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 November 1995

The Brünig Railway

Based on Schweers & Wall: Schmalspurparadies Schweiz.

Lucerne is an important junction on the North - South Gotthard main line, and its railway attractions also include two metre-gauge railways, the Luzern - Stans - Engelberg railway and the Brünig line, the only narrow-gauge section of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB).The Brünig, worked on a mixed rack and adhesion basis, connects Lucerne with the Bernese Oberland and forms part of the so-called Golden Pass Route. At Alpnachstad passengers can transfer to the Pilatus mountain railway, and in Interlaken there is a track connection with the lines of the Berner Oberland Bahnen, which in turn make further connections with the famous railways of the Bernese Oberland region. The reversing station of Meiringen also has its little metre-gauge private line to Innertkirchen, and at Brienz there is the famous steam-operated line to the summit of the Rothorn. All these lines together make up a narrow-gauge network of 188 route miles.

Brünig History

The Brünig Pass, which lies 400 metres above the valleys on each side, connects Lucerne, its lake, and the adjoining Canton of Unterwalden (comprised of half-cantons Obwalden and Nidwalden), with the Hasli valley in Canton Bern.  Since Roman times, the principal mountain crossing in this area was via the Grimsel and Gries passes; the Brünig route was little more than a footpath until a road was completed in 1861.  The first railway proposal for the pass was made in 1850, for a North-South main line via the Brünig and Grimsel passes, but this was passed over in favour of the Gotthard route. Canton Bern continued to press for a rail connection between the steamer services on lakes Brienz and Lucerne, and a concession was issued in 1874 for a standard gauge line linking Brienz and Alpnachstad,  but this failed to obtain funding. In 1880, an alternative plan was offered for a metre-gauge line, with rack sections either side of the pass; in this way the engineering needed was greatly reduced and the cost became affordable.

The Jura - Bern - Luzern Bahn (JBL) undertook to build and operate the line, and construction began in 1886. On 14 June 1888, the Brienz - Alpnachstad line opened, being the first example in Switzerland of a mixed rack/adhesion railway for public traffic, although without any connection to the rest of the network. Lake steamers had to be used at each end of the journey between Lucerne and Interlaken. After some uncertainty over its exact route, the Alpnachstad - Lucerne section opened on 1 June 1889, almost simultaneously with the Pilatus railway. The Brünig line was seen by its operators as principally a tourist line, and the mountain section between Giswil and Meiringen was operated in summer only, until after the Jura-Simplon railway (successor of the JBL) was absorbed into the SBB in 1903.

The building of the final section between Brienz and Interlaken was postponed for years by a dispute about the gauge to which it should be built. The SBB wanted to continue with metre gauge, whilst the Cantons and Communities campaigned for a standard-gauge line. Eventually, in 1913, a compromise was reached by which the line would be metre-gauge, but the formation would be built with sufficient clearance for later conversion to standard. The outbreak of World War I causes further delays, but Brienz - Interlaken finally opened on 23 August 1916. The larger loading gauge proved  useful in later years, allowing standard-gauge wagons to be worked on transporters from Interlaken as far as Meiringen, especially during the construction of the Oberhasli hydro-electric scheme. The next logical development was electrification of the line, but this again was delayed by disputes over conversion to standard gauge, and electric working did not begin until 1941. During the electrification work, the clearances were increased on the northern valley section, permitting the use of transporter wagons between Lucerne and Giswil.

The modernised Brünig, with its sprightly De 4/6 motor vans, could claim to the national metre-gauge speed record, with 75 km/h being permitted between Meiringen and Brienz. Overall journey times were further reduced by the elimination of coal and water stops, and there was no longer any need  for a locomotive change between the adhesion and rack sections. New coaching stock was ordered to match the new electric power units; a series of bogie centre-entrance coaches appeared from 1945, with a second batch to a similar design introduced in 1954. Colour light signals replaced the old semaphores, and by 1948 block working was in operation over the whole route.

After World War II, tourism boomed to such an extent that double- and even triple-heading of trains became necessary, and it was decided to obtain two new locomotives of a more powerful design, HGe 4/4 1991 and 1992, which arrived in 1954. They can haul 120 tonne trains unaided on the rack sections, or 170 tonnes when double-heading with a Deh 4/6 motor van. Between 1966 and 1970, 73 new lightweight coaches were bought, to a standard design also found on the Berner Oberland Bahn and the Brig - Visp - Zermatt (BVZ) line.

By the 1980s, all the motive power was showing its age, and plans were laid for a completely new type of  metre-gauge locomotive, to be ordered by the Furka Oberalp and BVZ companies as well as the SBB. Two prototypes were built, and entered service on the Brünig as SBB nos. 1951 and 1952, on the understanding that they would later be transferred to the Furka Oberalp; in 1988 the SBB ordered its production batch of eight HGe 4/4 locos, which were delivered in 1989-90. Of the old motor vans, a number have been rebuilt for adhesion-only working on local trains, and some have been transferred to the Engelberg railway.

