High Altitude Steam

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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.

Vitznaurhof & Rigi 1989-1

Classic view from the station at “Rigi Kulm”, looking down over Lake Lucerne, with a train making its way down to Vitznau. (c) Rodger Bradley

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.

Rigi_vertical_boiler

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.

Luzern -8

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.

 

New 2-car sets

Planned new railcars for the VRB.

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.

BRB 1

Classic BRB locomotive about to set off from the station at Brienz – still carrying the bulk of traffic up until the 1990s.   (c) Rodger Bradley

New BRB steam loco No12

One of the then new SLM built steam locomotives, with the latest steam technology, and coupled to a new passenger car.

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.

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