The International Steam Pages
The Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke, 2009
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:
James Waite reports on his September 2009 visit, see also Filippo Ricci's report of the railway's centenary in August 2014.
Look at any railway map of Switzerland and you’ll immediately see the long, straggling route of the Furka-Oberalp Bahn (“FO”) through the heart of the Alps connecting the Rhone valley to the west with the Rhine valley and the Grisons to the east. With the terrain being so difficult it’s hardly surprising that the line was one of the country’s last long-distance railways to be built. It’s also little wonder that it is metre gauge rather than standard and that it incorporates many rack sections.
Construction began in 1911 as the Brig-Furka-Disentis Bahn and ten rack and adhesion 2-6-0T’s were supplied by SLM in 1912 and 1913 to work the new line. By far the most difficult stretch, both to build and to operate, was the mountain section eastwards from Oberwald, where the relatively broad Rhone valley to the west gives way to the narrow, steeply graded gorge leading up to the Rhone glacier above Gletsch, and then on through the Furka summit tunnel and down the steep Furkareuss gorge as far as Realp. The original company went bankrupt before it could complete this part and the line did not open as a through route until 3rd July 1926.
By then most of Switzerland’s major railways had been electrified including the whole of the Rhatische Bahn with which the new railway made an end-on junction at Disentis, its eastern terminal. However the FO company was too impoverished to be able to electrify the line and it worked its services with the original ten locos until 1942 when coal shortages during WW2 made electrification a necessity. For many years after its opening it was worked by the Brig-Visp-Zermatt Bahn (“BVZ”), an older rack and adhesion railway which came down the valley from Zermatt to Visp, a few km to the west. The BVZ had played a leading role in rescuing the FO project after the bankruptcy of the old Brig-Disentis-Furka company and seeing its construction through to completion. The FO only began to operate independently of the BVZ in 1961.
At Brig, the western terminus, the railway connected both with the SBB’s main line along the Rhone valley and through the Simplon tunnel to Italy and with the Bern-Lotschberg-Simplon line from the north. In 1930 the BVZ extended its line alongside the SBB from Visp to join the FO at Brig and the famous Glacier Express began to run connecting the major ski resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz, far to the east on the RhB.
The mountain section through Gletsch severely hampered operations, mainly because the line was impassable during the winter and so through trains could run only between June and October. Eventually a base tunnel was opened in June 1982 between Oberwald and Realp and what were expected to be the last trains over the old route ran the previous October. At last the railway could operate on a year-round basis and also car transporter trains offered a swift service through the tunnel avoiding the long road journey over the Furka pass. It was intended to abandon the old line even though scenically it was by far the most spectacular part of the whole route, including in particular close-up views above Gletsch of the Rhone Glacier from which the Glacier Express took its name.
Enter the Verein Furka-Bergstrecke, a preservation society. Switzerland’s enthusiasts have never had much opportunity to form railway preservation societies since hardly any lines have ever closed and so there’s been little available to preserve! It rapidly gained support and its associated operating company took possession of the line in 1985. A great deal of reconstruction was needed but the first section, from Realp east to Tiefenbach, reopened in 1992. It was extended to Furka station at the summit in 1993 and on through the summit tunnel and down past the glacier to Gletsch in 2000. The final stretch to Oberwald is nearly finished and should reopen in June 2010.
One of the new railway’s most pressing needs was to obtain sufficient steam locos to operate the line. The FO company had retained four of the old locos after electrification but by 1983 only one, no. 4, remained. Four of the locos, no’s. 1, 2, 8 and 9 had been sold in 1947 for further service in Vietnam, then a French colony, on the rack and adhesion railway between Thap Cham on the Saigon-Hanoi main line and Da Lat, a hill station at an altitude of 1,488 metres. The upper sections of this line where the rack sections were had been opened in stages between 1926 and 1932 and the line was worked by seven 0-8-0RT’s built by SLM between 1923 and 1930 and two similar locos built by Esslingen in 1929. The line closed in 1969 because of security concerns during the Vietnam war. A tentative attempt to reopen part of it from 6th June 1975, a few months after the end of the war, proved shortlived and dismantling began the following year. In 1991 the final seven kilometres of adhesion-only track into Da Lat reopened as a diesel-worked tourist railway. By then all the steam locos had long since been abandoned but fortunately none of them had been scrapped.
