new rolling stock, especially on French side of the border. The 38 km of French Railways (SNCF) line is worked by eight Z 600 motorcoaches and a selection of matching trailers was built in the 1950s, and today are in bad condition. For technical reasons, they cannot operate on the Swiss section.

The 18 km Swiss section is operated by the Martigny - Chatelard railway (MC), which has five modernised trains from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a modern unit built in 1980. This latter, as well as the driving trailers from the modernised sets, can theoretically work through on to the French section. Unfortunately, at present no use os made of this facility. In addition to this contemporary rolling stock, the MC has four original units built between 1908 and 1921, used mostly for nostalgic specials.

For many years there have been plans to improve the French line and buy new stock, but somehow the SNCF management in Paris always seems to have other priorities for its investment.

Panorama Cars?

The increase the attractiveness of the route to tourists, the journey time must be shortened and trains run through. Without these improvements, both ends of the line are sinking into financial trouble. The local authorities on both sides of the border have taken an interest in matters, seeing that the line is vital to their tourist income. An advert was placed internationally for offers to build new stock, and Vevey Engineering (taken over by an international group in 1993 and now named Vevey Technologies SA) offered to construct six two-car panoramic trains, for a total of 64 Million SFr.

The MC and SNCF were supposed to buy two units each, and the other two, to be operated by the SNCF, would be purchased by the French regional governments of Rhone-Alpes and Upper Savoy. Surprisingly, the SNCF has now become the first of the partners to issue a definite letter of intent to order. Early consent is expected from the French regions, despite a financial shortage. In Switzerland, there are problems. It was intended that one train should be financed by Canton Valais and the other by the Federal Government. The Canton is ready to proceed, but the 'Bern Train' is at present hanging by a thread, having become entangled in an emotional argument about the financing of a new road through the Trient valley.

Power from Below

The Montblanc Express departs from Martigny, a historic town 467 metres above sea level at the 'Rhoneknie' (Rhone Knee) on the Brig - Geneva - Lausanne main line. For four km, the MC line follows the SBB to Vernayaz, where the MC depot and workshops are located.

During the station stop at Vernayaz a strange thing happens: the driver lowers his pantograph! For the subsequent climb at 200 per mille on the Strub rack system, the train will collect its power (800 V DC) from a third rail just like an underground train. In fact the MC is the only railway in Switzerland to use the third rail system, which has met with the disapproval of the Safety Officers of the Federal Ministry of Transport. Therefore, work is in progress to convert the whole line as far as the frontier to the overhead system. On the French side, different safety rules apply and the third rail will remain.

From the 3.5 km rack section to Salvan, which is 500 metres higher than Vernayaz, an impressive panorama of the Rhone Valley unfolds; the Trient-Bach river can be seen in its gorge far below. There is no place here for roads; the villages of Le Trétien and Finhaut are 3 km apart by rail, whereas the same journey by road would be 40 km over the Forclaz Pass! The residents of the Trient valley have long wanted a direct road, a project which would need finance from the Federal Government. Hence the hold up in the railway's new stock: Bern is not prepared to pay for both rail and road improvements in the same area at the same time. The Valais government has suggested to the Trient Valley communities that the road plan be 'put on ice' for ten years, but a decision from the Canton Parliament is still awaited.

At Chatelard-Gietroz, the train halts next to a hydro-electric power station, forming part of the Barberine dam system which supplied power to the SBB. Soon afterwards, the train reaches Chatelard-Frontiere, 18 km from Martigny and 1116 m.a.s.l., the last station on Swiss territory. Most MC trains continue to the French station at Vallorcine (km 21), whilst only a few of the French trains run to Chatelard-Frontiere. Once, through coaches to Chamonix were worked, but today all passengers must change. If and when the new Panorama Trains arrive they will work through from Martigny to Chamonix, or even to St. Gervais.

In France

The line continues to climb after the border, reaching its summit of 1365 m.a.s.l. in the 1882 metre-long Montets tunnel. Beyond the tunnel, in the Arve valley, passengers are treated a a widening view of the Mont Blanc massif. This section, which must be counted among the world's steepest adhesion-worked railways, descends at a maximum of 90 per mille [1 in 11]. At the foot of Europe's highest mountain, 37 km from Martigny, lies the international winter resort of Chamonix, also served by a rack railway to Montenvers (1909 m.a.s.l.), built with Swiss technology. The SNCF line continues a further 19 km to a standard-gauge interchange at St Gervais - Le Fayet, location also of the narrow-gauge depot and workshops.

[See the December 1992 Notebook for more on this line.]

On The Way 4: The Rhine Valley

By Charlie Hulme

If you travel to Switzerland via Rotterdam or Hook of Holland, you can follow the river Rhine closely almost all the way to its twin sources in Rhaetian Railway territory. (Bernard Levin's book To the End of the Rhine is well worth reading, even though he does not go all the way by rail.) The most famous part of the journey, however, is the section in Germany to the south of Koblenz where the river cuts its way through a range of hills, and busy railways stick close to both banks past the legendary Loreley Rock.

