The International Steam Pages
Steam on the Rhätische Bahn, 2008
This report is just one of a number from James Waite about the narrow gauge railways of Switzerland with a strong emphasis on steam operation. See also:
For details of public steam trains in 2009, check out http://www.rhb.ch/index.php?id=235?&L=4.
See also James's visit to see the steam snowblower in action.
James Waite reports, with his pictures unless otherwise stated:
The metre gauge Rhätische Bahn is by no stretch of the imagination a preserved railway. To the contrary it provides a frequent, efficient and fast passenger service over its network of electrified lines through the mountains of southeast Switzerland and has a healthy goods traffic. In 1999 it opened the Vereina tunnel between Klosters and the lower Engadine, the first extension of the network for many years. At 18 km it’s the longest metre gauge tunnel in the world and the railway now operates a frequent car transporter service through it Channel Tunnel-style.
Despite its modernity the railway retains two of its fleet of SLM 2-8-0’s from pre-electrification days, no’s 107 (1709/1906) and 108 (1710/1906). Some years ago it also reacquired its first loco, SLM 2-6-0T no. 1 “Rhätia” (577/1889) from the Blonay-Chamby museum line and restored it to working order. It has also restored a train of steam-era carriages, several of its historic electric locos, a train of 1930’s-era Pullman cars and an 0-6-6-0 Meyer snowblower, all of which it uses for public excursions. It’s thus no mean player in the preservation field.
No’s. 1 and 107 are based in a corner of the old half-roundhouse at Landquart. The main part of the roundhouse is used for stabling electric locos, including some of the historic fleet. Like the adjoining workshops it’s now a squeaky-clean, ultra-hygenic place. However, the two bays where the steam locos live are partitioned off and retain the atmosphere of an authentic steam shed – quite a contrast! No. 108 lives at the depot at Samedan, near St. Moritz and the snowblower is at Pontresina on the Bernina line.
The railway operated three principal types of steam loco, sixteen 2-6-0T’s no’s. 1-16, twelve four-coupled Mallet tanks no’s. 21-32 and twenty nine 2-8-0’s no’s. 101-129. After electrification of the system was completed in 1922 most of them became redundant. Many found new homes in far-flung locations throughout the world and remained in service for many years.
The 2-8-0’s had their origin in a series of four locos built by SLM in 1902-3 for the Compagnie Imperiale des CF Ethiopiens which operated the metre gauge line between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. As with the earlier locos there were detail design differences between the various batches. No’s 101-104 were two-cylinder compounds. The twelve most recent locos, built in 1912 and 1913, were sold to the Royal Railways of Siam in 1926. They were sufficiently pleased with them to buy six more the following year, all that the RhB had left to sell apart from no’s 107 and 108. Other than two which had been sold to Brazil in 1920 the rest of the 2-8-0’s ended up on the FC de La Robla in northern Spain.
In addition to the three locos still owned by the railway two more of the 2-6-0T’s have been privately preserved and two, or just possibly three, of the 2-8-0’s are preserved in Thailand. Sadly none of the Mallet tanks has survived even though one of them lasted as late as 1969 in Spain.
There’s a detailed history of all the railway’s steam locos in “The Steam Locomotives of the Rhaetian Railway” by Claude Jeanmarie, published by Verlag Eisenbahn in 1974 (ISBN 3 85649 022 1). It’s an excellent book, mainly in German but with a significant English-language content. It’s been out of print for many years but comes up on the second-hand market from time to time. I’ve summarised the history in the book about the individual locos in the list below along with some updated information.
The scenery through which the railway runs is, of course, spectacular, especially the Albula line with its viaducts, loops and spirals east of Thusis, the Bernina line southeast from St. Moritz to Tirano in Italy and the Engadine line north from St. Moritz towards Scuol-Tarasp. Much of it is currently the subject of an application for UNESCO World Heritage listing. The excursions marketed by the RhB for 2008 are listed at http://www.rhb.ch/The-urge-to-travel.4.0.html?&L=4. It’s worth keeping an eye open for charter trains as well. We spent two days there following an RTC special on 19th and 20th February 2008, happily in glorious sunshine.
Switzerland can be a very expensive country to visit though with care it’s possible to find places which won’t break the bank. We stayed at the Hotel Piz Ela at Bergün (www.pizela.ch), not far from the western end of the Albula tunnel. It’s a delightfully old-fashioned place and, at about £40 a night for a double room including breakfast, good value. Most of the customers in the restaurant knew each other and were obviously locals, always a good sign! The road eastwards over the Albula pass is closed during the winter and the streets of the village were filled with families bringing their toboggans back from the mountains until quite late in the evening. Up at Scuol there’s a good bar/restaurant immediately outside the station where it was warm enough to sit out in the open at lunchtime and enjoy the snow all around. The local barley soup was good value here – and very filling - and at Landquart the restaurant at the Co-op opposite the entrance to the depot came up with the best-value meal of the trip.
108 at Scuol-Tarasp
108 at Zernez
108 leaving Zernez for St. Moritz
108 crossing a viaduct west of Scuol-Tarasp
108 crossing the Rhine at Reichenau
107 at Landquart shed
1 at Landquart shed
Baby crocodile no. 412 (SLM 3045/1925) at Zernez
Baby crocodiles no 414 (SLM 3297/1929) and 415 (SLM 3298/1929) at Landquart shed
Three views of ex-RhB 2-8-0’s after they moved away from the railway:-
109 “Jose Ignacio Ustara” (SLM 1813/1907) stored at Cistierna depot on the FC de La Robla in August 1970 shortly before the numerous steam locos there were scrapped
2-8-0 no 111 “Victoriano Garay” (SLM 1815/1907) and 2-6-2T no. 16 “A. de Gandarias” (Linke Hoffman 2774 of 1923) standing out of use in the engine shed at Leon on the FC de La Robla in August 1970
118 SLM 2208/1912 (RSR no. 340) preserved at Chiang Mai, Thailand (this picture courtesy of Rob Dickinson)
RhB steam locos