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Rack railways above the Gotthard tunnels

by DoDo Sat Sep 14th, 2013 at 05:06:17 AM EST

In the middle of the central Alps in Switzerland, high above the Gotthard tunnel and even higher above the Gotthard Base Tunnel, there is an east–west geological fissure which is drained by the upper Rhône, Reuss and Rhine rivers. Along these valleys run the electrified metre-gauge tracks of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB). During my tour of the Gotthard railway, I also rode MGB trains for a day tour in the high mountains. I wasn't as fortunate with the Sun as along the Gotthard line (clouds repeatedly arrived just minutes before a train), but I shot quite some photos in spectacular landscape.

MGB (ex FO) HGe 4/4II 108 "Channel Tunnel" with an eastbound Glacier Express (to St. Moritz) crosses the Bugnei Viaduct

Although most of its network was built by 1930, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn was only born in 2003, as a merger of two companies, one of which absorbed a third in 1961. The mergers made perfect sense because all three operated connecting lines, all of which were metre-gauge electrified rack railways primarily aimed at tourists:

  • Brig-Visp-Zermatt-Bahn (BVZ): from the portal of the Simplon Tunnel in the Rhône valley to the foot of the Matterhorn
  • Furka-Oberalp-Bahn (FO): the longest by far, continuing east across two passes until the first big town along the Rhine
  • Schöllenenbahn (SchB): from the north portal of the Gotthard tunnel to a junction with FO

Map from Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA 3.0 & GNU FDL 1.2

My journey started (and ended) in Göschenen station (1,106 m above the sea), at the north portal of the Gotthard tunnel. The platform of the MGB trains is directly next to the other side of the mainline station building.

MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4II 92 "Realp" during its nine-minute rest between a downhill and an uphill shuttle service

The former Schöllenenbahn line climbs a particularly large valley step where the Reuss river roars down the Schöllenenschlucht, a deep rocky gorge. A 430 m elevation difference has to be mastered in just 3.7 km, thus the up to 179‰ steep rack section (the steepest of the entire MGB network) begins right past the station building.

MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4I 52 "Tujetsch/Sedrun" at the end of its descent with an Andermatt–Göschenen shuttle service

The former Schöllenenbahn line is one of the busiest sections: there is one all-stopper train all the way to Visp (the lowest point of the network in the Rhône valley) and one shuttle service up the gorge every hour, and the same in the opposite direction. Thus, there is a long passing loop inside a gallery. (Due to rock-slides, most of the section is in galleries.)

My uphill shuttle service meets a downhill one (led and braked by MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4I 55 "Brig")

The most spectacular spot on the line is the crossing of the river near the top of the gorge, which is next to a famous old road bridge named Devil's Bridge (shown here and in the seed comment). All trains on this steep section are push-pull trains with locomotive at the bottom end.

A long-distance local train to Visp is pushed uphill by MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4I 55 "Brig"

MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4II 94 "Fiesch" pushes a shuttle service towards Andermatt

Above the gorge, there is the wide Urseren glacial valley. Plans to turn it into a reservoir for what would have been Switzerland's biggest hydroelectric power station were stopped in 1946 when mobs of locals literally hunted away the engineers. Near the exit of the Urseren valley, the former Schöllenenbahn line meets the former FO line in junction station Andermatt (1,436 m above the sea), which has a large depot.

View on Andermatt and the Urseren glacial valley from the north-east, with the MGB station on the right. The former Schöllenenbahn comes from the right, the former FO line appears coming from the Rhine valley at centre bottom and continues along the valley towards the Furka pass and beyond it the Rhône valley

I was fortunate to see the FO heritage train parked outside the depot. The locomotive is of the original class from the time of the FO's electrification during WWII, whose members were in regular service into the 1990s. The odd look comes from a special solution for tight curves: the couplers are mounted on an extension of the bogies rather than the carbody, hence the light construction of the platform. (There are even steam trains on the Furka pass section to the west, which was rebuilt as heritage line after it was bypassed by a long tunnel, but I didn't travel there.)

FO HGe 4/4I 36 with Pullmann Express cars is parked next to diesel shunter MGB (ex FO) Tm 2/2 4972

The modern traction vehicles for the local trains (three related types built between 1972 and 1984) have no platforms, but they utilise room to spare in another unique way: as luggage space. Thus, they officially count as railcars rather than locos.

After arrival in Andermatt with a shuttle service, a bike is unloaded from MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4II 94 "Fiesch"

Look at the mountainside on the above photo: that's an elevation difference of 400 m. The former FO line climbs that mountainside on its route east to Disentis/Mustér (in the Rhine valley) with four horseshoe curves, allowing for spectacular panoramas (like the before-before-last photo).

A push-pull local train braked by MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4II 93 "Oberwald" in the last curve of its descent to Andermatt

MGB (ex BVZ) Deh 4/4 21 "Stalden" is about to enter the tunnel of the second horseshoe curve on its ascent with a local to Disentis/Mustér

The above mountainside is actually another valley step, with another glacial valley above, the bottom of which is filled by Lake Oberalp. The lake attracts a surprising number of anglers. At its other end is Oberalppass station, the highest point of the MGB mainline at 2,033 m. Every hour, hundreds arriving by train, bus or car stop here to walk to the nearby source of the Rhine, and still dozens climb the mountains above. (The latter included me, see photos here.)

