Celebrating the 120th anniversary of the Chemin de fer Montreux Oberland Bernois (MOB.) The line opened in December 1901 between Montreux and Les Avants, a climb of about 1866 feet or 575 metres and a mere 3km (just under two miles) distant as the crow flies. The original plans were in fact for a line initially from Montreux to Erlenbach, with a view to ultimately reaching Interlaken and the new Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway. The extension of the Spiez-Erlenbach railway to Zweisimmen in 1902 no doubt caused the MOB’s early plans to be unrealised. The eastern extremity of the line did however reach the Oberland Bernois (which is more widely known as the Berner Oberland.)
For its first few decades the route was seen as a sort of a glorified tramway linking the various isolated mountain villages to Montreux and prosperity. The company tried to shake that image in the very early days off by introducing restaurant cars so passengers could wine and dine and enjoy the scenery unfolding before them. The introduction of the Golden Mountain Pullman in the 1930s finally gave the railway an international reputation. Its that aspect, and the subsequent Panoramic and Super Panoramic Expresses, the current Golden Pass Expresses, the Golden Pass Classic and the La Belle Epoque have ensued the line’s fortunes.
There’s no arguing the scenery is commendable with the steeply graded climb out of Montreux affording spectacular views right across Lake Geneva. Besides being the one of the first electric main line railways in Switzerland (The Burgdorf–Thun railway was the first having opened in 1899) the MOB was for years one of the steepest adhesion railways in the world, and its this that enables trains to overcome the considerable height differences above Montreux.
Zweisimmen in 1900 before either the Montreux-Oberland or the Erlenbach-Zweisimmen lines reached the town. Source: Swiss Nailizakon.
Originally the MOB was to be a rack railway running from Montreux up to Les Avants, thence over the Jaman Pass and down to Montbovon. The plans for that route were publicised in 1890, the cost for the entire scheme being 4.9 million francs. The opening of the nearby Gilon-Rochers de Naye mountain rack railway in 1892 furthered hopes a line through the Jaman Pass would be pulled off. Eight years later however the scheme had not come to realisation, but a more serious proposal was instead put forward which extended the route to Zweisimmen and created the railway we known today.
On 16th April 1898 the Montreux Oberland Bernois railway was born. This in part followed the planned course of the earlier proposal but instead tunnelled beneath the Jaman Pass. Right from the start it would be a electrically operated adhesion railway and what’s more, instead of ending at Montbovon, it would extend through the Saanen valley to Zweisimmen. The total cost of the Montreux to Montbovon section (including a tunnel) was put at 5.4 million francs. Rather than Zweisimmen, Erlenbach was later mooted as the terminus of the line. However that was not to be for another railway company was instead permitted by the Bern canton to construct their line as far as Zweisimmen.
The Erlenbach to Zwesimmen Bahn, which on the heels of the Spiez – Erlenbach Bahn, built a standard gauge railway further into the Simmental thus precluding the Montreux Oberland Bernois any hope of an extension northward. Source: Wikipedia
The following passage is a full report from Feuille d’avis de Montreux (27th July 1901) on the beginnings of the new railway and the arguments as to whether the route being proposed was the right one or not. Monseiur Teucher (a politician) was a well known proponent of the new Bern–Lötschberg–Simplon railway however he too gave his full support to the Montreux Oberland Bernois.
Montreux Bernese Oberland and Lotschberg. The Bernese newspapers are very busy with the new Montreux Oberland line, which they are very favorable to, without forgetting the Lotschberg, which also smiles on them.
The other day, we recalled Mr Marti’s opinion on these two projects. Berner Tagblatt recalled Mr. Teucher’s comments, which it is perhaps useful to know as well.
We remember that Mr. Teucher, former Councilor of State, was a strong supporter of connecting the basin of Leman to the Bernese Oberland, by a railroad, either by Gessenay or by Bulle.
He had come to the conclusion that the most direct, the most economical and the most profitable communication was the one currently being built, Montreux-Les-Avants-Montbovon-Erlenbach.
