The Pilatus Bahn at 130. Switzerland’s famous rack railway and the steepest example in the world opened to the public on 4th June 1889. The line uses a unique patent of rack rail devised by Eduard Locher who realised the normal types of rack railway would not be able to manage the extremely steep gradients up the mountain’s side.
Billed as ‘a train with a death wish…’ the Pilatus Railway has been running safely for 130 years. The railway has changed very little since the days of electrification in 1937, however big changes are on the way over the next few years, including new stations and a fleet of faster, more powerful trains.
The railway starts at Alpnachstad and climbs for just over two and half miles to Pilatus Kulm station, sited just below the twin peaks of the Essel and the Tomlishorn. Its iconic electric railcars have now been operating for over eighty years – twice as long as the original steam trains that first operated on the line.
Early drawings depicting construction of the line. Source: Booklooker
A ride up the mountain in the early days (with pictures and description):
Here is an early description of the ride up Pilatus (English translation a bit iffy even with Google!):
From the Thalgrunde the train pulls itself over the tree-studded mats of the ‘Obsee’, enters a deciduous grove, which is followed by a gruesome gorge, ‘Wolfort’, before going into pine forest by way of a strange stone bridge lying on a curve.
The Wolfort viaduct. Lovely pic but faked obviously. Despite a correct view the bridge doesn’t look like that also the train is smaller! The span is indeed curved and the topmost part leads into the Wolfort tunnel. Source: Scripophily
Dramatic view of the Wolfort crossing. Source: Source: Camp to Camp
The railway passes the said gorge to pass through two steeply rising tunnels through the ‘Risleten’ (these are obviously the Spycher tunnels), where the rock and debris that has been trickling down for millennia, has deposited mighty debris heap on the mountainside.
The fantastic views from Aemsigenalp (or as it is known now, Ämsigen.) The Bürgenstock is quite prominent. Source: Scripophily
More early views of Aemsigenalp. Source: Twitter
Soon the region of alpine pastures is reached at ‘Aemsigenalp.’ Here is not far from some venerable giant weather fir, the view is already great. Under one sustained 48% climb, the track encounters a magnificent cliff surrounded by rocky outcrops – the ‘Mattalp’.
Approaching the Mattalp and the vertical ‘Donkeys Wall’. How should the train find its way up? Source: Scripophily
Here are suddenly rising, inaccessible rocks the railway finds quite contrary. How should it get up there? It finds the way; it turns eastwards against the ‘Rosegg’ and climbs from there at dizzying heights at the vertical sloping Donkey’s Wall, which breaks through four tunnels.
The ‘Donkey’s Wall’ section on the Eselwand with three of its tunnels visible. Source: Scripophily
Coming down the the cliff face that is the ‘Donkey.’ Source: Wonders of World Engineering
Astonished at the greatness in this wild mountain world, we look down on the deep valley underneath Mattalp. Like a ladder leaning against the mountain can be seen the track and we can hardly believe that we came up there. The train drives around the western corner of the huge dome of the “donkey,” take one last daring run…
Coming through the final tunnel section towards the summit itself. Source: Scripophily
Finally, through a high portal, we enter the station building of ‘Pilatuskulm’, which nestles next to the mountain hotel on the rock face.
The top of the mountain – with four steam railcars stabled on the summit siding in early days. Source: Camp to Camp
From steam to electrification:
The earliest Pilatus Bahn poster I could find – for 1892. Source: Scripophily
The railway was an immense success. Initial plans for 15,000 passenger trips a year were hugely excelled in the first year (which was short anyway) when 37,000 passengers were carried.
Electrification was mooted as early as 1905 but deemed too expensive. One reason for this was the steam railcars took an hour and twenty five minutes to get up the mountain. It was very slow because of the steepness of the ascent and the fact the steam locomotives had to be quite small to keep within the line’s profile, including its gauge and tunnels. By the 1930s the eleven steam railcars were seriously in need of replacement and this pushed forward the need for electrification.
With electrification however the time taken to ascend the mountain was reduced to a mere half hour.
The railway is noted for employing unique forms of switches. There are three types in use. Normal pointwork cannot be used because the special type of rack rail precludes this, so the switches are either the moveable type of track first conceived for the opening of the line in 1889, or the more recent type of flip track which have been installed on the approaches to the summit station.
1933 poster depitcing the steam rack railway in its final years. Source: Germann Auktionen
At the base station, Alpnachstad, and on the approaches to the line’s depot, the third type of switch, being moveable sections of track are used to allow the railcars to move from one section of track to another. The need for these moveable sections is due to the very constrained layout at Alpnachstad.