Some trains don't stop at this station, however: the Glacier Expresses, all-first-class panoramic express trains operated in conjunction with RhB (another large electrified metre-gauge railway to the east). In spite of the hefty price, there are enough passengers to fill four trains per direction each day. On the MGB section, the Glacier Expresses are hauled by MGB's most powerful and modern locos (built 1985–1990 for both ancestor companies, 1,932 kW). There is an easy way to distinguish former FO and former BVZ units: the former have shining white aluminium wind-shield framing, the latter black rubber.

MGB (ex FO) HGe 4/4II 101 "Ville de Sion/Sitten" with an eastbound Glacier Express (to St. Moritz)

MGB (ex BVZ) HGe 4/4II 1 "Matterhorn" with an eastbound Glacier Express (to St. Moritz)

Station Oberalppass is named for the pass to the valley of the Rhine, 2,044 m above the sea. The railway runs under the pass in a short tunnel.

The local train that got me here with MGB (ex BVZ) Deh 4/4 24 "Täsch" is still waiting for a late train from the opposite direction. The peak above the waterfall is the Schneehüenerstock (2,773 m)

Past Oberalppass, the descent into the valley of the Rhine starts on the sides of a small peak named Calmut (2,309 m).

My train after the mountain climb, a local train to Disentis/Mustér again headed by MGB (ex BVZ) Deh 4/4 24 "Täsch" but now reinforced by two heritage cars, starts its descent while a cyclist nears the end of his long climb

The eastbound Glacier Express with MGB (ex FO) HGe 4/4II 101 "Ville de Sion/Sitten" a kilometre into its descent

There is a continuous steep descent on the northern side of the deep valley until elevation falls below 1,500 m.

Another view from my eastbound local train shortly before Dieni

At Dieni (station: 1,452 m above the sea), the valley suddenly turns wide, and after a tight S-curve, there is the spectacular Val Giuv Viaduct.

MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4II 96 "Münster" heads a local train to Disentis/Mustér

Looking down-valley, the main town of this wide valley section becomes visible in the distance: Sedrun. The buildings at the bottom of the valley below Sedrun belong to the central construction access to the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the one with a 800 m vertical shaft (subject to repeatedly proposed and dropped plans for a passenger lift and a station in the tunnel for ski tourism). Unfortunately, the construction site (which includes a large exhibition and can be toured) was closed for summer holiday when I was there.

Push-pull local train to Andermatt pushed by MGB (ex FO) Deh 4/4II 92 "Realp"

East of Sedrun, the mountainside gets steeper again. In this area, a cyclonic windstorm destroyed forests in 1990, but they have been re-cultivated by now.

MGB (ex FO) HGe 4/4II 102 "Altdorf" with an eastbound Glacier Express (to St. Moritz)

Just before the next station, Bugnei, there is an even more spectacular curved viaduct by the same name (also see above the fold). This is as far as I got.

MGB (ex BVZ) HGe 4/4II 1 "Matterhorn" returns with a westbound Glacier Express (to Zermatt)

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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

As an extra, here are four photos without trains, and some architectural-cultural history.

The best view on the Devil's Bridge is from the train, on its own viaduct. There have actually been several Devil's Bridges:

  • the last of several bridges at the original location (right behind and at half the height of the lower bridge) was the place of a famous battle during the Napoleonic Wars (there is a big memorial for General Alexander Suvorov behind the right bridgehead of the higher bridge). It was destroyed by a flood in 1888.
  • The lower and closer bridge on the picture (the lower one on the photo) was added in 1830.
  • The higher bridge, which still carries the modern road, was added in 1958. (You can make out a reddish spot next to the tunnel portal: that's a devil painted on the wall.)

Between the Devil's Bridge and Andermatt, the road and the rail share a gallery, with a trekking path above. On the opposite side of the Reuss river is Buel (Bühl) Barracks, built 1901 for a mountain fortress.

Here is a photo of Lake Oberalp from the east (from a train), with an angler. Beyond the opposite end, you can see a raincloud unleashing its waters on Andermatt.

The road bridge below is on the western edge of Camischolas, a village which in practice merged with Sedrun. The strange names indicate that this is a region home to Switzerland's fourth native language, Romansh.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Sep 11th, 2013 at 03:05:57 PM EST
Wow. I need a train pass for at least a few months. Your photos make my mouth water.

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher
by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Thu Sep 12th, 2013 at 03:02:42 AM EST
This appears to be the same Abt rack system technology as is used on the Manitou and Pike's Peak Cog Railway. It has a maximum grade of 25%. The entire system is equipped with racks; there is no adhesion-only section.


by asdf on Thu Sep 12th, 2013 at 12:11:22 PM EST
... I presume you are referring to the Monitou and Pike's Peak Cog railway? As the system pictured in the diary seems to have a mix of both, and that site describes Swiss systems having a mix of both.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Sep 12th, 2013 at 11:23:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Right, the Pike's Peak system has racks extending even into the car shops.

by asdf on Fri Sep 13th, 2013 at 12:45:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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