As for the attitude of the canton, of Bern, the principal interested in the creation of this way connecting two basins, Mr. Teucher estimated that it should be favorable. Indeed, this way is of first importance, either for the whole of the canton, or for the communes concerned, because only, it, promises a return.
Then from the creation of this railway, added Mr. Teucher, the State of Bern having to subsidize at least 5 million francs (the Erlenbach-Zweisimmen subsidy included) and the municipalities concerned to take 900,000 francs in shares. It is not indifferent to know if these considerable sums will pay off one day; however, this yield depends essentially on the choice of the route.
In this regard, Mr. Teucher declared the route passing through Jaman to serve Vevey and Montreux perfectly profitable, while, on the contrary, if it went through Bulle-Chatel-Chardonne, the operation would not be profitable for a while, long enough at least. The Bernese government, with its well-known perspicacity in railway matters, will definitely vote for the Jaman pass; it is my wish, and, with the powerful support of ‘Etait de Vaud, this project – corrected and improved – does not take long to be carried out!
Such is the assessment of Mr Teucher, thus in perfect agreement with that of Mr Marti.
This so affirmative attitude of Mr. Teucher – the father and ardent promoter of Lotschberg – should reassure the supporters of this last line: The Montreux Oberland will not harm him in any way.
As a result, concludes Berner Tagblatt, do one of the lines and not give up the other.
The above is a Google translation of the passage from the Montreux Notice Sheet (Feuille d’avis de Montreux) – a French language newspaper based in Montreux. The translation is evidently a bit wonky but nevertheless conveys the sense at the time whether a direct railway route (eg the MOB) or a more indirect route via Bulle was the better option. That via Bulle would have been perfect for connections to Berne but not so good for the Bernese Oberland.
The first section of line to Les Avants was opened on 17th December 1901. After, the line reached Montbovon on 1st October 1903. It would not be until later that year when it reached Château-d’Oex. Both Gstaad and Zweisimmen would be reached in 1905. The Zweisimmen – Lenk line was completed in 1912.
The 2424m long Jaman tunnel above Les Avants is the 5th longest meter gauge tunnel in Switzerland (the Vereina being the first, the Furka Base second, then the Jungfrau and the Albula.) The Jaman tunnel links Jor stations (1080m) and Les Cases (1113m) and affords a quick and efficient route between Montreux and Montbovon. Its southern portal is just 4.8km (or three miles) from Montreux station as well as a climb of over 685 metres (or 2247 feet.)
The first ever poster for the MOB advertising the new Montreux to Les Avants section – that alignment is depicted on the poster itself. Source: Poster Auctioneer
For the 100th Anniversary of the line’s opening, a special train was introduced. This, the Goldenpass Classic is a homage to the former Golden Mountain Pullman of the 1930s. The carriages were built new but based on the design of of some earlier Pullman carriages specially built for the line in the 1960s. See this page.
I first knew of the Montreux Oberland Bernois when I purchased my copy of Swiss Travel Wonderland by Cecil. J. Allen in 1972. Its one of several important Swiss metre gauge lines to merit a dedicated chapter in that book, the others being the Bernese Oberland Bahn, the Furka Oberalp (now the Matterhorn-Gotthard Bahn), the Rhaetian Railway and the Lucerne-Stans-Engleberg line (now part of the Zentralbahn.) Allen says of the MOB:
Though possessing no more than 47 miles of line, the Montreux Oberland Bernois Railway, tourist highway between the Lake of Geneva and the Bernese Oberland, can claim a number of records. It was the first line of its length in Switzerland – and indeed in Europe – to decide on electrification from its opening in 1901. It has the steepest gradients of any line in Switzerland worked by adhesion, up to a maximum inclination of 1 in 13 and half. It is the only metre-gauge railway in Europe that has ever boated a Pullman train, the Golden Mountain Pullman, which was introduced in 1931.
