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Thursday 27th – Sunday 30th June 2019

© Text & Photos: Stuart Smith  

Click Photos for an enlargement

Our 2019 Swiss educational visit started on the Wednesday evening, with a group dinner at The Bahnhof Hotel in Reichenbach im Kandertal.  Eight Institution members had journeyed via varying routes to reach this very pleasant location, just south of Spiez on the Gotthard mainline.  Exchanging stories, we enjoyed some traditional Swiss food served by our excellent hosts.

Thursday 27th

Our first full day started with breakfast, before boarding the 08:06 regional train to Brig. Travelling on this North-South route, passengers can either opt for fast Intercity trains via the Gotthard Basis Tunnel or the regional stopping trains on the classic route ‘over the top’ via Kandersteg.

At Brig, we changed on to another train heading along the Rhône Valley towards Martigny.  The weather today was hot already, something we had to cope with all week, as Switzerland, like most of Western Europe was experiencing some very high temperatures.  Today’s destination was Emosson-Barrage (home to a series of railways/funiculars) formerly used in the construction of the nearby dam and power station, close to the French border.

 This is accessed via a metre-gauge system, which operates with a mixture of 3rd rail and 25kv overhead. In addition, several sections of rack-assisted line are also used, in order to ascend to over 1200m above sea-level at the highest point of the route.

Switzerland 2019

The TTE (Train Touristique d’Emosson) starts adjacent to the small station at Le Châtelard VS, and visitors are required to take no less than three different modes, to reach the summit.

A Drivers eye view aboard our train from Martigny. The rack rail is in the centre, with the third-Rail on the right

The first is a funicular railway which climbs a further 700 metres, hugging the contours of the land as it rises.  Here passengers can explore the small expo/museum, which houses a collection of around 50 sets of weighing scales (I’ve no idea what these had to do with the power station or railways in general for that matter?).

The station at Le Châtelard-Frontière.

Passports at the ready as we tip-toe into France at Vallorcine. Here the TMR trains make an end on connection with services heading towards Chamonix-Mont Blanc

In addition, this is where passengers transfer to the 2ft gauge train for the 1.7km ride along the mountain ledge. Several tunnels line the route, which gave brief welcome respite from the heat, which hadn’t relented, even by gaining altitude.  

The Châtelard Funicular from Le Châtelard to Les Montuires

Once off the train, we transferred into the second funicular to reach the highest point at 1930m above sea-level.  From here, there are some commanding views of the dam, as well as across to Mont-Blanc, with its snow-capped peaks in the distance.   The restaurant on the plateau provided a perfect location to have lunch.

The smaller cable railway to the summit. The cars only held 5 passengers maximum

Back at Le Châtelard, and some serious power lines!

Suitably refreshed, we retraced our journey back down to Le Châtelard, before heading back to Martigny. Whilst some opted to return direct to the hotel, a small group chose to visit the branch-line to Le Châble (with its new underground station) and to nearby Orsières.  The first target was achieved, the second succumbed to the dreaded rail replacement!

Friday 28th

 Friday was originally planned to be a day of two depot visits, but unfortunately, due to internal issues, the BLS were unable to accommodate us due to extensive depot rebuilding at Spiez, and a vastly increased workload at Bönigen.

Therefore, a short notice plan to visit the newly re-opened line (on part of the old formation that closed way back in 1928) from Niederbipp to Oensingen, plus the separate route from there to Balsthal, operated by Oebb. Upon arrival at Oensingen, we discovered that the track  layout through the main SBB station was being totally renewed, and as a result, the four platforms had been closed, and replaced with one temporary structure. The Oebb platform starts from the car park (as many private lines do in Switzerland).   With only a few minutes to go before departure, it became apparent that ‘Bertie the Bus’ was active again for the second day running, despite no obvious notification to waiting passengers. A member of staff who appeared on an incoming bus (from Balsthal), confirmed that the subsequent service would indeed be a train, so we opted to wait thirty minutes, rather than take the bus.

