In 1871, the first mountain railway in Europe using the rack and pinion system, the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB) was opened, and not surprisingly perhaps, it was in Switzerland. It was not the first mountain railway, since just 3 years ealier, the Mont Cenis Railway, linking France and Italy was opened, using the unique ‘Fell System’. The new railway climbed from Vitznau on the shores of Lake Lucerne to the summit of Mount Rigi – the ‘Queen of Mountains’ – some 6,000 feet above sea level. Apart from its position as the first rack railway in Europe, the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB) is unusual, in being built to the 4ft 8 1/2ins gauge, where most other railways in Switzerland are built to the metre gauge, or less. Of course, it was not possible to climb the mountain by conventional means, and the first steam locomotives also saw the introduction of the “Riggenbach” cog wheel, or rack railway system. With this, a toothed rack was placed in the centre of the two running rails, and the cogwheels on the locomotives engaged tooth by tooth with this rack, to enable the train to maintain a grip.
Other rack systems had been developed, all more or less dervived from Blenkinsop’s toothed wheel locomotive design for the Middleton Colliery near Leeds. Blenkinsop’s rails had a toothed rack cast on the outside of the running rails, to allow a pinion on the engine’s wheels to engage, and provide the essential grip for traction. The system was patented in 1811, but apart from mineral and colliery lines, by the 1830s it was proven that adhesion only locomotives were the best fit for a conventional railway. The only exception was of course where to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, some very steep graients and sharp curves were needed.
Other systems to provide extra adhesion or braking force, such as the ‘Fell System’, adopted for the Rimutaka line in New Zealand, where additional wheels, driven by auxiliary steam engines, and pressed horizontally against a central rail were used. Back in central Switzerland, as the expansion in the use of true rack and pinion railways grew, a near neighbour of Mount Rigi – Mount Pilatus – needed to adopt an entirely different system. So, in addition to the first, and oldest mountain railway in Europe, the Lucerne area also boasts the world’s steepest rack railway.
In this case, climbing over 7,000 feet, to the summit of Mount Pilatus, where the three miles long Pilatusbahn was opened in 1889, nearly twenty years after the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB). On Pilatus, the Lochner rack system was used, where the teeth on the central rack projected sideways, and the cog wheels on the vehicles engaged on either side of this rack, to give even greater grip. Pilatusbahn was still steam hauled until about the time of the First World War, when the vertical boilered steam railcars were superseded by electric vehicles.
The Riggenbach Rack system, and the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB) hold a particularly special place in railway development in Switzerland and Europe. To this day, the “Queen of Mountains” – Rigi – continues to see steam locomotives hauling people to one of the most famous Alpine summits. A famous visitor, one Mark Twain, likened his experience on the Rigi to sliding down the balusters of a staircase!
En-route, the line climbs through lush Alpine meadows, on quite severe gradients to an intermediate junction station at Rigi Kaltbad – over 4,400 feet above sea level – to its ultimate destination Rigi Kulm. There are some six intermediate stops possible, although some of these are halts only, and on request, or for other technical, or operational reasons. From the summit, on a clear day it is possible to see for many miles around, with superb views across Lake Lucerne, towards the ‘Roof of Europe’ and the Bernese Oberland. Nowadays, steam traction on the VRB terminates at Rigi Kaltbad, and the journey behind one of the two steam locomotives – Nos. 16 or 17 – takes about 45 minutes, according to the timetables.
The early motive power used on the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB) was composed of vertical boilered steam locomotives, and not the ‘kneeling cow’ variety more commonplace in later years. In fact, the very first of this type, was also the first to be built by SLM (Schweizerische Lokomotiv and Maschinenfabrik), in 1873, and carried works number 1. This locomotive was taken out of normal service in 1937, and for a time was on display at the station in Vitznau, and eventually found a home in the Swiss Railway Museum in Luzern.
In fact, VRB locomotive No.7, as preserved, is the third oldest steam locomotive in the national collection, behind “Limmat” and “Genf”, which were built for more conventional railways in Switzerland. VRB No.7 has a pair of outside cylinders, carried either side of the central boiler, on what could be described as an 0-4-0 wheel arrangement. The driver’s position is immediately behind the vertical boiler, with a small fenced platform to the front. With a cab roof as well, for 1873, No.7 was a fairly advanced design, even considering the comforts of the crew! Not surprisingly perhaps, it is far too valuable to be used in regular service today. However, during the VRB’s 125th anniversary year 1996, No.7 was used for special excursions from May onwards. It is now a quarter of acentury older, and this historic railway continues to draw many thousands of visitors every year. Those special excursions are still possible today, in 2019.