So far so good. Except a couple of points should be made. First there is debate whether its the MOB or the Bernina Railway that has the maximum adhesion record. There are of course other railways now, especially tramways, including our own Sheffield Supertram, that achieves far steeper grades (1 in 10.) There’s a handful of others a little steeper than that too. There is debate whether the Bernina betters the MOB in terms of maximum inclination. I would agree the Bernina gains a far more spectacular ascent than the MOB especially the section between Poschiavo and Alp Grum. Its simply spectacular in terms of how the line climbs so high. But there’s no doubt the MOB’s gradients of 7.3% beats the Bernina’s 7% grades. Wikipedia.
As for Pullmans, well the Golden Mountain Pullman stopped just a year or so after it began! And its not the only one to have those! Even though the MOB brought its Pullmans back quite a few years ago, it was the Gloden Pass Classic for a time, and today’s its known as the La Belle Epoque. Nevertheless its not the only metre gauge to have Pullmans, the Matterhorn-Gotthard and the Rhaetian has those too – the Alpine Glacier Classic Pullman Express.
Anyway, let’s take a tour along the line from Montreux to Zweisimmen. But first a map of the route!
The railway between Montreux & Zweisimmen. I created this line diagram based on the MOB’s 2021 system map.
The station was originally known as Vernex and the track layout introduced when the MOB opened had a far simpler layout with trains approaching the station on the north side of its perimeter. When the Montreux-Gilion rack railway was built the old inclined section of MOB had to be demolished and moved nearer to the standard gauge tracks. The rack railway took up the space vacated by the MOB’s former trackage. part of the structure that carried the old incline (as well as the redundant approach trackbed) can still be seen to this day.
Montreux station in 1903 showing the old approach ramp. This was later moved to about where the right hand edge of the photograph is. See the next picture. Source: Bilan.ch
I think the present approach that’s used today is even steeper than the one seen in the above view! Once trains have begun their steep climb out of the station they immediately enter a helicoidal tunnel and are soon facing in the other direction, climbing ever higher.
The present approach to Montreux station is clearly far steeper than the old alignment! Locomotive is Ge 4/4 8000. Source: Photos Ferroviaires de Christophe.
Montreux 30th June 1956. Train for Zweisimmen consisting of two motorcoaches and four trailers. Note the tramway like appearance of the old terminus at Montreux. Credit J.W. Sutherland. Source: J.W. Sutherland Railway Collection.
Few will know the old style Montreux station was essentially a tramway! The trains terminated in the street next to the main railway station. This arrangement came about because the only available space for the MOB’s terminus was actually in the roadway outside the railway station. Even in the 1990s as I remember the terminus still resembled a street tramway! Its not until 1994-96 the tarmac was dug up and the whole site rebuilt as a proper railway station.
Even my own photographs show it was still like this at Montreux in 1991. Can’t put buffer stops on a road! This is one of the Panorama Express Driving Cars which has the driver sitting above the passenger saloon. There’s clear evidence the trains sometimes ran out of track! Photo taken August 1991 by the author.
Descending towards Montreux. Its clear from this the line originally followed a different alignment. Source: Notre Histoire.
The classic Montreux Oberland Bernois shot! The steeply graded adhesion route from Montreux affords spectacular views over lake Geneva (Lac Leman.) Two of the MOB’s Abeh 4/4s are seen in attendance with two coaches. Source: Region du Leman.
A train consisting of Panorama Express stock is seen at Planchamp (with the famous Châtelard in the background) showing the considerable gradient the trains tackle and this because the company instead of opting for a rack railway decided to go for a very steeply graded adhesion line. Its also why electric traction was used from the start. This isn’t the steepest bit of all but its still substantial! Source: Facebook.
These two stations are where a certain amount of rolling stock is kept, either in long term store or awaiting attention at Chernex works. Both stations are in close proximity so it makes sense to utilise both sites in terms of the needs of the Chernex works, which are of course where most of the line’s rolling stock maintenance and repairs/renovations is undertaken.
Its not just the Montreux Oberland Bernois stock that gets attention at Chernex too. Rack railway stock from the Montreux-Glion-Caux-Rochers de Naye line is also brought to Chernex when necessary and special rail bogies are used instead of the 800mm gauge bogies the stock normally uses. In 2007 the MOB company took over the Vevey-Les Pleiades adhesion/rack railway and that line’s stock also comes to Chenex from time to time, being brought from Blonay via the 3km connecting line (regularly used by the local steam and electric Railway Museum) to Chamby thence onward to Chernex.