Route and Operation

The Brünig line begins in its own platforms in Lucerne's terminal station, to the east of the standard gauge lines. For the first 2 km from just outside the passenger station to Rösslimatt, the line is laid as four-rail mixed gauge, the standard gauge rails carrying the daily freight train of the Kriens - Luzern Bahn. The metre gauge rails continue along the densely-populated shores of Lake Lucerne to Hergiswil (km 8.7) where Engelberg trains branch off on to the LSE's own right of way.

The 1186 metre Lopper Tunnel pierces a ridge of the Pilatus massif, beyond which the line regains the lake shore for the run into Alpnachstad (km 13.2), lowest point of the line, with its steamer pier and the lower terminus of the rack line to the summit of Pilatus mountain. Continuing in the wide valley, the line reaches Sarnen (km 20.6), capital of Canton Obwalden. Here the line reaches the shores of Lake Sarnen, which it follows through the pilgrimage centre of Sachseln before leaving the lake and arriving at Giswil (km 29.3), 485 metres above the sea. Here there is a timetabled wait of 5 minutes or so, and an assisting locomotive is attached if needed for the climb ahead. 

The first rack section, with a gradient of 10%, climbs from Giswil station to Kaiserstuhl (km 32.2, 698 m.a.s.l.), high above Lake Lungern. The train runs on adhesion only from Kaiserstuhl to Lungern station (km 35.8, 752 m.a.s.l.) where a second rack climb begins through beautiful meadows and woodland.

Just before Meiringen station, (km 45.5, 595 m), the line from Interlaken runs in on the right. All Brünig trains must reverse in Meiringen station, although track continues ahead on to the metals of the Meiringen - Innertkirchen Bahn. Normally, a new locomotive will attach to the other end of the train for the run to Interlaken; Meiringen is the location of the line's main depot and workshops.

The valley section from Meiringen to Interlaken is the 'high-speed' section of the Brünig route, following the Aare river until at Brienz  (km 57.8, 566m), lower station of the rack railway to the Rothorn, the river flows into Lake Brienz and after a short tunnel the route becomes a pleasant lakeside ride through Brienz West station (km 59.3) and the resort villages of Ebligen (km 61.9), Oberried (km 65.0), Niedrried (km 68.3) and Ringgenberg (km 71.0). The line crosses the river, just as it leaves the lake,  by a high steel bridge, and  terminates at Interlaken Ost station (km 74.0, 567m). Interlaken Ost is a large station, which the SBB shares with the  standard gauge BLS main line terminus, with its expresses from all over Europe, and the metre-gauge line of the Berner Oberland Bahnen to Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. The station is actually owned and controlled by the BOB.


The Brünig is, like the SBB's standard gauge lines, electrified at 15 kV AC, as is the LSE. The BOB uses DC electrification, but all three lines are built to the same structure gauge and use the same Riggenbach rack system. Until 1974, through coaches were run in summer between Lucerne and Grindelwald: this service was revived briefly in 1988 for the Bruenig line's centenary celebrations. The BOB uses the SBB's transporter wagons to work standard gauge wagons on to its system as far as Zweilütschinen; the MIB serves Innertkirchen in the same way. On special occasions, such as the Nidwalden Cantonal Pilgrimage to Sachseln, LSE trains, including
motorcoaches, can also be seen off their normal route. SBB trains run on the LSE, but only on the adhesion section to Wolfenschiessen.

 The BOB uses the SBB's transporter wagons to work standard gauge wagons on to its system as far as Zweilütschinen; the MIB serves Innertkirchen in the same way. On special occasions, such as the Nidwalden Cantonal Pilgrimage to Sachseln, LSE trains, including motorcoaches, can also be seen off their normal route. SBB trains run on the LSE, but only on the adhesion section to Wolfenschiessen.

The Brünig timetable is organised on a regular hourly basis, with alternate trains being limited-stop expresses. Additional local trains run between Lucerne and Giswil, and freight trains operate daily on the valley sections. On a visit in 1990, the freight train left the sidings near Lucerne around 7pm, and carried a mixture of metre-gauge wagons and standard-gauge stock on transporter wagons (Rollschemeln); the line is one of the few which has not yet adopted the modern Vevey transporter bogies. Bogie wagons are carried on two transporters: timber is commonly carried in this way and even bogie gas tankers can be seen. For the future, there are plans to improve the Lucerne suburban service, involving the doubling of the Lucerne - Hergiswil section. Already, some of the old motor vans gave been rebuilt with push-pull controls. The new HGe 4/4 II locomotives are capable of 100 km/h, and it is hoped to raise the line speed over some sections.

A more distant dream is the provision of through trains over the whole of the so-called Golden Pass between Montreux and Lucerne, a concept which is energetically promoted by the management of the Montreux - Oberland - Bernois railway. The main obstacle to this is the need to lay a third rail to allow metre-gauge trains to run over the BLS lines between Zweisimmen,  Spiez and Interlaken. The MOB a DC-electric line, but has apparently allowed for dual-current working in the design of its new locomotives, which may one day be seen hauling trains into Meiringen where they would hand over to rack-equipped SBB power. With the present state of the Swiss tourist industry, however, this expensive project seems unlikely to proceed.

