In the first part of this the White Pass & Yukon, South African railways, Queensland and other parts of the world were featured. This time its Switzerland and Vietnam that take up much of the content. The former is of course fantastic in terms of railway content and variety among its lines – plus the snow! Other countries are included too such as the USA and Australia.
[Wait! We’ve already had Australia haven’t we?? Yes but that was Queensland. I’m doing this by state rather than the entire country to make things easier.]
That classic Swiss narrow gauge trip – the Bernese Oberland/Jungfrau – is included first. Many of these narrow gauge Swiss lines I have travelled on (except the Furka and Rhaetian lines which I have seen from the road) and they are fantastic. Even the lesser known lines have their own great characteristic and I have enjoyed many a travel on these.
There’s so many I havent included them all here! The Montreux Oberald Bernois, the Centovali, the Brünig line, Luzern-Stans-Engleberg, the many independent lines around Aigle, and so many more. Switzerland is an Aladdin’s Cave of narrow gauge railways (don’t forget it has brilliant standard gauge routes too) and it really is difficult to cover the country’s fantastic railways comprehensively.
As a matter of fact I bought Cecil Allen’s revised edition of ‘Swiss Travel Wonderland’ when it first came out in 1972. My parents scoffed at the thought I ‘d spent so much of my saved up pocket money (£4) to buy a mere railway book. It was worth its weight in gold! Forty eight years later I still have the book!
I wanted to include the Montreux Oberland Bernois (MOB) however despite having seen an excellent video covering the line from Zwiesimmen to Montreux on You Tube this seems to be no longer available. All the others invariably go in the reverse direction and its a shame because the considerable descent of nearly two thousand feet from Les Avants to Montreux isn’t so quite easily appreciated in this direction. Amazing because its just over 3km (3.14km or just under 2 miles) as the crow flies between the two!
View from the MOB as it descends towards Montreux. Source: Twitter
In that respect it may come as a surprise to learn its the MOB is one of Switzerland’s steepest adhesion worked narrow gauge railways, beating even the Bernina. Its 1 in 13.7 for the MOB and 1 in 14.2 for the Bernina. It doesn’t mean I hold anything against the Bernina! There’s a good number of spectacular grades on the MOB as I’ve been on it a number of times. But I simply love the spectacular descent from Alp Grüm and there’s not a lot that can beat that!
Bernese Oberland Bahn
First off its the Bernese Oberland (or Oberland Bernois in French if you prefer) which translates as the Bernese Highlands. The most important line in the heart of the region is the one that gives initial access to all the area’s prominent summits and this is the BOB – or Berner Oberland Bahn.
The BOB has some rack sections and that on the branch to Lauterbrunnen is quite short, even somewhat unnecessary it seems! If one wants to go the clockwise route via Grindelwald here’s a full trip from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch (despite the video’s description saying its from Interlaken to Grindelwald!)
(PS I don’t think there is a full driver’s eye trip of the Jungfraubahn. Understandable as most of it is in tunnel anyway!)
Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen 19m
Next is the Wengernalp Bahn… a most fantastic line with great views of the Wetterhorn, Schilthorn, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau – as well as the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys.
Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg 32m
Alpnachstad to Pilatus Kulm 32m
The excellent Rigi bahn, which was the earliest rack railway constructed in Switzerland and opened in 1871. It wasn’t the first in the world however – that honour is in fact held by the Mount Washington Cog Railway which opened in 1868.
Some might well ask why have I included the Rigi Bahn especially when its a standard gauge line!
There’s a good question! In terms of characteristic the Rigi lines essentially have a narrow gauge atmosphere. The rails are of the narrow gauge type rather than the far heavier standard gauge type and the track construction is very lightweight, it couldn’t even support a normal standard gauge train! The trains themselves too are of a narrow gauge profile thus the line is to all purposes and intents a narrow gauge system at heart.
The Rigi bahn is unusual among Swiss mountain lines to have double track. Its not the only example however, there’s the Aigle – Leysin and the Bex – Villars – Bretaye lines which too have double tracked sections. Some might point out the former Lausanne Ouchy line which too was double tracked. That is true but it wasn’t a mountain railway.
Vitznau – Rigi Kulm 1hr 1m.
The Furka Lines
Here we have the Furka-Oberalp Bahn. Well its not exactly that – its the preserved section of that line which was kept when the Furka line took a new route through the Furka base tunnel. As some of my readers will no doubt know, this was once the route taken by the Glacier Express. That too now goes through the base tunnel. The line is these days known as the Furka Bergstrecke. There’s no wires out of Oberwald these days so its either diesel or steam (or electric locomotives powered by battery wagons) that does these trips.