From what we can gather, the driver on the route was due some form of break in his shift, and no replacement was available, so the bus filled in for one round trip on the short branch.

30 minutes later than planned, we got to ride up to Balsthal, in a former SBB Class 560 emu, which is one of two now operated on this line. At the end of the branch, the track into the station has been slewed, somewhat considerably, since my last trip here in October 2006 with Alan Spencer and Mercia Charters. A few of the group went to have a look around the former goods yard, which now houses several interesting items of historic rolling stock.

During this time, I found some online photographs of my previous visit, and was able to identify the former station location, by way of confirming the old buildings in the area.

Despite being a privately operated branch-line, it was interesting to see that freight traffic (in the form of a log train), still serves a paper mill, a few hundred yards beyond the passenger terminus.

With the temperature rising still, we also used the break here for a welcome ice cream!

Next, it was on to Olten, where we arrived around 12:30. This gave an opportunity for those wanting to grab a quick lunch, before making our way to the nearby SBB Depot.

We were met at the reception area by Andre Cartier (The Kaizen Representative). Those who took part in the visit to Bellinzona Works last year were certainly familiar with the word ‘Kaizen’ (a direct translation from the Japanese word meaning ‘Improvement’).

A year ago, the process was in its infancy with SBB, yet today, it is an everyday word and has become almost second nature to the work force.

The first part of our visit included a fairly in-depth demonstration and display of the ‘Kaizen’ process, explaining how a small part makes up a big picture, and how each member of staff is a vital part of the whole company. It is reported that a saving of around 16 Million Swiss Francs (CHF) in one year alone can be directly attributed to the new way of doing things.

The works at Olten is the main centre for SBB, and deals with coaching stock and multiple unit repairs/overhauls, rather than locomotives.  Olten is currently part way through a midlife overhaul on the 300 double-decker passenger coaches used on the Zurich S-Bahn network. This work starts with the removal of all internal fixtures and fittings, and concludes with a new external paint spray.  The entire process takes 45 days per vehicle.  An internal traverser moves the vehicles around the various maintenance bays undertaking each specific job.

Following our visit, we returned to the station before heading back to Reichenbach, to freshen up and enjoy a drink before dinner.

Views of the Carriage Repair Shops inside Olten Works

A double-headed SBB Class 460 service arrives into Spiez from Brig

Kerzers. The former signal box which controls a diamond junction layout is now a museum

As usual, we would be having a group evening meal at the hotel, but for tonight, we were welcoming long-standing L&CI member, and former Vice-President, Willi Frauenfelder to speak to us on the latest developments with the BLS Lötschbergbahn AG.

After an excellent meal, we were given a fairly comprehensive lecture on the latest developments from within Switzerland. This included a mention of the new services to be run by BLS – some being transferred from SBB, others being totally new services (something similar to the way privatisation alters the boundaries of franchises and how it decides who operated which trains here in the UK). The ever increasing expansion and popularity of through trains from Domodossola (Italy) to Brig was talked about, and the recent takeover from SBB of car shuttles through the Simplon Tunnel.

A new 6-day a week freight service for Nespresso is now operated using Class 187 Vectron locomotives, which work a 22-hour round trip service, from Basel to Romont, Avenches and Chavornay. Many new track expansion and signalling projects are currently in progress, all of which will enable BLS to continue to grow and serve the passenger best.

Following the conclusion of the lecture, Willi was presented with some gifts from the Institution, in thanks for his time and continued assistance over the years.

Stuart Smith presents former L&CI Vice-President (Willi Frauenfelder) with a gift following his lecture to our group at Reichenbach im Kanderthal

Saturday 29th

Saturday was effectively a spare day, with members able to choose their own itinerary. However, a few weeks prior to our trip, we got notification of an Open Day at Brig (SBB) Depot. With the weather getting even hotter today, (the forecast was for 39’c in the Rhône Valley), we opted for an early start by train.

