Late nineteenth century Switzerland had an opportunity, but also a problem. Some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe in the great Alpine mountain ranges were a draw for visitors from across the Continent – but how to get them up the mountains? The perfection of the rack (or cog) railway provided the solution.
Let’s look at the rack railways of just one small but stunning piece of landscape – the area in central Switzerland known as the Berner Oberland (or Bernese Overland – it sounds better in German), centred on the twin lakes of Thun and Brienz, the town of Interlaken and the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains, which rise up to over 4,000m, with feature photos taken in June this year.
First, the technology. The principle of the rack railway is simple. Instead of smooth steel wheel on smooth steel rail (good for speed, not so good for slowing down or climbing steep grades), the rack railway concept places a toothed rail between the running rails, which engages with a matching cog on the train. The cog wheel, instead of (or as well as, in some cases) the rail wheels, is driven; effectively, the train pulls itself along the rack. This makes it possible to negotiate steep gradients safely, both uphill and (crucially) down.
Rack railways come in various forms. The earliest rack railway was right at the start of the railway age – the Middleton Railway, linking coal pits to the River Aire in Leeds, Yorkshire. Built in 1757, it moved to steam power in 1812 – and the line’s engineer, John Blenkinsop, judged that adhesion alone would not be enough and used a rudimentary rack system to give the low powered steam engines the strength to haul their trains of coal. The five ton engine Salamanca could haul 90 ton trains.
But the rack railway as we know it today is an American invention, first patented by Sylvester Marsh in 1861 and first used in 1868 at the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire, which is still flourishing today, and still with steam power. There are numerous versions of the technology, but our focus here is the Berner Oberland so let’s describe the ones used there.
Almost simultaneous with Marsh was the Riggenbach system, named for inventor Niklaus Riggenbach and patented in 1863. Riggenbach (1817-99) was a Swiss locomotive engineer who realised how a rack system could help adhesion.
In the Riggenbach system, steel plates between the rails are joined by crossbars to form a ladder shape, which engages with a cog wheel on the locomotive.
The Abt system followed in 1882, aiming for a smoother ride than the Riggenbach at the same time as being simpler to build and maintain by using 2 or 3 rows of teeth, offset from each other so that the cog wheel is always engaged with one. It was devised by Swiss inventor (and Riggenbach employee) Roman Abt (1850-1933). Now the most commonly used system across the world, it is lighter than the Riggenbach, as it doesn’t need the long steel side plates, and allows a simpler layout around switches and turnouts, but it isn’t as durable.
Finally, we need to introduce the Strub system, patented in 1898 by Emil Strub (1858-1909). It is like the Abt system, but with just one of set of ‘teeth’, thus eliminating the problems the Abt experiences with ice and snow. It is the simplest of the systems in use today, and uses a rolled flat-bottom rail with rack teeth machined into the head every 100 mm.
First stop on our tour of the Oberland is Interlaken itself, where railways and roads from across Switzerland converge to bring visitors from all over Europe and beyond to the base of the Oberland – hikers in summer, skiers in winter.
Let’s jump straight from our Zurich – Geneva standard gauge air conditioned double deck electric express onto the Berner Oberland Bahn (yes, the BOB) train for Lauterbrunnen. Remember this is Switzerland – the trains all connect with each other, with well-nigh perfect reliability, so there’s no need to wait or rush – the connection is properly timed and organised – the famous Taktfarhplan.
Preserved steam on the BOB, 2010
The BOB is metre gauge, and was originally steam operated when it opened in 1890. It runs from Interlaken to Zweilutschinen, 8km away, where it forks into two branches, one of 12km to Grindelwald and one of 4km to Lauterbrunnen, climbing up ever deeper valleys into the mountains. With a maximum grade of 20% on short stretches only, the BOB is at the low end of rack railways, and the line is in fact mostly conventional, and the Riggenbach rack is used only on a few kilometres on each branch, with the longest one being on the approach to Grindelwald.