The oldest vertical boilered steam locomotive in the world – No. 7 is seen here at the summit stations ” Rigi Kulm”. Built by SLM in 1873. Photo: Audrius Meskauskas – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7157010
Switzerland was amongst the very first countries in the world to adopt electric traction, and its unusual mountain railways were in almost every aspect pioneers of this form of traction. On the Rigi though, steam traction and the Riggenbach rack system are still in action today, with two more conventional locomotives, also built by SLM. The 0-4-2 locomotives Nos. 16 & 17 are at work every year on the Rigi, normally one Sunday each month. Both are now ‘getting on’ a bit, having been built in 1923, they are perhaps well into pensionable age. As the photograph shows, the construction of the locomotive is almost conventional, with a horizontal boiler, rear cab, and a pair of inside cylinders carried under the smokebox. The coupled wheels are separated by a jackshaft, which connects both the outside wheels, and the cog wheels connecting with the Riggenbach rack, in the centre of the tracks. As the train climbs upwards of course, the boiler becomes parallel, rather than tipped forward, ensuring that the water level is horizontal. These are fascinating locomotives to watch in action, as the inside cylinders drive onto the centrally placed jackshaft, which transfers power to the coupling rods, and finally, the wheels. The diminutive locomotives – only 7 metres, or just under 23 feet long – wease and struggle to the top of the mountain.
No.16 making ready for the ascent from Vitznau. The experience of riding to the summit of the “Queen of Mountains” being propelled by one of these is truly amazing. (c) Rodger Bradley
Today the VRB’s main motive power is electric, with multiple units climbing to the summit and back every day, in only 30 minutes. The electric railcars reach Rigi Kaltbad in a mere 18 minutes. Once at Rigi Kaltbad, the VRB is joined by another line, rising from the opposite side of the mountain – the Arth Goldau Bahn. The ARB too has its unique characteristics, including some of the oldest working electric railcars in Switzerland. One of these dates back to 1899, and is one of the oldest vehicles specially designed to transport winter sports enthusiasts. The ARB route from Arth Goldau to Rigi Kulm includes five intermediate halts in the long climb, and takes around 30 to 35 minutes for the journey.
There have been upgrades and changes in rolling stock over the years, but steam traction is still available – even down to the oldest vertical boilered loco – No.7 – and the infrastructure has been renewed in places. In the autumn of 2017, the plan to buy new rolling stock was progressed, not by simply replacing the older stock with newer designs, but by procuring new, up to date vehicles with the latest ideas and technology.
The main project “Zielkonzept Betrieb” underway is to enhance the operating environment to take account of the complexity, and interchangeability, of running services with such a variety of stock. The infrastructure changes have included renewing catenary sections and replacing all rectifier stations along the line, and a new control system. The new trains, which are scheduled to be in service This procurement project is planned to see the first vehicle of the newest generation on the rails in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary in 2021.
The new two-car trains will feature more passenger space, barrier free access, and of course, state of the art technology. That technology will include regenerative braking, where instead of burning the braking energy through banks of resistors, on descent the trains will simply feed the energy back into the supply network. A neat, sustainable solution, and in a sense perhaps, the downhill trains will power the uphill operations.
Central Switzerland still boasts more than one regularly steam worked mountain railway, including the 800mm gauge Brienz-Rothorn Bahn, which also uses the Riggenbach rack system. The BRB was steam hauled until the 1960s, and in fact, it was the last all steam hauled rack railway in Switzerland. The BRB celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017, and continues to attract thousands of visitors every year. In later years, the BRB’s fleet of steam locomotives was supplemented by modern diesel railcars (the railway has not been electrified), which now work regularly at off-peak periods, in turn with the steam locomotives. There are no less than seven steam locomotives stored at Brienz, and they are used to provide the main services on this railway to the top of the Rothorn. The BRB starts from the base of the mountain, at Brienz, and climbs to the summit, some 2,252 metres, or nearly 7,400 feet above sea level.
In 1992, the BRB, together with Austria’s Schafbergbahn ordered new steam locomotives from SLM – some 40 years after the last steam rack locomotives were built. The new locomotives took account of the latest ideas and technology available for the new locomotives, which have now been operating on the BRB for almost 30 years!
Given the Swiss reputation for reliability, and accessibility, it is a pleasure to be able to reach easily, and see these fascinating steam locomotives still in use. For the Vitznau Rigi Bahn, now approaching its 150th birthday in 2021, the sight of some of the oldest Riggenbach locomotive in operation will be a memorable occasion.
- Vitznau Rigi Railway (Wikipedia)
- Brienz Rothorn Bahn
- Swiss Transport Museum – Rail Section
- Rigi Bahnen (official site)
- Swiss Locomotive & Machine Works (SLM)