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The Friends of the
National Railway Museum






South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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Talk Synopsis


25 May 2009






The Railways of Switzerland
George Howe
9 March 2009

Mr George Howe, of the Swiss Railway Group, gave a video-based presentation to our meeting on 9th March. To reflect the interest in this subject, it was standing room only, with some 24 members and guest present.
George and his wife have been visiting Switzerland for some 30 years, so he has got to know the country and its railways. He provided a live-commentary to the video which he had prepared around ten years ago using a professional video editing service.
His tour commenced with a quick resume on the modes of travel for getting to the country, from the more traditional car and train, to the novel - paragliding! His first study was of the nocturnal activities at Basle station in the form of rapid shunting and luggage transfer movements. This included fly-shunting of carriage stock with passengers on board, and some locomotive permissive working which was more like tram operation.
The tour then moved on the St Moritz to take in some bob-sleigh running, "white turf" (aka snow) horse racing on the frozen lake, not to mention the extremely long freights coming from the Gotthard tunnel, and a large crocodile-hauled special.
We then followed metre-gauge the Appenzellerland Bahn rack railway line over the mountains to St Gallen where the mixed running of trams and trolley buses required some Swiss-precision-engineered overhead cabling.
A trip on the standard-gauge rack-railway from Rorschach to Heiden brought us to Lake Constance for a trip on the lake to Reinach. Then on to Lake Lugano. At Bellinzona we saw some of the workings in and out of Italy and sampled the tilting trains which are the predecessors of the Virgin Pendelinos. A trip on the railway from Locarno to Domodossola, like several others we had already sampled, started by appearing to be a street tram system, but then metamorphosed into a light railway through the country. At Marone, the crossing of a train coming in the other direction was achieved by shunting into a dead-end siding and some quick reversing back after the other train had passed - any faster and it seemed that there was a risk of engaging the automatic couplings between the two trains.
In the second part we started with a view of the old No7 - a vertical boilered steam engine on the Pilatus rack railway. The Pilatus is the steepest rack railway in the world, with gradients of 1 in 2. Automatic traversers, rather than points, make for some rapid turnrounds. At the top, we had a quick view of some of the alpine flora and fauna - the latter being some fairly angry looking ibex which seemed to take a dislike to George's videoing. Over the other side of the mountain, the descent is via a cable car.
Although George acknowledges that his German is rather rusty, when he saw a promotional leaflet for "dampf parallelizing" he got the message. We saw samples of the resulting 23 minutes of parallel running of steam hauled specials, where the two trains weaved up and over each other allowing for some fascinating shots of Walschaerts valve gear in action. The train George was on was hauled by a German built heavy freight engine, but the other was double headed by swiss-built 2-8-0 and 2-6-0, the latter being the diminutive No1 of 1889 vintage. The return trip was also parallel running, but this time hauled by large and small crocodile electric locos. The connecting rods set your eyes fairly spinning round.
Following a number of shots of trains passing over the Filisur viaduct from the observation point on the opposite side of the valley, we saw another Crocodile, this time a narrow gauge one - operating a local goods train at Zernez. This led us to some views of the operations on the Brusio spiral which, at 1 in 14, is one of the steepest adhesion-only lines in the country. Just to add to the difficulty of its operation, the overhead voltage changes half-way down the line!
Back to steam, for the last few minutes, with some shots of a steam special between St Moritz and St Aubin, followed by some demonstration of the self-propelled steam-powered snow-blower. Quite an ending - and it nearly was for George who was standing in the middle of the track as the snow-blower approached and stopped a few metres in front of him.
With trains operated like trams, trams which think they are trains, electric locos that look like steam engines and steam trains that accelerate like electrics, it is no wonder that Swiss railways are so fascinating.



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