This one is a camera placed near the front of the steam locomotive and even though its not exactly at the front itself it still shows the line’s scenery to great advantage. The camera is on the right hand side of the locomotive which seems to show the rather more mediocre side of the scenery for much of the film. But fear not, when the train gets past the summit at Furka station, some of the most fantastic part of the scenery on this section happens to be on the right hand side! Not for long though!
There’s something of interest along this section and that’s the bases of the cantenary masts along the trackside. These were wooden poles with concrete bases, and what they have done is just cut off the wooden masts, leaving the bottom bits still tethered to their concrete bases! In a way its funny but its also a reminder the line was once a busy electrified route.
This is a very spectacular section of line and its almost on a par with other bits like the stretch out of Andermatt which still forms part of the main Furka Line to Disentis and which affords great views. There’s a video of this later but its not of such great quality however.
The Steffenbach bridge in use during 1980. Source: Twitter
At 1hr 8m the Furka line’s famous Steffenbach bridge can be spotted. This is dismantled each winter to prevent the vagaries of the weather (including floods and avalanches) sweeping the bridge away in its wake. This is necessary because it was found with the earlier constructions built here they were invariably swept away thus the solution was to build this portable structure which is up only during the Spring, Summer and Autumn.
And its that which is in part the reason why the Furka base tunnel was constructed. That was a means to facilitate the Furka-Oberalp Line (or as it is now known, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn) as an all year round railway (rather than a summer only line.) At the same time its improved the railway considerably for it too now follows the example of the other major Swiss lines and has a regular car ferry service through the Furka base tunnel. In fact the Furka line is one of only two narrow gauge railways in the world to offer such an important service.
Oberwald to Realp 1hr 20m.
The next videos are in fact driver’s eye views of the whole line between Brig and Disentis (edited of course) via the base tunnel. Part one is the section from Brig to Visp and Zermatt which isnt (or wasnt) originally part of the system, even though its now part of the merged Furka system.
Brig to Andermatt 1hr 12m.
The next if of course Andermatt to Disentis and includes that spectacular climb out of Andermatt which I mentioned earlier. At six minutes into the video one can see the old tunnel portal on the right, replaced by a newer tunnel on the left. Just before this a vintage car can be spotted on the road to the right.
Andermatt to Disentis 1hr 2m.
The Rhaetian railway is one of the country’s most esteemed narrow gauge networks and forms an end on point with the Furka system at Disentis. Its too the easternmost section upon which the famous Glacier Express runs. Thus the run from Brig eastwards is continued in this section. The big difference between the Furka and the Rhaetian lines is one is rack and adhesion operated, whilst the latter is entirely adhesion worked.
Disentis to Chur 1hr 12m.
There are three different ways from Chur to St. Moritz. This next one is via the Albulabahn, the southernmost of the three routes.
This next one is the northernmost route via Landquart. This takes in the Verenia tunnel (19042m and opened 1999) – the longest metre gauge tunnel in the world. It too has car ferries like the Furka. There’s snow, its at its heaviest after Zernea (the last quarter of the video.) If it was us Brits we would be panicking at the sight of that snow. But as is to be expected in Switzerland its taken very coolly.
Landquart – St Moritz 1hr 44m.
Next is the Bernina Line, possibly the most popular of all narrow gauge routes in Switzerland. Its a spectacular route and the spiral viaducts and the summit (the Bernina Pass itself) around Alp Grum and other locations are fantastic. Even though the line has its own identity and feels a separate system its actually part of the Rhätische Bahn.
Tirano – St. Moritz 2 hrs.
This next video, released 19 June 2020 depicts the reverse direction down to Tirano. Its one of those designed to give British rail enthusiasts and railway employees a heart attack! Its FANTASTIC but it shows how contrived our railways are in terms of snowfall… we practically close down our lines at the mere sight of heavy snowfall. Here’s its positively challenged. Its cool. Its the done thing to go along at speed and not be able to see the tracks ahead at all. Overnight snow made for some very deep drifts on parts of the line too and the train tackles these without any hiccups.
But then again, hey, we dont really have any mountainous sections of line in the UK. Any dramatic ones that did exist – they’ve gone. Bala to Blaenau, Farranfore to Valentia Island, and many more. Clearly we couldn’t accept these and others as a ‘deviation from the norm.’ Thus when one sees videos like this and many others around the world, its clear our railways suck.
As the train ascends the Bernina Pass there’s a strong halo of light ahead for a good while. Also at this point in the video (after about 23 minutes) the line runs alongside a main road – and its difficult at times to discern which is which!
As the train leaves Ospizio Bernina (after about 39 minutes and the highest of all stations on the RhB) and heads towards Alp Grüm, the snowdrifts are amazing! Even here its hard to see the actual railway ahead. At times there so much snow the driver’s view is somewhat impaired but no worries, its all okay!