The BOB was electrified by 1912, and its steam engines passed on to other lines. Today, it uses a mixture of very modern Stadler trainsets, looking not unlike a modern European tram, and railcars built by SLM in the 1960s and 1970s, all fitted with Riggenbach apparatus; we’ll board the older railcar at the front, I think.
Our train divides at Zweilutschinen, for Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald; we’re heading to the former, to connect to our next train, on the Wengneralpbahn (WAB) – the longest continuous rack railway in the world, and dating back to 1893. Again originally steam powered, it moved to electricity in 1909, also at 1500v DC.
The Lauterbrunnen valley is a glacial U shaped valley – one of the largest and deepest in the Alps. The 8km of near vertical precipices that define its shape make for spectacular waterfalls, but not for easy communication with the villages on the mountains above – Lauterbrunnen is at 800m, but Wengen, just 1.2km away if you can cope with the gradient, is at almost 1,300m. There is no road to Wengen, a major ski resort, and road traffic is banned from the village, but the winter population is 10,000 skiers – hence the rack railway.
As this is Switzerland, the BOB and the WAB are a cross platform swap at Lauterbrunnen’s spacious station. We hop off the BOB, and have a few minutes to choose our seats on the green and yellow WAB train. It looks similar but smaller – the gauge is just 800mm, and the narrower train has smaller wheels and sits closer to the ground than the larger and faster BOB. We admire the classic stainless steel ‘WAB’ lettering on one railcar, a 1960s SLM / BBC product, and decide this is for us, even with slatted wooden seats that would be a real squeeze for the intended two aside.
Both BOB and WAB use electric locomotives and later railcars built by the Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (Swiss Locomotive and Machineworks, or SLM) with electrical equipment by Brown Boveri, another Swiss company. SLM and BBC are linked by the English engineer Charles Brown, who founded BBC (with a Swiss partner, Walter Boveri) in 1891 to build electrical equipment to complement the steam engines that his father’s company SLM had been building for 20 years. After building most of the rack railway equipment used in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, SLM eventually became part of the Stadler Group, which is still the pre-eminent supplier of rack railway equipment, while BBC went its own way into the ABB Group.
The WAB is equipped with the Riggenbach rack system for its entire 21km length, and the need for that is apparent as soon as our train grinds past the carsheds and across the river en route to Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, the 2,600m mountain pass between the Lauterbrunnen valley to the west and Grindelwald to the east. You see, the WAB doesn’t go up the Lauterbrunnen valley – it goes up the valley walls!
The average gradient on the first stretch to Wengen is close to 25%; it used to be steeper, but the threat of rock falls led to a new, longer route being built, including a 180 degree tunnel at Wengwald, in 1910; the original route was finally abandoned in 2009.
Serving Wengen is the main purpose of the WAB; the village is one of Switzerland’s premier ski resorts, and the WAB is crucial for skiers’ access and supplies, so the station has a busy freight platform. Above Wengen, the gradient slackens to ‘just’ 20% as the line continues to climb steadily to Kleine Scheidegg, with spectacular views down towards Wengen and Lauterbrunnen and forward to the Jungfrau range.
50 minutes after leaving Lauterbrunnen, we ease to a stop at Kleine Scheidegg, over 2,000m up. Anyone expecting a remote, quiet station high in the mountains is in for a surprise. Kleine Scheidegg, more than halfway up the 4,158m (13,642ft) Jungfrau, is a busy railway junction! As well as the Lauterbrunnen trains, the WAB runs up from Grindelwald – the trains reverse at Kleine Scheidegg to keep the power cars at the downhill end without running around the train.
And across the platform, a bright red and yellow Jungfraubahn train is loading passengers for the 50 minute climb to the Jungfraujoch, at 3,454m the highest railway station in Europe, reached through a tunnel deep into the mountain. In 9km (of which 7km are in the tunnel), and 50 minutes, trains climb 1,400m – departing every 30 minutes, often in two sections – one for the pre-booked coach parties, one for the independent travellers.