To access the depot, a shuttle train service was operating from the loading dock area outside the main station, using an SBB Class 560 EMU. Whilst not in the same style as open days in the UK of yesteryear, there was still a fairly varied assortment of exhibits and rolling stock on show, including two fire rescue trains, a brand new Class 502 EMU, several Re4/4’s and Class 460’s, plus quite a few shunting locos and an assortment of other unusual items.

A second internal shuttle train was giving rides through the newly commissioned train-wash facility. Several of the multiple units were open to walk though (and sit down in), and even had the air-conditioning working to give a respite from the increasing temperature!

Many of the loco cabs were open to visitors too.

Vallorcine and it’s third-rail warnings!

Passing cars, high above Le Châtelard

The narrow gauge station in stunning scenery

Our small loco for the 1.7km trip to the dam

Lac d’Emosson and the dam

A view of the narrow gauge train running along the cliff ledge

The traverser bed

SBB diesel TM’s pose for visitors as part of the Depot Open Day at Brig

A newly built SBB Class 922 was giving demonstrations on the roundhouse turntable

A view of a modern coaching stock vehicle having a bogie change inside Brig Depot

An SBB Class 420

Even if not as informative as our usual ‘organised’ depot visits, the chance to see behind the scenes (with turntable demonstrations and trains being lifted on jacks) at an active depot, was very interesting.

After returning to Brig station, members opted for a range of destinations to amuse themselves during the afternoon. Zermatt, The Reichenbach Falls, a cruise on Lake Thun, Zweisimmen or a trip to the Suhr Valley were some of the locations reached.

A BLS operated Re420 and Mk III coaches on a Zweisimmen to Interlaken Ost service

A view of the gauge-changer at Zweisimmen, which, from December 2020, will allow ‘Golden Pass’ services to operate through from Montreux to Interlaken Ost.

Sunday 30th

Our last full day started by heading direct to Bern, changing into a service for Zürich Hbf.

Here we had time for a quick wander around this impressive station, which used to be all terminus platforms, but has been expanded to include two separate sub-surface levels for both long distance and regional trains, avoiding the need for reversals. Both required the construction of lengthy tunnels under the city, which now give three separate routes from Zürich Oerlikon (just one station out) into the main station.

Walking along the platform ends, we soon encountered a smell of steam in the air!

A few steps further and we saw the remarkable sight of former Uerikon-Bauma Bahn CZm 1/2 no.31, a steam powered railcar, dating from 1902. This was actually heading for Sihlwald too, to supplement the coaching stock shortage for the 2019 season.

Former Uerikon-Bauma Bahn CZm 1/2 (no.31) stands at Zürich Hbf

Zürich Hbf was the place to be for heritage rolling stock on this morning, as in an adjacent platform was a former SBB “Churchill” (Red Arrow) railcar, no.1021, dating from 1939.

This was operating a lunchtime circular trip. Amusingly, (although only through translation) was that the platform screens showed it advertised as a “Brunchfahrt”.

Having watched both trains depart, we made our way to the SZU platforms, in order to take the regular service train to Sihlwald.

Despite being only 25minutes end-to-end, these trains are locomotive hauled, using either single cab push-pull Class 456’s or traditional Re4/4 locomotives with driving trailers.

Here we were met by Henry Billeter, one of the founding members of the Zürich Museum Bahn (ZMB), and our guide for the day. From talking to Henry throughout the visit, it is clear that without his persistence, passion and enthusiasm from the outset, the railway would clearly not have overcome all the hurdles.

The SZU runs through mostly built up areas south of Zürich, until the last but one station (Langnau-Gattikon), where upon it suddenly becomes very rural and remote. The trains operate at 10 minute frequencies as far as here, with just one train an hour extended to the final station at Sihlwald.

Upon our arrival, we also met our second host, Thomas König.