Negotiations to repatriate some of them began in 1984 and in 1990 all four of the old FO locos and two of the 0-8-0RT’s, no’s 704 (SLM 2940/1924 and 708 (SLM 3413/1930) were purchased and shipped home. No’s 1 and 9 were rapidly restored to working order. The line has two other locos. One is FO no. 4 on loan from the Matterhorn-Gotthardbahn (“MGB”), a company formed from the merger of the BVZ and the FO in 2003. The other is BVZ no. 6 “Weisshorn” (SLM 1410/1902), a very pretty 0-4-2RT which had been sold by the BVZ in 1941 to Hovag Ems for service at its new plant in Chur, the capital of the Grisons, for producing a petrol substitute from timber, an important product for the country during the war years. It was withdrawn from service in 1965 and then spent 23 years on display at a school in Chur before being given to the railway in 1988. In 2009 no’s 1 and 4 handled most services and no. 6 was available for lighter services. FO no. 3 also still exists. It was overhauled by the FO in 1967 and given by them to the Blonay-Chamby museum line in 1970. It’s very recently received a heavy overhaul there. BVZ no. 7 “Breithorn”, a similar 0-4-2RT, still belongs to the MGB. It was reboilered in 2001 and sees use on excursions from its base at Visp during the summer months.
The DFB has its own station at Realp about a 1km walk away from the main line station and the village centre and close to the start of the long base tunnel. The depot is a further ½ km or so along the line. The valley up from Andermatt as far as Realp is quite broad and relatively gently graded but beyond Realp it closes in at once and after less than 1km the first rack section is reached. There’s a small road which passes the station and depot and carries on beside the railway for about a further km as far as the Wiler bridge, a girder bridge which replaced the original stone arch bridge in 1955 after its destruction by an avalanche. Here the railway crosses the Furkareuss for the first time. It’s impossible to follow any further by car at close quarters until a level crossing a few km before Gletsch.
There are footpaths close to the railway but with only two scheduled services each way even in high summer unless you’re really dedicated you’ve got either to ride the train and photograph it in the stations or follow it by car and content yourself with close up shots at each end and distant views as the train climbs up to the summit. Fares are decidedly expensive (the equivalent of rather more than £33 return in 2009) though no doubt operating expenses are high as well. Most trains are sold out well in advance so for many of us chasing is the only option. A couple of km out from Realp the train reaches the well-known Steffenbach folding bridge across an avalanche gully which has to be dismantled each winter. There are fine, though distant, views from the road high above of the upper stretches of the valley as the line approaches Furka station at the entrance to the summit tunnel.
At the far end the train reaches Muttbach station before starting the descent to Gletsch past the Rhone glacier. There’s a level crossing over the main road 1km or so after Muttbach. On the old railway this came midway through a rack section and the rack was swiftly removed after the closure in 1981. The revived railway was not allowed to reinstate the rack over the crossing on road safety grounds and so a diversion was built to include a short level section across the road. Soon after the Rhone glacier comes into view. It has been retreating up the hillside for many years. Old photos show the ice tumbling right down the side of the gorge and looking as though it is about to engulf Gletsch, a short distance beyond, a most spectacular sight. When we first visited the district in 1990 the ice wall was still an impressive sight but now it’s hardly visible from the valley at all – a sad testimony, I suppose, to the effects of global warming. There’s a second level crossing at the entrance to Gletsch station which until 2009 has been the line’s western terminus.
When we visited in September 2009 we were very lucky as a special train was operating, hauled by the small Zermatt loco, over part of the extension to Oberwald for publicity photos for next year’s advertising and we were invited on board. Well, after all, we’re providing the railway with free publicity via this website! The countryside south of Gletsch is wooded and pastoral, quite different from the bleak moorland which characterises the remainder of the line. The track was in situ as far as the outskirts of Oberwald but there’s one more obstacle still to overcome in the shape of another level crossing over a rack section. Once again the railway is not being allowed to reinstate the rack but here it won’t be possible to put in a short diversion on the level. The solution, as yet untested, will be to install a movable rack which will rise into position as trains approach and sink into the roadbed once it’s passed, a bit like those temperamental rising bollards much beloved by local authorities in the UK. I hope it proves to be reliable!