Even though the line has been electrified since 1937 one of the original steam trains was retained to work specials up to Pilatus Kulm and also undertake maintenance duties when the cantenary wires were down for the winter.
This steam railcar is now kept in the Swiss Museum of Transport at Lucerne. There is another in the museum at Munich.
Poster released for the first year of the line’s electrification in 1937. Source: Twitter
The electric railcars were delivered by rail to Luzern, and then hauled by tractor to Alpnachstad, before being winched up the sides of the mountain to the depot where they were then united with their power chassis. The video below shows the huge amount of manual labour involved in getting the new railcars to the depot and onto their new chassis.
You Tube video showing the arrival of the new electric trains in the 1930s.
The depot is unusual in being the only part of the line that’s level, imagine trying to work in a maintenance and repair environment with the trains set on a gradient!
Very rare view showing the interior of the Pilatus railway depot. Source: Siemens
1890s view of the line’s depot, seen from the Pilatus hiking path, with a good view of the lakes.
The same exact location in 2012. Source: You Tube
Plaque at Alpnachstad denoting the line as a historical mechanical engineering landmark. Source: Twitter
How a railway was built up Pilatus:
Railways up Pilatus have a fairly substantial history. The earliest was a sort of wooden tramroad, or rolling railway, which transported logs and trunks from the forests on the western sides of the mountain in the mid 19th century. This was known as the Holzrollbahn.
Queen Victoria ascended the mountain in 1868 and popularised it so much that the Swiss thought it necessary to have a railway up this iconic mountain. After all it was thanks to Britain and its Queen that the mountain acquired international fame. The Swiss had already built a railway up the the Rigi, so why not Pilatus?
Pilatus Kulm in 1875 – just seven years after Queen Victoria had made her ascent. The Hotel Bellevue (pictured) had been built just a few years before the Royal ascent. Source: Swiss Info
Following the Royal visit to the mountain, an early form of railway to the summit was envisaged in 1873, partially this route and then round the west side of the mountain. The plans were promoted by the Creditanstalt Luzern.
Whilst that was a good route and largely viable for a Riggenbach or even a later Abt rack rail route, it was deemed a quite lengthy detour. The big problem however was the last section to the summit itself would have to be extremely steep.
The solution was eventually down to a Swiss engineer. Eduard Locher.
With this in mind Doctor (or Colonel) Eduard Heinrich Locher-Freuler (the man responsible for the construction of the twelve mile long Simplon Railway Tunnel) sought a different way up the mountain and decided upon a direct route from a site near Alpnach.
Locher-Freuler. Source: Scripophily
Much of the ascent up the Alpnach side of the mountain was at 1 in 3 and 1 in 2, and even though there was a section at about 1 in 5 immediately above Ämsigen, Locher knew it was was beyond the capabilities of the Abt and Riggenbach systems.
He thus devised his own rack technique which of course is known as the Locher system. Its a unique one off rack railway but it does the job brilliantly.
The system demonstrated at Alpnachstad. Source: Twitter
The Locher system consists of horizontal rack teeth, and the cog wheels have a flange underneath as an extra measure to prevent the train lifting off the rack. Basically the trains are guided by the rack rail and the wheels are not powered but simply for stabilisation and support. The flanges of these are on the outside.
Guyer-Freuler. Source: Scripophily
The work was done in collaboration with his cousin Eduard Guyer-Freuler and his chief engineer Häussler (of whom little is known.) One of the chief backers of the scheme (and indeed a founder of the Pilatus Bahn company) was Melchior Britschgi-Wallimann who owned the Hotel Bellevue at the summit, as well as that other, that on the Klimsenhorn.
After the railway had opened no sooner than that Britschgi-Wallimann had begin building the huge Pilatus Kulm hotel on the flanks of the Tomlishorn.
Early view of the Pilatus Kulm hotel. This was built by Melchior Britschgi-Wallimann. Source: Scripophily
The line was built in just 400 days. The first train to reach the summit was on 17th August 1888, carrying the directors of the Pilatus Railway Comapny. The official ceremony to inaugurate the line was on 17th May 1889 and public services began on 4th June 1889.
Alpnachstad in the line’s early days. The depot can be seen high above the station. Source: Twitter
More about the trains – both steam and electric – and some new ones on the way!
Steam railcar at Alpnachstad in 1898. Source: Twitter
The steam trains were unusual – they were combined steam locomotives and carriages, the locomotive bit being at the bottom end, the tank in its own compartment between the locomotive and carriage and the carriage section was stepped, with eight compartments and meaning each compartment was higher then the previous. The line was so steep this was the only means by which passengers could be kept quite level compared to other rack railways which use conventional carriages.