Chernex works are located on the hillside high above Montreux, and were first established in 1907 following the completion of the company’s new line to the Bernese Oberland.
Here’s an article on the 100th anniversary of Chernex works. (French language.)
In terms of anniversaries, this is Ge 4/4 8001, seen at Fontanivent showing its special livery for the Montreux Oberland Bernois’ 100th year of operation. This I believe was the only item of rolling stock on the line to commemorate that particular anniversary and the livery depicts the year of the line’s opening, eg 1901. Source: X-Rail.
Ge 4/4 8001 at Chernex showing its other side celebrating the line’s 100th anniversary in 2001. The livery represents the railway as it is nowadays, and although the decoration might look somewhat puzzling to the uninitiated, its actually a celebration of the balloon races that take place around the Château-d’Oex area, including the International Hot Air Balloon Festival. Château-d’Oex is known as the balloon capital of Switzerland. The famous Montreux Jazz Festival is also depicted. Source: X-Rail
The celebrated Panoramic Express carriages built for the line’s earlier 75th anniversary in 1976. Coach no.1 was restored to its original appearance complete with 75th anniversary branding. Chernex works 2016. Source: Twitter
General view of the Chernex works from the adjacent level crossing. The track on the left descends to Montreux. Source: Google Streets
The company also has another depot at Zweisimmen which looks after the stock at that end of the line, including those used on the Lenk section.
As the crow flies the distance between Chenex and Chamby stations is about 450 metres, that’s less than half a kilometre anyway! By train its almost 3km and that because the line takes a detour in order to tackle the steep hills between the two locations.
Chamby in the early days. Source: Geneanet
Chamby’s lofty location can be best appreciated by way of it having one of the most stupendous views to be seen from a Swiss railway station including a huge vista of Lake Geneva! Its not Alp Grüm – but then both locations are totally different – and just as spectacular as each other.
Spectacular views from Chamby station across Lac Leman. Abeh 4/4 No.9304 leads the train. Source: Twitter
The line climbs further initially by way of a helicoidal tunnel immediately it leaves Chamby station. By the time the railway turns towards the mountains near Sendy-Sollard, the famous Lake Geneva is nearly 2000 feet below.
The line near Sendy-Sollard where Montreux and Lake Geneva can be seen quite a distance below the railway. Locomotive GDe 4/4 no.6003 is seen here. Source: Bahnbilder.
For most of the distance from this point to Montbovon this is classic railway, mostly hugging the sides of the mountains with bridges or viaducts crossing side valleys or ravines, and intersected by tunnels where necessary in order to reach the long Jaman tunnel.
The old viaduct at Chenaux Wood, near Sendy-Sollard. Replaced by the Gardiol viaduct in the 1940s. Source: Considérations Ferroviaires.
The Gardiol Viaduct (alternatively the Grand Viaduct of Chenaux Wood) is named after the railway company’s engineer who designed this extremely modern structure which was completed in 1946. Mathematical equations were used to work out the most perfect structure possible in terms of styling, line curvature and incline (yes it climbs steeply too) as well as its load bearing capabilities – which were at the time necessary for conveying standard gauge freight traffic to Les Avants. .
I managed a picture of the Gardiol viaduct from the train! August 1991. Author’s photograph.
The line at Les Avants in early days. Source: Ecole Châtelard.
Les Avants station in August 1991. Notice how the station has been extended and a balcony added. Most of the line’s OHLE still consisted of wooden poles. Photograph by the author.
Even though the line has now left the Lake Geneva valley and is heading into the mountains the scenery continues to be spectacular all the way to Jor and the Jaman tunnel. When the line was built there were many sharp bends long this section, as well as tunnels and viaducts. Some of the more difficult sections have now been improved by way of gentler alignments or new viaducts such as the Gardiol we saw earlier. However the galleries above Les Avants remain.