The extension to Oberwald will require more motive power. The railway has quite an extensive offsite works at Chur, many km to the east. No. 9 is being overhauled here and no. 708, the more modern of the two Vietnamese 0-8-0RT’s, is slowly being restored. It will be a most impressive beast to see in action. The railway suggests that it may be the world’s largest rack loco though I suspect that the Ooty railway’s 0-8-2T’s, which it closely resembles, may be larger. (Indeed they are. but the West Sumatran E10s were heavier still. RD) The Kitson Meyer rack tanks on the Tansandine were certainly much bigger and at least one of them is still around though it’s not in working order. There’s no current intention to restore the remaining two 2-6-0RT’s or the second Vietnamese 0-8-0RT though those parts which haven’t been reused have been kept and nothing has been scrapped. Maybe one day...!
The railway also owns Xrot 9212, one of the RhB’s two snowblowers, quite similar in appearance to Xrot 9213, the Bernina machine which still runs on its home line. However it’s designed to be pushed rather than being self-propelled and so runs on two heavy-duty bogies albeit that it’s also fitted with a very small traction cylinder and motion so that it can move itself around depots and sidings. For several years past it’s been undergoing restoration in Goldau, near Lucerne, at a workshop belonging to Martin Horath, a great steam enthusiast. Martin very kindly allowed us to visit his home to see the machine which is in the final stages of restoration and it was very interesting to see it without its all-over wooden cladding. Martin’s workshops were fascinating – a veritable treasure chest of steam paraphernalia – and he also took us on a tour of the Rigibahn’s workshops in the town including two working steam locos, but that’s another story! It was a memorable evening. The snowblower may well be back in action in two or three years’ time.
Accommodation in Switzerland can be expensive and there are certainly several prominent hotels in this part of the country which looked to be especially so. We stayed at the Pension Furka, a more modest, friendly and family-run establishment away from the main road and overlooking the FO station yard. Its prices compared favourably with many guest houses in holiday areas in the UK, the food was excellent and they have numerous photos of the FO and the DFB hanging on the walls and a good supply of railway-related literature to borrow. And... if you suffer from insomnia you can step out onto your balcony and watch the cars being loaded onto the transporter trains through the base tunnel from the early morning onwards. Highly recommended.
Steam locos of the FO and BVZ or associated with the DFB
Vietnam Hoa Xa
These pictures were all taken on September 11th/12th 2009:
No's 4 and 1 in the shed at Realp, No. 4 in the shed at Realp.
No 6 leaving the shed at Realp:
No. 4 on the turntable at Realp and waiting to leave Realp station. There are turntables at both ends of the line and the locos work chimney-first in both directions.
No. 1's life history in brass and another refugee from Vietnam at Realp station.
No. 4 at the start of the first rack section about 1km west of Realp
No. 4 crossing the Wiler bridge.
No. 1 about 1/2 km west of Realp.
A distant view of Furka station and the entrance to the summit tunnel. No. 4 and its train are about to set off through the tunnel as no. 1 climbs the last part of the hill.
No. 4 passing the Rhone glacier on the descent to Gletsch.
No. 4 on the turntable at Gletsch. The dilapidated building which blocks the view up the valley was built in the early 1900's as an annexe to the Hotel Glacier du Rhone, a (still) smart hotel here. It became redundant after the glacier retreated and the tourists left and is now used as staff accommodation for the railway. No. 6 standing outside Gletsch engine shed before setting off with the press special towards Oberwald.
No. 6 on the bridge over the Rhone about 2kms south of Gletsch
and crossing the Rhone and about to enter the spiral tunnel.
No. 6 leaving the spiral tunnel (look carefully!) and then approaching Muttbach station.
A reminder of the need to go prepared in the mountains even on what looks like a sunny day! This was the view over Gletsch from the glacier a few minutes after no. 6 had passed.