The International Steam Pages

Switzerland's Waldenburgerbahn, 2010

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 writes:

Here are a few results from a day trip I made last Sunday (16th May 2010) to the Waldenburgerbahn in north west Switzerland. I caught the first BA plane of the day to Geneva. Thomas Kautzor, who lives only a few minutes drive away from the airport, met me and drove us to Waldenburg, about 150km away.

The line was opened in 1880 and is Switzerland's only 750mm gauge railway, all the other narrow gauge lines there being metre gauge. Waldenburg is an old town in the foothills of a range of hills which separate the Basle and Berne districts. The railway runs northwards for 13km to Liestal where it connects with the Basle-Berne main line. It was electrified in 1953.

At the time of the electrification the railway possessed three of these 0-6-0T's, two of which have survived. There was also a large 0-8-2T, no. 7, built by SLM in 1938 and the last of their steam locos to run on a Swiss public railway. 0-6-0T no. 4 "Langenbruck" seems to have disappeared very soon after the electrification was completed. 0-6-0T no. 6 "Waldenburg" (SLM 2276/1912) was sold to the Lucerne Model Railway Club in 1954 for the sum of CHF5,000, a not inconsiderable amount in those days. It's now in Lucerne museum. No. 7, the 0-8-2T, continued to work for some years after the electrification but, sadly, was scrapped in 1960. This left 0-6-0T no. 5 "G. Thommen" (SLM 1440/1902) as the last occupant of the loco shed where it had languished out of use since 1953. It was refurbished in 1961 and put on a plinth at Liestal station. In 1975 it was brought back to Waldenburg for restoration to working order. The restoration was completed in 1980 in time for the railway's centenary and the loco has operated ever since with three of the line's original carriages (actually they're far from original as the line started out with clerestory-roofed tramway-type cars but these ones are respectably old!) The railway has about 5 steaming days each year, mostly operated by local volunteers.

The line is very much like an American inter-urban as it runs along the side of a main road for almost its entire distance and in some of the villages it becomes a tram track through the street. Today it's a very slick affair with several of these modern railcar sets and a half-hourly service even on Sundays. They cover the distance in 23 minutes and run very fast indeed and, this being Switzerland, on time, seemingly to the second!

There's a scheme to convert the line to metre gauge, ostensibly because replacement trains would be cheaper than 750mm ones which have to be purpose-built and also because it could then be connected tom the Basle tramway network if it is ever extended as far as Liestal. There's quite a lot of local controversy about this, one of the reasons being cited against the conversion in the discussion documents being that the steam train couldn't then run so clearly quite a lot of people have their hearts in the right place! Actually the current trains look pretty modern to me and it's hard to see why they might need to be replaced in the foreseeable future.

The steam days involve a morning train and on some days, like last Sunday, an afternoon train as well. We got there just in time to chase the first southbound train and made good use of the extended lunch stop at Waldenburg before the afternoon train - Zurich style beef stroganoff with rostis - well it's not possible to visit Switzerland even just for one day without having a good rosti! The weather, which had been pretty chancy all day, clouded over in the afternoon with just a final glimpse of the sun at Liestal and for the first couple of km of the run as the train set off.

On the way back from Waldenburg we called in at Balsthal, an old town with two hilltop castles about 10 minutes drive away over the top of the hill. It's the terminus of the Oensingen-Balsthal Bahn which is only about 6km long and connects the town with the main line. It suffers from being standard gauge but gives the distinct impression that it would much rather be narrow gauge!

Nowadays it's electrified and runs its trains with a fairly modern railcar set. However it also possesses four elderly ex-SBB railcars, several even older wooden-bodied Wagon Lits coaches, one of the bright red Swiss "flying banana" railcars like the one in Lucerne museum, one tiny 0-4-0 electric loco with coupling rods built for the line when it was first electrified and, most importantly of all, both its steam locos which date from the time it was opened in 1899. Like "G.Thommen" (which was built in 1902) they are SLM-built 0-6-0T's and look very much as if they are the same design stretched sideways to make them twice as wide! Unfortunately they're hemmed in amongst the other rolling stock but the last two pics show their no. 2 (SLM 1220/1889), a very pretty machine and kept in beautiful condition as you can see even though it's not currently steamable.

About half way along the line there's a small steelworks which used to have their own Maffei-built 0-6-0T called "Bell Joseline" but they retired it several years ago and handed over their shunting work to the OeBB. The railway took Joseline under its wing though she's no longer usable and bought a diesel to shunt the steelworks - but being the eccentric line it is it's no ordinary diesel but instead an eight coupled machine rescued from East Germany. Definitely a railway which is a little different!

We reached Geneva early evening in time for a beer before I caught the plane back home. Margaret met me at Heathrow some three hours before it closed on account of another outbreak of volcanic ash and we were back home by half past ten in time for a late supper and a little Swiss vino to celebrate the day!

Switzerland's Waldenburgerbahn in pictures:

Oensingen-Balsthal Bahn's no. 2:


Rob Dickinson