What is amazing is the snow blower from Pontresina has just passed the train a short time before having been to clear the summit – the snow drifts in the intervening time have amassed quite large along that section of the Bernina line! Yes I realise the snow blowers from the depots either side of the summit section can only work in one direction effectively. At Alp Grüm we meet the other from Poschiavo working its way north.
Even in the snow the descent from Alp Grum is most fascinating. The steep sides of the mountain the line clings to look even more steeper in these conditions!
This new St. Moritz to Tirano is one of the best narrow gauge rail videos I have seen!
St. Moritz to Tirano 2hrs.
There’s also this one entitled Bernina Express Führerstand Tirano → St Moritz. Its slightly edited with shots of driver and line history included but its good enough to watch.)
I am aware of the many videos by the Rhaetian railway’s excellent driver Fabio. Here’s his Twitter and his You Tube channel. There’s loads of fantastic content and even one on how to drive one of the Rhaetian’s narrow gauge locomotives! I could make a feature alone on his output!
These very long Vietnamese railway videos are great, and in some one can also see parts of the standard gauge system which is limited to the northern parts of the country. Sadly there too are some accidents that occur due to the open nature of the country including one where a herd of cows cross the lines unawares a huge train is bearing down on them.
Hanoi is perhaps most well known for its ‘railway streets’ – these being those very narrow thoroughfares that are (in some ways) a normal shopping street and then when a train is due everything is packed or moved out of the way quickly, before a train comes hurtling through! And no they don’t even slow down!
Vietnam is not the only place where this sort of thing happens (there’s others in India, Indonesia and Thailand where people scramble to clear the lines of wares and products before the train arrives – even the Darleejing Himalaya has some railway streets!) but its perhaps the most well known. Absolutely fascinating – despite the medieval aspect! In some of the following videos there’s a driver’s eye view as the one goes through these famous ‘train streets.’
The railway streets are not just at ground level they are also on elevated sections where the lines run right hard by flats, apartments, shops, and other buildings and the two are practically merged. Sadly the popularity of these train streets (and accidents that have arisen as a result) has forced the authorities to close these tourist attractions – although I understand they have now been opened again – with restrictions. The following video is a report on this…
The railway streets are still accessible as this next video shows – but I imagine if its seen that there are to many people the police/rail authorities will clear them out.
Anyway – enough of Hanoi’s train streets – more of these can be seen in some of the long rail videos featuring Vietnam! And first off the mark is a night time journey between Vinh and Hanoi.
Vinh – Hanoi 6hr 44m
This is a night journey but its more fascinating by the piercing light that shines ahead – and not only that the traverse through the ‘train streets’ of Hanoi at night seems far more exciting. This particular video is what must be the longest metre gauge rail video on You Tube.
Hanoi – Yen Bai 4hr 40m.
A longer Vietnam railway driver cab view. This one is of great interest it shows the railway streets where trains hurtle down busy streets without slowing down, this one albeit is early hours and the shops are closed and barely any one is about as seen here and for the next few minutes its amazing to see a railway that passes so close to homes, shops, its a very narrow profile.
There’s a very long elevated section above the city’s streets with one substantial station sat upon this. One thing I noticed from these Vietnamese videos is the station masters have a habit of signalling the train to slow down and stop (whether it be by flag or handlamp) or if the train is passing through without stopping simply hold their flag up steadily. Its a unique custom (somewhat like the Japanese point and call.)
A massive bridge, or a series of bridges all joined together several miles across city streets flood plains, and wide rivers soon follows and its most fascinating! Dual gauge sections soon follow, with the narrow gauge clearly the more shiny of the tracks. At one point a standard gauge passenger train can be seen parked. This standard gauge directly connects to the Chinese railway system and at about 57 minutes into the video there’s a level crossing that goes directly through a station!
Right at the end of the video the train arrives at a substantial station. A locomotive depot can be seen on the far side of the tracks. The locomotive then detaches from tis train then shunts back out of the station, and then back across the tracks right up to this locomotive depot (spot the vegetables being grown between the tracks!) It then reverses again and goes down another branch line which leads to what is cleartly a traingle of lines through another locomotive depot. It then shunts forward and then back once again to attain its own locomotive shed!
A trip in the reverse direction (slightly shorter at 4hr 48 min) can be seen here:
Yen Bai to Hanoi 4hr 48m.
There’s also this one at just over four hours between Ninh Binh and Vinh:
Ninh Binh to Vinh 4hr.
