Swiss rack lines’ new trains

Swiss rack lines’ new trains

The Pilatus, Rigi and Gornergrat rack railways recently got some very smart looking and futuristic new stock. The designs are a radical departure from the classic look that has been a feature of the Swiss rack lines for years. Even when the Wengernalp and Jungfrau Bahn acquired new stock a few years back those modern trains were styled somewhat to a look based on older stock.

Its not just that a lot of new stock throughout Europe has acquired a distinctive Stadler style (that includes our own UK railways too) thus many narrow and standard gauge lines now sport modern trains with a distinct likeness. At least with the latest trance of new stock for at least two of Switzerland’s mountain lines, there’s been a desire to move away from the classic off the shelf look and make those lines stand out more.

Here we look at the Rigi and Gornergrat lines. Pilatus gets a page of its own later because its unique & needs a very different stock. Besides, the Gornergrat Bahn is the most recent to launch new stock hence its featured first. The Zermatt based line’s new stock was on test most of 2022 then officially launched in September with an event known as the POLARIS Roll in Event. The Youtube video below shows that official launch of the train at Zermatt before taking a trip up to the Gornergrat.

The first of its new stock from Pininfarina/Stadler Rail is launched at Zermatt on 2 September 2022. Five new rack and pinion multiple units will be available in due course for the journey to to the Gornergrat.

The new stock is designated Bhe 4/6 known as ‘POLARIS’ – Popular Landscape Railway In Switzerland. The total cost of the new trains is 45 million Swiss francs. These will be able to operate in multiple with the line’s other newer trains whilst its oldest stock is being retired.

Fernando Lehner, CEO of the BVZ Group says ‘The new and faster vehicles play an important part in the further development strategy of the Gornergrat as a national and international top excursion destination. Today we are opening a new chapter in the history of the Gornergrat Railway.’

Interior of the new Gornergrat stock. Source: Twitter.

The new trains come with all the latest developments including regenerative braking and a host of other means to ensure the electric motors are efficient. The interiors are well lit and modern with deep panoramic windows set along part of the stock. Level boarding is provided too.

The first time the new stock ventured the full length of the line was at the end of April 2022 when a period of testing and evaluation began. When the full complement of five new trains is achieved the line will be able to introduce a 20 minute interval service – facilitated by the POLARIS’ higher top speed of 30kmh.

POLARIS at Gornergrat with the Matterhorn in the background. Source: Twitter.

Although its said the new stock was built at Bussnang its clear the trains were also constructed at Stadler’s new works at St. Margrethen near the border with Austria. It seems the underframes and bogies were built at the former and the specialist bodywork at the latter. Other specialist rack stock such as the new railcars for Pilatus were too built by Stadler at different locations.

UK transport enthusiasts will be interested to know Stadler’s St. Margrethen facility is where Merseyrail’s new Metro Class 777 was built and no doubt some of the UK’s other new stock was built here too.

Here’s two more videos of the new POLARIS stock – these show it being delivered by rail to Zermatt.

Although the new POLARIS trains are classed Bhe 4/6 their appearance is very different to the Bhe 4/6s built for the Rigi Bahn.

The new trains are no doubt stylish – yet one news source claims the look is something from the 1980s.

The new Gornergrat bodies under construction at at Stadler works in St. Margrethen. Source: Facebook.

The factory at Bussnang in Switzerland where the new trains (or parts of them) for both Gornergrat and Rigi lines were built is sited about 26 km east of Winterthur. The latter was once the centre of Swiss mountain railway construction for the SLM (Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik) built locomotives and rolling stock for many Swiss rack lines as well as most others worldwide including Wales’ own Snowdon railway. In 1998 the SLM business was sold to Stadler.

The Rigi Bahn’s new stock seen at Vitznau August 2022. These were No 42 (Victor Hugo) and No 41 (Thomas Cook.) Source: Twitter.

The Rigi Bahn is the world’s second oldest rack line. The first was the Mount Washington Cog Railway of 1868 followed by the Rigi in 1871. It was a Swiss delegation’s visit to the Mount Washington line that led to the Swiss government commissioning Nikolaus Riggenbach to build a line up the Rigi. Riggenbach greatly improved the rack system from that originally devised by Sylvester Marsh for Mount Washington.

The new standard gauge rack stock is named mainly after English notaries due to their historic association with the Rigi. These are Thomas Cook, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe & Rosa Dahinden-Pfyl. Queen Victoria’s ascent of the Rigi in 1868 popularised the mountain enormously and within three years the first line up the Rigi had opened. That was the Vitznau–Rigi line. The Arth-Rigi line didnt open until 1875 however both lines share a common route from Rigi Staffelhöhe to the summit and it was the Arth company who completed the construction of both lines.

Compared to the Gornergrat’s POLARIS bodies which were designed by Pininfarina the bodywork of the new Bhe 4/6 stock for Rigi trains were by Milani Design of Thalwil. The lifted end cabs of the trains is an acknowledgement to older mountain railway stock including the Pilatus Bahn’s 1930s electrics – however its a tried and tested practice for there’s a better field of view from the driver’s cab..

The new stock is fully compatible with level boarding and disabilities and has regenerative braking capability. They however have similar technology to the Bhe 4/6s for the Gornergrat line – save for gauge difference and OHLE power collection.

The first of the new stock (no.41) suffered a mishap a few days before it was to be launched! The new train crashed down onto the tracks at Arth Goldau after several jacks worked loose. Source: Blick.

Train no.41 is tested at Arth Goldau.

At first the new stock the trains sported no names but once put into public service each was given one. This is no.42 (later to be Victor Hugo) at Arth Goldau.

The new stock began work on the Vitznau-Rigi lines from 8th April 2022 with just three units. The full complement of six units was achieved during the summer of 2022. Although the stock was delivered to Arth Goldau the new trains could not be used in public service on the Arth-Rigi line initally for upgrade works had to be completed first.

The trains are nicknamed ‘Bratwursts’ because of their distinctive style. Maximum speed is 40kmh.

This is no.45 Queen Victoria, departing Rigi Kulm.

The stock is used interchangeably on the Arth and Vitznau lines. Victor Hugo (42) and Thomas Cook (41) are seen here at Vitznau entering the depot after a days’ work.

No.43 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and no.45 Queen Victoria at Rigi Kulm/Vitznau. This video also shows the interiors with their live displays, individual passenger call buttons and USB sockets – plus driver cab controls, wheelchair bays and level boarding interface between train and platforms.

Thomas Cook/Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at Rigi Kaltbad with a working for Rigi Kulm.

The full complement of trains (numbers and names) as as follows: No.41 Thomas Cook, No.42 Victor Hugo, No.43 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, No.44 Mark Twain, No.45 Queen Victoria, No.46 Rosa Dahinden-Pfyl. The latter, although little known internationally, is locally noted for opening the Hotel Bellevue at Rigi-Kaltbad in 1900 and introducing winter sports. The Vitznau-Rigi Bahn honoured her efforts by commencing winter operations on its line in 1908.