Driving thro rail tunnels for fun!

Driving thro rail tunnels for fun!

Whilst researching the Gotthard Bahn the other week I got this idea for a couple of ‘road trips’ through some railway tunnels. Generally no-one can just drive cars through any railway tunnels, but what I am about to discuss is very different!

Take for example the Schöllenen railway. Some of you will know this metre gauge rack railway and how its route is prominent to those who drive up the Gotthard Pass. I made a discovery in terms of the Schöllenen whilst writing my Gotthard Bahn post.

Schöllenenschlucht - Devil's Bridge

Nice view of the Schöllenen gorge with its railway, Gotthard road and the Devil Bridges. Source: Flickr

This revolves around the fact that upgrading of the famous Swiss mountain pass was neccessary and the works undertaken during 2014 meant the road had to be closed – and to keep the traffic moving, it was diverted through the railway’s tunnel at Urnerloch!

I searched on the internet for details of this work and there’s very little on record. Thus this is essentially the first blog to be written on the subject of the Urnerloch rail tunnel (really more of a covered way) in use as a roadway!

The work was done in two phases: 28th April to 23 May 2014 and 6th to 31st October 2014. It was the only option to keep traffic on this very important mountain road moving.

Here’s a rough translation of an interview with project manager Willy Reck on this rather unusual job:

Q: In 2014 the traffic will see an innovative measure partly by being diverted and using the track of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. How did this idea come about?
A: During the planning it became apparent that long closure periods due to the repair of the Urnerloch tunnel were necessary. To prevent these closures happening an unconventional idea was used. Thanks to cooperation with the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn** construction of a new passenger and ski underpass at Andermatt station meant the line would be closed anyway, and the solution of using the railway as a road became possible.

**The Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (2003) is the company who owns the Brig Visp Zermatt/Furka Oberalp systems.

Okay let’s take a road trip and see what this was about! Thanks to Google one can still currently see the whole shebang if they so wish…

Coming up the Gotthard near Andermatt, with the Schöllenen line on the right.

Traffic lights in operation for a one way system ahead!

Yikes the Gotthard road is really becoming a railway line! Merging with the Schöllenen route…

Looking back this is where the Schöllenen railway and Gotthard pass merge into one route…

Bless the Swiss, they’ve even left the cantenary wires up – one can definitely feel they’re on a railway!

Imagine this being tried in Britain! It would be very unlikely and most definitely not since we got rid of all our pesky lines that traversed terrain which seemed to be more than a few feet above sea level!

TBH they did try it in Scotland some years back – there wasn’t a tunnel though! Road vehicles were diverted onto the Kyle of Lochalsh line at Stromeferry for a few months in 2018 whilst a cliff face was stabilised on the adjacent roadway. See for example BBC News.

Up into the Schöllenen railway’s tunnel complete with catenary throughout. Look I’m a train coming through!

The point at which the two Urnerloch tunnels merge, the new road one behind sheeting on the left.

Lovely views of the Reuss and the military base opposite, courtesy of the Schöllenen railway!

Looking back. The Schöllenen tunnel at left and the new Gotthard tunnel straight ahead.

Part of the new Urnerloch road tunnel in use with the Schöllenen’s tracks uncovered and visible on the right.

The Andermatt portal of the new Urnerloch tunnel.

The Urnerloch is the first tunnel out of Andermatt on the Schöllenen line and this very narrow gap in the mountain pass is where the first ever Alpine tunnel was built. That opened in August 1708 and the guy responsible for this very early tunnel through the mountains was Pietro Morettini, a Swiss engineer. This month is in fact the the 310th anniversary of that tunnel’s opening!

Postkutsche Urnerloch.jpg

The original Urnerloch tunnel opened in 1708. Source: Wikipedia

The same spot in the early 20th century with the 18th century tunnel still extant. Source: Transpress NZ

Urseren: Red meets red

Here’s a current view showing the other end where the line and road merged during the 2014 works. Source: Flickr

There’s one You Tube video as I find which does indeed show the road was temporarily closed at times when blasting of the mountain sides was being undertaken.

The one and only video I can find on the tunnel works.

Warning! The next section contains liberal sprinklings of English quaintness!

The road trip through the Schöllenen railway’s tunnel is an evocative reminder of a somewhat similar, but more permanent situation in dear old Blighty!

In England my goodness? Wherever can this be… Let’s go find out!

Here’s this quiet country lane turning off to the right somewhere in deepest England…. see its going somewhere nice …. a typical English setting, lot’s of greenery and trees 🙂

The road descends and comes to this turning with a stream out of sight at right.

Voila! The subject in question 🙂

Let me tell you its NOT any old railway bridge. Its not even a bridge! Its a railway tunnel, what’s more its a genuine narrow-gauge tunnel – and it’s in England – a land with very few narrow-gauge lines!

Come to think of it, this must in fact be the only example in practically the whole of Europe that a road uses a narrow gauge railway tunnel. Yes all of Europe – not even Switzerland can claim such an example – bar the temporary one we just saw.

Now you see it! A real narrow gauge railway tunnel anyone can drive their car through!

Approaching the southern end of the tunnel. Side adit for the workmen to stand in whilst the trains went past.

Google camera’s pictures of the inside of the tunnel were not that good…. so I had to find a better view showing the full length of the interior.

Swainsley Tunnel

Good pic showing the Swainsley tunnel and its side adits for track maintenance staff. Source: Flickr

The other end of Swainsley tunnel.

This area of England in question is not like mountainous Europe however its almost the Peak district and there’s stupendous scenery in fact. Historically the nature of the terrain has ensured few roads could traverse the locality and this is why they built the Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway – one of the very few narrow gauge lines to be built in England.

Ironically the line’s closure enabled improvements to be made to the area’s rather limited roads network.

When first used for traffic in the fifties Swainsley tunnel had no lights – this is how I remembered it. The lights are a much later addition, a fact also proved in my book on the railway by R. Keys and L. Porter (pub. 1972.)

Some will notice Swainsley tunnel is fairly narrow but quite tall. The reason for that was to allow standard gauge wagons to be transported on the railway.

The Leek & Manifold was a total rarity in the British Isles with transporter wagons for standard gauge stock! The first part of the video below shows standard gauge stock being carried on the railway. Swainsley tunnel can be spotted several times in this video too.

At least in Europe they like their railways, there’s loads and loads of narrow gauge adventures and plenty of railway fun – and of course the Schöllenen is still climbing as ever through its spectacular gorge!

But you cant drive through its tunnel anymore! Its why England’s such a quaint little country when it comes to Swainsley and the Manifold valley. A rare team point to us cos we have a narrow gauge tunnel they don’t have which can be driven through by car! 🙂

Whilst this post was being written the BBC reported on a claim that Europe envied our railways. This claim came from a UK railway expert. No way!

Apart from the excellent safety factor in the UK, our railways, tubes, metros, trams are a frigging joke! Riding quality is noticeably different too because of different geometry and track laying techniques – UK trains often throw passengers about as they lurch alarmingly.

Any really successful smooth rides in the UK tend to be over much shorter sections of track whereas in Europe they can sustain these over extremely long distances. Plus in Europe they really feel like railways with so much track. In the UK track is kept to the bare minimum and often is responsible for the horrific delays our trains suffer. I know which I’d prefer to ride on. Enough said!

**The screencapped pictures of the Schöllenen and Swainsley tunnels are sourced from Google’s street views.