The river flows through a series of pleasant resorts, each with its ruined hilltop castle and station on one side or other of the river. Generally speaking, the fast passenger trains stick to the western bank, whilst the eastern line carries heavy freight and a local passenger service. The sheer frequency of traffic is astounding; a ride on one of the river boats will show you dozens of trains and, if restraint is not shown, use miles of film of videotape! The local trains are also something of an experience, being usually short trains of 'silverfish' coaches powered by very powerful electric locos whose crews must be under orders to accelerate as fast as possible to avoid delaying other traffic. Let us take a closer look at one town on each bank and consider its attractions.


Boppard is a very pleasant town, ideal for the restful type of holiday. Its railway station is enlivened by the presence of a branch line, which climbs out of the river gorge into the hills known as the Hunsruck, on gradients as steep as 1 in 16. This is the last passenger line to require the services of the Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB) class 213 diesels, which are the standard class 212 centre-cab diesel-hydraulic modified with special braking systems. The line today terminates at the little hill resort of Emmelshausen; once it continued to a junction with another route at simmern and was worked by rack-and-pinion over its initial steep section from Boppard to Buchholz.


From Boppard, the boat fights its way against the swift-flowing current past the villages of St Goar (west bank) and St Goarshausen (east bank) to the Loreley rock, where the crew will play a record of a traditional tune to remind you that this is where the legendary Rhine Maidens would lure sailors to their doom. The east bank route tunnels through the legendary rock in a suitably-castellated tunnel, in fact two parallel bores. The second was built to allow electrification in 1960. Further south, at Aßmanshausen, the river turns through almost a right angle, with giant lighted signals to assist river traffic around the blind bend. Just around the bend on the east bank is the famous resort of Rüdesheim am Rhein, which I first encountered in 1980 on one of those amazing tours organised by The British Rail (Manchester) Travel Club organiser E.P. Jones and his German wife.

Rüdesheim is a rather brash place with lots of wine cellars, souvenir shops and so on, but in its less hectic moments it reminds me of Dawlish in Devon. The busy railway runs between the town and the river, with a number of level crossings, making the trains one of the town's sights. On a hill top above is the Niederwald monument, today reached by a cable car but previously the goal of two of Germany's first rack railways. The first, from Rüdesheim, was built in 1884 and joined a year later by a line from Assmanshausen.

Alongside the station is the Asbach Uralt brandy distillery, which had a working private siding last time I was there. Nearby, a little ferry boat maintains a regular service to the more workaday wine-making town of Bingen on the other bank, where one can re-join an express for the journey on to Mainz (home of Gutenberg, the first European to use moveable printing type), Freiburg and the Swiss border at Basel.

LOKI Aktuell 2-94

Oensingen - Balsthal again

The arrival of a second ex-BLS 'Blue Arrow' railcar has made the OeBB's three-car electric unit BDe 4/12 204 redundant. Bought from the Deutsche Bundesbahn (ET 425 120 + 825 020 + 425 420), it was previously used on Stuttgart suburban service. The train is suffering from corrosion and has asbestos insulation, but even so it has been purchased by a German enthusiast, who intends to restore it to service with the help of a group of suppporters.

So, on 29 December 1993, the DB-red unit, towing the third power car originally bought by the OeBB as a source of spares, made its way back to Germany. At a maximum 60 km/h, it made its way via Olten, Zürich-Altstetten and Bülach to Schaffhausen, driven by the the OeBB Director Markus Rickenbacher as a farewell gesture to his stepchild.

New RhB Loco

The first new Ge 4/4 III was first seen on Rhaetian Railway tracks in mid-December. No. 641 was noted making clearance test runs on the Disentis line on 17 December. [The body design seems very traditional, in comparison to some early artists' impressions which have been published.-CH]

More East Germans

At the initiative of the Südostbahn (SOB) two more Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR -East German Railways) locomotives, nos. 142 130-4 and 142 150-2, appeared in Switzerland in December 1993. After a short period of testing on the Mittelthurgau Bahn, they travelled on to SOB tracks. The SOB's idea seems to be to replace its 1940-built De 4/4 motor vans, although their lack of electrical braking would be a great handicap on the SOB's 50 per mille gradients.

One hears, however, that these 1962/3-built 82 tonne, 3730 HP, Bo-Bo machines can be obtained for little more than scrap value, and the cost of a rebuild might well be worthwhile. The Vereinigten - Huttwil - Bahn also gave them a test run, but the pair are currently residing on a storage siding at Samstagern.

Chinese Loco for Lucerne

The Chinese Government has presented a QJ-class 2-10-2 steam loco to the Lucerne Transport Museum. The 180-tonne standard-gauge machine is expected to arrive at Basel docks in February.

Huckepack Tests

During December, trial runs took place on the Gotthard line with a 2000-tonne train of Huckepack lorry-carriers, loaded with lorries borrowed from the Army. The test train was 700 metres long, and included a couple of test coaches. Haulage has been by four locomotives coupled together, sometimes four Re 460s, other times two Re 460s and two Re 6/6. The engineers were especially interested in the behaviour of the small-wheeled wagons on sharp curves.

The public Transit-Corridor service began, as planned, on 3 January.

Van News

The SBB is to withdraw its 3000 vans of the Gs type. The rather larger Gbs-type is to be reduced in number from 1500 to 1000 by the year 2000. The OeBB has also purchased ten Gbs-type covered vans from the SBB, and rented them to a local firm as storage.

First published 1994 - this edition April 2009