The ZMB train was waiting in the adjacent platform, but we still had time to purchase our tickets and take some photographs before boarding. We had been allocated reserved seating in the steam railcar we had seen earlier at Zürich Hbf, which had travelled ahead of us, and now formed part of the train consist.

The train was made up of ZMB steam locomotive E3/3 no.5 “Schnaaggi Schaaggi” (dating from 1899), the steam railcar no.31, two ex-BLS first class coaches, and, an ex-Sihlthalbahn electric motor coach, FCe 2/4 no.84 (built 1924) on the rear.

ZMB no.5 “Schnaaggi-Schaaggi” heads our train at Sihlwald.

Members of the L&CI were invited to travel in the steam-railcar behind the loco.

The ZMB have running rights over the SZU Network from Sihlwald to Zürich Giesshübel, where they diverge on to their own tracks to terminate at Zürich Wiedikon station.

This section requires the steam hauled services to fit tightly in between the regular passenger service, and over the years a close working relationship has been forged.

Henry openly admits that when the ZMB was founded, and given its initial operating licence (plus a few items of rolling stock), the people at the top of SBB expected them to quickly fail. To this day, they have proved them wrong, running faultlessly and incident free.

Departing back towards Sihlwald, the two steam powered devices on the front made a splendid sound as they powered up through the Manesse Tunnel. Operating only once per month, from April to September, it does seem that even the locals were surprised to see the train passing through the suburbs.

Upon reaching Sihlwald, the train stopped briefly for water, before continuing over the rarely used section of line to Sihlbrugg. The line becoming even more remote by this point, although very picturesque, as it skirts the banks of the River Sihl.

Just prior to reaching Sihlbrugg, the line curves parallel to the SBB route running from Zürich to Luzern & Arth-Goldau, although since 2012, no trains actually stop here anymore, with the platforms laying abandoned. The SZU ceased running to Sihlbrugg in 2006.

A short leg-stretch break was permitted here, before returning to Sihlwald.

Here we were invited guests for lunch. Originally it had been planned to dine in the restaurant car whilst the train was travelling, however in the weeks leading up to our visit, I was informed that an inspection had revealed that the axles had failed an ultrasonic test, and therefore would not be allowed to run over the SZU lines. So, therefore, we would be having lunch in the engine shed - a very suitable alternative!

We were served a delicious three course meal: Swiss salad as a starter, Sliced veal & elbow pasta with apple sauce as the main course, and for dessert, Ice Cream Denmark (a local speciality I believe). This was expertly prepared and served by the staff, one of whom was Walter Huber, who had been my contact throughout the enquiry process leading up to our visit. Even more remarkable, was that the food was prepared inside a former postal wagon, now converted into a kitchen car.

Following our lunch, a short speech was given by Henry to officially welcome us, and thank us for showing interest in their railway. In return, we presented our hosts, (plus the traincrew), with some items of Institution merchandise as a token of our thanks.

We were then given a short guided tour of the carriage and locomotive sheds, where several other items of rolling stock were housed. We opted to ride back to Zürich on the regular SZU electric service, with our two hosts accompanying us for the journey, filling us with more information and stories - all in near perfect English!

We said our goodbyes, with sincere thanks to all at the ZMB for their hospitality throughout the visit. All that remained was to catch our train back to Reichenbach, where we had a final evening meal together, to conclude another excellent day on the rails.

My sincere thanks to all our hosts over the four days, and to those members who participated in a memorable trip.

Our reservation label

A plinthed steam loco at Sihlwald

Running alongside the River Sihl between Sihlbrugg and Sihlwald

If you have enjoyed reading this web page, you may also be interested in our account of our visit to Switzerland the previous year  in 2018.  For further details click the button:

Switzerland 2018

As well as our previous visit to Switzerland in 2002

Former SZU shunt tractor (236 507) is now operated by the ZMB.

The L&CI group (along with our two hosts) enjoy a sumptuous lunch inside the carriage shed at Sihlwald

Switzerland 2002