Another railway project associated with the Brünig would build a metre gauge branch from Brienz to the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum, which already has two ex-Brünig steam locomotives which, since the 1988 celebrations, have seen much use on special trains on the Brünig line itself.

Motive Power

A large fleet of steam locomotives was assembled to work the Brünig line in steam days, all built by SLM of Winterthur. For the adhesion section, ten G 3/3 [0-6-0T] locos (numbered 101 to 110 by the SBB: the JBL and JS had different numbers but I will ignore these as an anti-boredom measure) were delivered between 1887 and 1901; under SBB ownership construction was then switched to a more powerful G 3/4 [2-6-0T] design, 201 to 208, built from 1905 to 1913. These were joined in 1924-26 by four locos of similar design bought from the Rhaetian Railway which was then competing its electrification. They took the numbers 215 to 218 (ex-RhB 15/16, 9/10).  Several of the adhesion locos were sold for further use in Austria, Italy and Greece: no. 109 of 1901 was sold in 1915 to the Bière - Apples - Morges line, and is now preserved at the Blonay - Chamby museum line in Vaud. 208 is now kept in working order by the Ballenberg Museum.

The first rack locos were two-axle machines classified HG 2/2 [0-4-0RT]: thirteen were built up to 1901, and were given the SBB numbers 1001 to 1013. Again, the SBB decided to build a more powerful type in the form of a three-axle loco - HG 3/3 [0-6-0RT]. Numbering started with 1051 of 1905, and ended with 1068 of 1926, the very last steam loco built for the Brünig, which was later placed on a plinth at Meiringen. Several of these saw further service on the Thessalonian Railways in Greece; according to Appleby & Russenberger's book, two (1055/8) are still in store there, along with adhesion locos 203/4/8. 1067 is the live representative of the type, owned by the Ballenberg museum.

For the 1941 electrification, 16 Deh 4/6 motor vans, 901 - 916, were built by SLM with electrical parts from a variety of companies. Their layout was unusual, with three two-axle bogies; the outer two had powered axles, whilst the centre bogie carried the rack drive equipment. Their box-body design was advanced for its day - they were built some years before the Re 4/4 I class on the standard gauge. In the 1980s, their traditional green livery was supplanted by a brighter red scheme, and in recent years the class has been displaced from express work; some have had their rack equipment removed and others have been transferred to the LSE. Does anyone have an up-to-date list for publication next month?

The two high-power locomotives, HGe 4/4 1991 Meiringen and 1992 Giswil, built in 1954, are more conventional in style, with just two powered bogies. They have a one-hour power rating of 1600 kW, compared to the 930 kW of the earlier type. They have always worked principally as pilot locos on the mountain section: appearances at Lucerne or Meiringen are rare, as their maximum speed on adhesion is only 50 km/h. I believe they still retain their green paint scheme, but I'm open to correction.

The two prototypes of the new generation, HG e 4/4 II 1951-2, entered service in 1986, and now (their rack equipment having been altered from Riggenbach to Abt and their working voltage adjusted from 15 kV to 11 kV) earn their living on the Furka Oberalp railway as HGe 4/4 II 104 Furka and 105 Oberalp. The eight production locos carry numbers in the new national system with computer check digit, as class 101, and are named as follows:

101 961-1 Horw
101 962-9 Hergiswil
101 963-7 Alpnach
101 964-5 Sachseln
101 965-2 Lungern
101 966-0 Hasliberg-Brünig
101 967-8 Brienz
101 968-6 Ringgenberg

A variety of small tractors have been built, or converted from standard gauge, for the Brünig line. Two electric tractors of the wagon-bodied style, Te I 198 and 199, date from the 1941 electrification, and there are also three Te III  machines built in 1962, no. 201-203.  Diesel tractors comprise Tm II 596-598 and 980-984,  plus two similar machines with rack drive, Tmh 985-86. An unusual item is German-built shunter no. 599 bought second hand from the German SWEG company in 1982, and normally found at Alpnach Dorf.

Tourist Information

The attractions of the towns and villages of the Brünig line are too well-known to require long description here, so we will confine ourselves to a few random notes. The Lucerne lake steamers offer a pleasant alternative access from Lucerne to Hergiswil and Alpnachstad, which is of course part of the well-known circular trip to Pilatus and back via the cable-car to Kriens. Hergiswil village, although slightly spoiled by the nearby motorway, is a pleasant spot for a holiday, as it is near enough to Lucerne to allow some long-haul excursions, yet has its own interest in its station with both SBB and LSE trains and a working goods yard. And Shearings run coach trips from Britain which stay at the excellent Pilatus Hotel!

Sachseln offers a pleasant stroll between the lake and the railway. Giswil is a sleepy place, but there is a pleasant short walk for train photographers to a castle ruin with a good view of trains as they attack the rack section. Meiringen has its Sherlock Holmes associations, including the funicular ride to the Reichenbach Falls, and at the lovely lakeside town of Brienz one can ride the frequent summer steam service to the Rothorn summit, and the BLS railway's steamer service to Interlaken.

First published 1995 - this edition April 2009