The Jungfraubahn is thus the highest railway in Europe, using the Strub system on a metre gauge line with a maximum gradient of 25% and electrified at 1125v AC. The line was completed in 1912, after almost 20 years of fundraising, planning and building; it was electrically operated from the start. Again, there is a range of rolling stock, all from SLM / BBC and Stadler, and ranging from very classy looking 50 and 60 year old railcars to the very latest Stadler vehicles, with low floors and deep windows.
After exploring the ‘Roof of Europe’, it’s time to complete the WAB route, by boarding a train for Grindelwald, 1,000m below and 10km away. We’ll choose one of the new Stadler trainsets, with panoramic windows, and notice that the cushions of the downhill facing seats are more steeply raked than the uphill facing ones – to stop you falling onto the knees of the friendly Japanese couple sitting opposite, such is the gradient on the WAB.
Downhill, the WAB doesn’t seek to set speed records – speed is limited to 25km/h by the curves, the rack equipment, the gradient and the timetable – which is all to the good. The views, as we pass through long snow sheds, are spectacular, thoroughly justifying the extra cost of the panoramic windows.
At Grindelwald, another clockwork cross-platform walk takes us to the BOB train heading down the valley to Interlaken, but we have one last treat in store en route.
At Wilderswil, we disembark from the BOB, and head across to the Schynige Platte Bahn (SPB), for a trip back in time.
Schynige Platte is a 2,000m high mountain, jutting out into the plain around Interlaken, and giving superb views of the lakes, the Jungfrau range and beyond, as well as great walking and Alpine meadows. It has been drawing tourists since the 19th century, and in 1893 the SPB was opened to get them up there.
The SPB is a Riggenbach rack railway, of 800mm gauge and electrified at 1500v DC which rises 1,400m in just 7.25km – an average gradient of 20% and a maximum of 25%. The icing on the cake is the motive power – no modern trams here, but 100 year old electric locomotives pushing 2 equally old coaches, sitting 4 or 5 aside on wooden benches in traditional compartments and, when conditions permit, open sided.
And, on special occasions, the original steam power is used – prior booking essential!
The locomotives are a mixture, originating on the WAB and elsewhere, but all were built by SLM / BBC, and to similar simple designs – four wheels, a simple wooden body with a driving cab at one end, and original electrical motors inside. Most have been refurbished and rebuilt over the years, but have remained faithful to the original designs, and they still push their loaded trains up the mountain in 50 minutes. Alongside the Mount Washington Cog Railway and the Snowdon Mountain Railway in Wales, it can justifiably claim to be one of the most original and unspoilt cog railways in the world.
And finally, before we head out of the mountains, we must mention the only mountain railway in the Oberland that actually has ‘Bergbahn’ in its name, even if isn’t a rack railway – the Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen Murren. Murren sits on the opposite side of the Lauterbrunnen valley to Wengen, and is 800m above Lauterbrunnen up an almost sheer cliff, at 1,650m. The village has a winter population 5 times its summer one, and is only accessible from Lauterbrunnen by the two elements of the BLM. In 1891, a funicular was built from Lauterbrunnen to Grutschalp, on the top of the valley wall 700m above Lauterbrunnen, where it linked to an adhesion worked railway along the edge of the valley side that runs into the heart of Murren village, 4.2km further south at a maximum grade of 5%. The funicular was replaced by a cable car in 2006, leaving the railway’s small fleet of railcars, dating back to 1967, apparently isolated – but they’re still in service, and immaculately maintained.
Except for the SPB, these railways operate year round. The WAB in particular is crucial for the winter sports business, but even non-skiers will enjoy a journey in conditions like this.
So, we’re back at Interlaken, waiting for an express back to Zurich. But wouldn’t you rather be heading back up the valley to the characterful little railways of the Oberland, which delight engineer, skier, walker and tourist in equal measure?
For those tempted to say ‘yes’, a range of daily and weekly tickets covering all the lines featured in this piece, plus some of the interconnecting cable cars are available. The BOB, WAB, SPB, BLM and Jungfraubahn are in common ownership, through Jungfraubahn Holdings, and it’s Switzerland, so everything connects seamlessly and is spotlessly clean. What’s not to like? And, of course, there are plenty of other dramatic and interesting railways in the Alps to explore next time!