The locomotive and the car form a single vehicle. The car is divided into four compartments, placed one above another, and each accommodating 8 passengers. Its lower part is occupied by a water tank having a capacity of 100 gallons. The axles are arranged in such a way that curves of very small radius may be taken despite the distance apart of the axles, viz., 20 feet. Four pairs of cog wheels, two in front and two behind, serve for the propulsion, running, and braking of the vehicle. Rings that embrace the head of the rails prevent the car from being blown from the track in a gale or from running off because of ice or snow that may exist upon the roadbed.
The boiler, which is of the tubular type, is 6 feet in length, has a heating surface of 225 square feet, and employs a working pressure of 12 atmospheres. It is placed at right angles with the axis of the track, in order to prevent the various gradients from producing fluctuations in the level of the water. The average gradient is 38.1 per cent; the minimum, 19.2 per cent; and the maximum 48 per cent. The engine cylinders are 8.75 inches in diameter, and the piston stroke is 12 inches. The normal speed of the trip is a little over three feet a second. The dead weight is 9.6 tons, and the load with 32 passengers, 2.4 tons. The locomotive is of about 70 horse-power. The braking arrangement has naturally been very carefully looked after. It consists of a compressed-air brake, an automatic brake, and two friction brakes. The suspension of the vehicle is assured by a system of four pairs of elliptic springs combined with spiral ones. The play of the car is prevented by safety stops, so that the vibrations are no greater than they are in an ordinary well-suspended train.
These descriptions of the trains are from Scientific American for August 1904 .
The summit station in 1929.
The way to the Tomlishorn, 1929.
Steam railcar no.5 arriving at Amsigen en route to the summit in 1929.
Rare view of electric and steam traction at Amsigen.
The current trains (both the 1930s and the pair of 1960s built railcars) are unusual in they only operate on electric power during the ascent. The descent is simply by gravity and an excellent system of braking is employed so that the trains maintain a smooth and even descent rate.
Just a couple of weeks ago passengers had to be evacuated from a train that had just entered a tunnel when there was suddenly a bang and fumes emanated from it. Pic shows passengers being evacuated after another railcar rescued the stricken train from the upper Spycher tunnel. Source: 20 Minuten
The Pilatus Bahn confirmed that the train had a technical defect, probably in connection with the driving mechanism. According to CEO Godi Koch, there was never any danger to the passengers. “The trains are secured with three braking systems,” says Koch. It was absolutely unusual that a train could not continue because of technical problems, the rolling stock was very reliable, although some 80 years old. Source: 20 Minuten
This incident comes in the light of moves to retire the 80 year old trains and use brand new stock. There’s more on this including a picture in later paragraphs. It means of course most of the present fleet will be disbanded although the two 1960s railcars will be retained for additional duties. I would think a 1937 railcar will be kept aside for historic reasons.
Nice picture showing the steepness of the line. Incidentally one can see the original terminus was on a steeper incline than the modern one. Source: Twitter
The original summit station is still in use mainly during busy periods. Because of its position next to the summit complex it offers a dedicated level access route from the platform and is also used whenever a train has someone in a wheelchair.
The line operates from May to November only. At the end of the season the power cables on the upper section are taken down because of the high number of avalanches.
As mentioned earlier, the railway kept a steam railcar in reserve. This situation ensued until the 1980s. There were the occasional special trips with the steam railcar which was also used for winter duties and power line installation work. Here’s one picture from 1966 (and obviously of very good quality!):
No.9 steam railcar visits the summit during a run in December 1966. This and other images take from the same day can be seen at Flickr (Note: The page has been removed thus an archived image is used here.)
The steam railcar proved to be useful when it was necessary to install the cantenary system at the start of the season (or remove it at the end) from the upper sections above Ämsigen and along the Mattalp (there are many avalanches in the winter.) It was transferred to the Swiss Transport Museum in Luzern when a diesel railcar was built to replace those duties.
No.9 on the section near the Mattalp during re-wiring duties in 1981. Source: Semaphor
No.9 nearing Alpnachstad after work to install cantenary wires higher up the mountain. Source: Bahn Bilder
No.9 again, with its carriage, at Alpnachstad, May 1982, in readiness for a public trip. Source: Twitter
Sadly there were no steam operations for the line’s 100th anniversary. It seems there are no pictures or videos of that anniversary anywhere on the internet. The 125th has some presence on the internet however as that was only five years ago.