The Vietnam ride Ninh Binh – Vinh is interesting there are level crossings (quite blind) wher the train is doing possibly seventy miles per hour (quite fast for narrow gauge) and there are absolutely no barriers of any sort. Health and Safety would have a heart attack. Later on in the video (at 2hr 15m) there’s a herd of cows crossing the line and the train simply does not stop…. (the brakes had been applied and it did eventually stop but by then it had already been too late.) The driver gets out and checks the locomotive for damage before deciding to move on…
For those who are squeamish, the only thing one sees on this video is a slight jolt as the locomotive hits the unfortunate cows. However if you’re that perverse and really need to see what happens when a train hits a cow, there are many You Tube examples covering such incidents on the main line Indian Railways. I can tell you its not a very nice thing to happen though.
In terms of appearance (line tidiness and maintenance) I liked the fact they do seem to take every attempt to keep their tracks nice and clean – and what’s more there’s no rubbish, no discarded railway infrastructure stuff (as in happens Britain.) It was once said by the Japanese the British didn’t know how to run railways and when one watches these videos of other countries’ lines, there’s clearly lots of dedication involved and that puts our UK lines to shame.
Some of the longer narrow gauge railway videos in the States involve the fantastic steam operated lines of the Cumbres and Toltec and the Durango and Silverton. They’re some of the US’ most famous three foot gauge lines. These videos are actually filmed from the rear of the train. They’re good enough though!
Cumbres & Toltec:
These are normal rear of train views and depict the journey as seen from the guard’s caboose between Chama and Antonio.
Chama to Osier 2hr 30m.
Osier to Antonito 2hr 24m.
Durango and Silverton:
This is another lovely railway. It starts with the on streets section in Silverton and works backwards towards Durango as viewed the rear of the train. And that’s why its called a ‘Guards Eye View!’
Silverton to Shalona Lake 2hr 45m.
The start of this video is classic US railway. A station that’s essentially set in a public road – a muddy sort with potholes in classic western style – its one of the main streets in Silverton in fact. Who needs a railway station when a muddy road will do the job just as well! The more spectacular part of the line is in the last half hour or so of the video if one wants to take a look!
Western Australia has a substantial narrow gauge system. In fact the entire Perth metro system consists of narrow gauge railway. Its an excellent network offering a very intensive service. The only standard gauge in the city is a handful of freight lines (some of which reach the port at Fremantle too) as well as the Trans Australian Railway – which doesn’t actually reach the centre of the city itself but rather ends at a special terminal – East Perth – just outside the city centre. Standard gauge services such as the Indian Pacific and The Prospector use East Perth station.
Most of the area’s rail services (managed by Transperth) meet at the main station in Wellington street and this is 100% narrow gauge. It had at one time standard gauge too however relocation of the standard rail services to East Perth saw an end to that.
Perth railway station when the narrow gauge electric services were brand new. From author’s collection.
Not all the narrow gauge lines are in public use. Those that are have been electrified. Some others are purely freight lines, whilst others have been mothballed. One exception to this rule is the line southwards from Armadale to Bunbury – this sees a handful of passenger services each day including The Australind. (Somewhat of a misnomer as the small town of Australind near Bunbury has never had a rail service!)
This video has sections showing the drivers’ eye views from the Australind.
The narrow gauge network once extended much further but many sections have closed – save for some bits that have been revived as tourist lines such as that from Pemberton to Northcliffe (here’s a video of the last train to Pemberton in 1993) whilst that from Kalamunda is now a road and a tourist attraction in itself.
The Zig Zag railway
Most will probably not know there was once a switchback narrow gauge railway from Perth up into the more hilly parts to the east of the city. The route is now a road from Kalamunda to Perth and its known as the Zig Zag scenic drive. The old railway is however much revered and there has been talk of reopening it. When I visited the continent several decades ago I made an extra special effort to see this historic railway route.
Narrow gauge Garratt on the Kalamunda Zig Zag railway (aka the Upper Darling Range Railway.) Source: Locoman
Train on the Zig Zag at Gooseberry Hill. Source: Facebook
Kalamunda station in the early 1990s when I visited the area. From author’s collection.
This was formerly the Upper Darling Range Railway which overcame a great difference in height between the city and the town of Kalamunda by means of reverse zig zags up the hillsides. Sadly it closed in 1949. This view from Google Streets shows the former route of the railway with Perth’s skyscrapers visible at probably 30km distant.
Zig Zag scenic drive these days. Actually what they have done is they’ve cut off most of the ends of the zig zag sections (as I remember when I visited it) which is what gives the route its much steeper look. Source: Twitter
There’s been discussion with a view to restoring the famous Zig Zag railway. Here’s one article from Perth Now.
Butler to Mandurah 1 hr 33m on the electrified suburban 3′ 6″ Perth (Western Australia) network.
This and the other posts in this series will be updated from time to time during the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns.