A Welsh mountain railway’s Catalonia twin

A Welsh mountain railway’s Catalonia twin

It’s often been thought the locomotives for the Snowdon Mountain Railway were a one-off batch from the SLM works at Winterthur, Switzerland. However further locomotives were built alongside the 1922 and 1923 builds for Snowdon (No.6 Sir Harmood/Padarn, No.7 Aylwyn/Ralph and No.8 Eryri) and these additional builds were acquired by a noted Spanish rack railway company.

The Monistrol and Montserrat railway in Catalonia opened on 6th October 1892 and the steam operated rack line worked until closure in 1957. The famous mountain thereafter managed with its one cablecar and its two funiculars for a further forty years or so, however increasing tourism and pilgrimages to the famous abbey and cathedral put a strain on those transport systems.

The famous Santa Maria de Montserrat abbey with the new rack railway (plus the cable car terminus) seen at bottom of the picture. Source: Novo Monde.

To answer these concerns a brand new modern rack railway was planned for the 21st Century. The line opened in 2003 and employs a mix of adhesion and rack operation. The new line, known as the Cremallera de Montserrat, uses a new alignment between Monistrol (where it connects with the main Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya rail system) and Monistrol Villa. This section is adhesion only and the engineering includes a spectacular new viaduct.

The spectacular upper station’s setting at Montserrat. Source: Senior Travel Expert.

From Monistrol Villa, where the line’s depot is based, most of the original 1892 built alignment to Montserrat is utilised and like the older line, the new one is rack operated too. The height gain between Monistrol Villa and Montserrat is 550 m (or 1,804 ft) using a maximum gradient of 15.6%.

In terms of the older line which closed in 1957, it was known as the Ferrocarril Cremallera de Monistrol a Montserrat (the Monistrol and Montserrat Rack Railway) and the line was rack enabled throughout. The line opened in 1892 and it too connected with the main railway station in Monistrol but via a different alignment however.

The mountain itself, the famous Montserrat (1,236 m or 4,055 ft) is an iconic sight in Catalonia due to its unusual appearance plus unique geological and rock formations.

L: Padarn’s twin Conde des Lavern depicted on a 1940’s poster. R: No. 8 Conde des Lavern on Montserrat train below Los Apostoles

The 1892 Ferrocarril Cremallera ferried worshippers up to the majestic cathedral and abbey (the Santa Maria de Montserrat) nested in the lofty heights of the Montserrat mountain. As always it has been a very popular destination and the older steam operated rack railway was very much in demand. Five locomotives were built by the SLM works. The line was five miles long. The older Monistrol station was at 155m elevation and that at Montserrat was at 690m, a height gain of 535m. Both the old and new upper stations are practically at the same elevation.

The rack railway’s popularity prompted the company to expand its services considerably to accommodate the vast numbers of visitors wishing to visit Montserrat. The company bought several new locomotives from SLM in 1921 and 1923. Though the design information is not presently known for the one 1921 built locomotive, the later 1923 builds are no doubt of the same batch as those for the Snowdon Mountain Railway’s locomotives.

Montserrat from San Miguel with railway route marked red. The same alignment is used by the new rack railway too. Postcard purchased by author early 1960’s. The building in the centre below the Monastery is the upper terminus of the ‘Aeri’ (the cable car.)

The new Montserrat locomotives were no.6 Julià Fuchs (built 1921 with a somewhat earlier design compared to the later two examples), and in 1923 these were no. 7 Elias Rogent (named after a noted architect from Barcelona) and no.8 (Conde des Lavern) the latter two having SLM construction numbers 2397 & 2872. Interestingly both the Snowdon and Montserrat lines acquired three of these new locomotives each. The Snowdon Mountain Railway had considered purchasing a further locomotive from this batch but the idea was soon dropped.

It falls that nos. 7 and 8 on the Montserrat line and nos. 6, 7, and 8 for the Snowdon Mountain Railway (which at the time was known as the Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company) were practically identical locomotives, with some minor differences such as cabin, water tanks and of course the track gauge itself. Montserrat’s no. 6 Julià Fuchs of 1921 well may have been a prototype instigated by the SLM locomotive works- for it was a radical type of rack locomotive – a departure from classic rack locomotive design which led to further improvement and refinement that resulted in the five very modern looking rack locomotives of 1922-23.

L: Early view of the Montserrat terminus. R: Most of the ferrocarril cremallera’s fleet at Montserrat station.

No.6 Julià Fuchs at Montserrat station in 1950. Source: Ferrocarriles de Montaña a Grandes Pendientes.

Julià Fuchs was a Swiss engineer employed by the Spanish High Mountain Railway Company, a concession employed to build the 1892 Montserrat line. Fuchs also built a water distribution system for the various villages in the locality. A memorial was built to Fuchs and this can be seen in Monistrol village – here’s one view of the memorial on Google streets.

No. 8 Conde des Lavern at the level crossing. Date is not known but could be during the line’s later years when Pas Nivelle (see below) was replaced with a permanent statue. This view could almost be no.6 Padarn (or even no.8 Eryri) on loan to the Montserrat line!

Pas Nivelle (pasa a nivel – the ‘dog gatekeeper’) as shown at right was an uniformed dog who flagged trains past the crossing! At least 12 different dogs were used over the years. After the novelty ended a statue of ‘Pas Nivelle’ was built adjacent to the railway.

The present Montserrat line uses a slightly different alignment to that where the Pas Nivelle crossing was located. Instead of employing a crossing the new line deviates and utilises a bridge over the road itself. In this Google street view for example, the new 2003 alignment can be seen with the former somewhat obscured in the foreground. An information board can be seen at right detailing the former rack railway’s history and that of Pas Nivelle.

A twin to the Snowdon Mountain railway’s locomotives! No. 8 Conde de Lavern at the Montserrat summit station. Picture possibly taken when the locomotive was new. Source: Ferrocarriles de Montaña a Grandes Pendientes.

Aeri de Montserrat (opened 1930) Card in author’s collection from Monasterio de Montserrat early 1960’s.

The popular Montserrat railway carried a record 274,000 passengers by 1947, but the railway company was now suffering financial difficulties. This was compounded by the speedy convenience of a new cable car system known as the ‘Aeri’ that sped passengers up the mountain in just five minutes compared to one hour by rail. It wasn’t just that. The ‘Aeri’ had a spectacular climb to Montserrat involving the crossing of a deep gorge upon which a spectacular concrete bridge spanned. This bridge gave access to the lower station of the ‘Aeri’ thus the cable car was more of an attraction than the rack railway. Interestingly the ‘Aeri’ is a historic line, being one of a few cable car systems still operating in an original configuration including its unusually shaped cabins, unique suspension trolley system and concrete cable support towers.

Picture released for the 90th anniversary of the Aeri showing passengers leaving the upper cable car terminus (at left) and about to walk up alongside the then operating steam rack railway to the abbey and cathedral precincts. The 2003 rack line uses the same exact alignment. Source: Twitter.

The rack railway continued to be a fairly popular attraction however its fortunes changed completely when a major accident occurred on 25th July 1953. This accident involved three trains colliding into each other, not all at once but rather in a few short moments. The company’s reputation was tarnished and it entered financial difficulties. This further precipitated a series of events, including issues of maintenance and quality of track, rolling stock etc. Ultimately this lead to an order for the line to be closed on safety grounds in May 1957. Some of the stock was transferred to the Cremallera de Nuria and Conde des Lavern too found work on that line.

Conde des Lavern on its plinth. Link to picture source & article. Note the similarities with Snowdon’s no.6 Padarn!

Padarn looking very smart at Llanberis after overhaul in readiness for its 90th anniversary. 2012 photo by the author.

No.8 is preserved on a plinth at Parets del Valles some distance south of Barcelona. See it here on Google Streets. It was one of the last locomotives to operate to Montserrat. It is very clearly a twin of the Snowdon locomotives.

Side view of Conde des Lavern on its plinth in Spain. View from Google Streets.

Padarn is perhaps the closest relative to Conde des Lavern. The former’s cabin has welded plates where the larger side openings on No.8 Conde des Lavern are seen. Conde des lavern has large open cabin windows whilst those such as Padarn have much smaller openings, in fact hinged window panes were provided on the Snowdon batch to accommodate the much colder Welsh climate!

Side view of Padarn on the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Its clearly a twin of the Montserrat line’s locomotives. Note Padarn’s welded plates in lieu of windows on the cabin whilst the cabin is nominally bigger. 2010 photo by the author.

Padarn at the summit of Snowdon in 2012. As the plaque on the front of the engine shows, the railway celebrated the locomotive’s 90th anniversary. 2022 is the locomotive’s 100th anniversary! The locomotive was originally known as Sir Harmood (after the company’s chairman) and renamed Padarn in 1928. Photo by the author.

The Montserrat locomotives had smaller water tanks as the Catalonian line’s gradients were generally less steep than on Snowdon. The Montserrat gauge was 1000mm against Snowdon’s 800mm. Other differences were more subtle – dome size, alternative locations for various pipe feeds etc. Other than this, very little is known about this batch of six SLM Locomotive Works engines, other than what can be gleaned from the histories of the Snowdon or the Montserrat lines.

As has been mentioned earlier, the huge numbers of visitors to Montserrat prompted the necessity for a new electrified rack railway – which was opened in 2003.

The new rack railway station at Montserrat in 2007. Picture from Wikipedia

There are some other locomotives from the former rack railway that can be seen, one is on display just outside Monistrol Villa station as this Google Street View shows.

This post was originally written in 2011 & reissued briefly in 2016. Expanded and updated 2022.