As for the 100th Anniversary, if only there was someone who could put something on the internet for all to see? Well I do know someone – me! On a holiday to Switzerland 30 years ago I made a side trip to Luzern and Alpnachstad (but not up the mountain however.) The photograph below is one I took as our train arrived at Alpnachstad (which explains the blur in places) and the huge banner for the Pilatus Bahn’s 100th anniversary can be clearly seen placed on the rockface above the station. I had to search through piles of photographs to find this!
The Pilatus Bahn base station seen from our Brunig line train as it arrived at Alpnachstad from Luzern.
New railcars for the Pilatus Bahn – expected 2021/22:
The railway has for years experienced a huge surge in popularity, however in the last few years there has been a slight drop in patronage due to the new Dragon cable car up the other side of the mountain from Fräkmüntegg. Its no problem because both are owned by the same company who are making plans for expansion of the Pilatus Bahn including new trains (expected 2021/22) and alterations to the line’s three stations.
The new railcars will be faster. The aim is to provide a regular half hourly timetable, rather than the uneven departures that can currently be offered with the present trains. The new trains will also have regenerative braking. The company has said:
In the summer of 2018, we signed the contract for the construction of eight passenger cars and one freight wagon with Stadler Bussnang AG. The engineering work is under way. In April 2019, the extensive documents of the planning approval process for the adaptations at the Alpnachstad, Ämsigen and Pilatus Kulm stations were handed over to the Federal Office of Transport (FOT). The process takes about a year to complete. The realization of the structural measures and the production of the railcars will then take two to three years to complete. (Source: Pilatus-Bahnen AG)
Illustration of the new Pilatus Bahn railcars also a new north side platform at Alpnachstad. Source: Emch & Berger Group
The fact Alpnachstad will have two platforms will be a boon. It means the present arrangement where trains have to move off the platform tracks as soon as they have unloaded, and move from the secondary track onto the platform tracks when they are ready to load up, will cease.
Car 29 ascends the other track having transferred from the platform track. Source: Flickr
Full description of the above picture: Car 29 (the white one) has just transferred from the platform track to the secondary track. It will wait here while the other two railcars (including number 24 on the upper platform section which has to move down to allow another waiting to enter.)
Car 29 will wait until these two railcars (including 24) have loaded up and and are on their way back up the mountain, before transferring back across to pick up passengers and also commence its journey up the mountain. Its this rather awkward arrangement, a relic from the steam era, the company want to get rid of.
If its just one or two railcars in service its not a problem, there’s no need for this shuttling back and forth. At busy periods three, four, even six railcars, will be needed to cope with demand and this is when the trains have to play this game of ‘musical chairs!’
The new railcars will have longer platforms on both sides (as opposed to the one) thus this shuttling back and forth across the tracks will no longer be necessary. It will require new pointwork above the station but what is more important is it will offer greater flexibility.
The current fleet has ten railcars, eight dating from the 1930s and two from the 1960s. The new fleet will total eight new railcars (all wheelchair accessible) with a ninth for freight/engineering duties plus the two 1960s built railcars for extra duties.
Pilatus was the subject of attempts to build a very early form of téléphérique!
Interestingly Pilatus was the subject of proposals during the 1890s for a cable car (pictures below) which would have been the world’s first passenger undertaking. The plans fell through and the honour for the first ever went to the short lived Wetterhorn bahn near Grindelwald, of which only the first stage was built.
Early plans for a cable car to the summit of Pilatus. Source: Scripophily
Post-script – the Holzrollbahn:
I have other posts on Pilatus and the first of these covers a leaflet about the mountain, its railway and cable car but also details how the mountain got its name.
The second of these covers Queen Victoria’s ascent in the 1860s. The route of that ascent is roughly the course of the earlier proposals for a line up the mountain which I believe was to follow part of the former course of the Holzrollbahn, as mentioned very briefly.
To explain the Holzrollbahn in more detail during the 19th Century roads up into the mountains had begun to be built in earnest, and then came the French Road, so called because it was built in 1833 by a Frenchman called Franzose Cellard. He adopted the old mountain paths in order to exploit the extensive forests on the lower slopes of the mountain. The road was so well made oxen and horse carts could easily use it as far as Lütholdsmatt.
Eventually around 1870 the foresters got so savvy they built a wooden roller conveyor – the Holzrollbahn or Rolling Railway to transport logs down the mountain! Quite a few Swiss/German books of the time detail the French man’s attempts to tame the mountains, however its a history that’s barely been written into the English language. Here’s a link to those early attempts to tame the mountains (in German.)