The Galerie des Râpes (translated as the Rasps Galleries) near Jor in the line’s early days. There are several short tunnels in this section. The line continues to climb steeply and it soon enters the long Jaman tunnel. Source: Considérations Ferroviaires.
Aerial view of Jor station. Source: Wikipedia.
One of the line’s surveyors at Jor. This guy later became a famous civil engineer (see below.) The date is said to be sometime in 1903 which would be right as the line from Les Avants to Montbovon was not yet completed. The track seen in the photograph is probably temporary and for use in the construction of the Jaman tunnel. The same exact location would later become the station’s siding. The line from Les Avants climbs up in the background but it seems at this point the trackbed had not yet been formed nor had earthworks begun to form the section of railway cut into the hillside to the right. Compare this view with the next one. Source: ETH Zurich.
A view of Jor station from just inside the Jaman tunnel. Our 1903 railway surveyor would have been stood about where the carriage can be seen on the siding to the right. The line’s gully or steep drop to the left of that carriage has to be that which can be seen behind the surveyor in the other picture. Source: Wikipedia.
It might surprise you to know this surveyor was Othmar Ammann, a Swiss-American civil engineer noted for some of America’s most famous bridges. Among these are the George Washington Bridge (1931), Bayonne Bridge (1931), Triborough (Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge (1936), Bronx–Whitestone Bridge (1939) Walt Whitman Bridge (1957), Throgs Neck Bridge (1961) and the celebrated Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge (1964) which was at the time the longest span in the world. Ammann was also on the Board of Engineers for the Golden Gate Bridge (1937.) See also Gateways to New York: Othmar H Ammann and his bridges.
The entrance to the 2424 m long Jaman tunnel at Jor in 1904. Source: Notre Histoire.
The largely unlined Jaman tunnel is on an ascending gradient from Jor to Les Cases at the southern end. The single track through it is capable of carrying quite frequent services for the line speed is 70km/h and a train can pass through the tunnel in a little over three minutes. Both Jor and Les Cases have passing loops which means trains can pass through the tunnel with little delay.
The entrance to the Jaman tunnel at Les Cases with skiers heralding the arrival of the Golden Mountain Pullman. This view from the early 1930s depicts the original stone built portal. The motor coach depicted is one of those built for the Golden Mountain Express Services in the 1930s. Source: Galerie 123.
Les Cases marks the line’s emergence into the Hongrin whose valley it runs high above as far as Les Sciernes, before descending to Montbovon.
The mountains in winter at Les Cases. The station itself and a carriage can just be seen. The line between Les Avants and Montbovon is one of two stretches of line that gets heavily snowed up in the winter, the other being the section over the Saanenmöser summit. Source: Ricardo CH.
Modern day drone view of Les Cases station with a GoldenPass express topping the 6.4% gradient from Allières before passing the station and entering the Jaman tunnel (just out of sight in the distance.) Source: 24TrainsTV.
The line at Allières in 1905 looking in the direction of Montbovon. Source: Notre Histoire.
From Allières the line descends at generally 6.8% towards Les Sciernes and the Hongrin bridge.
Early days at Les Sciernes. Source: Geneanet.
The station serves the village of Les Sciernes d’Albeuve
The spectacular curve at Les Sciernes probably 1904. The MOB takes a series of severe curves in order to overcome the height difference needed to reach Montbovon. Allières station can just be seen in the distance. Source: Considérations Ferroviaires.
This photograph I took in 1991 shows the amount of descent at Les Sciernes our train has undertaken (as well as having practically come round the front of the station!) I measured the distance the train has travelled past the station building and its 213 metres. 31/08/1991. Author’s photograph.
The bridge over the Hongrin gorge near Montbovon with Locomotive GDe 4/4 no.6004. Source: Wikiloc.
The line descends via a pair of loops below Les Sciernes station before a very steep horseshoe curve at 6.8% takes the line in completely the opposite direction. The line then turns again sharply then descends rapidly across the Hongrin gorge into a tunnel (162m) which brings it to Montbovon station.