The Pilatus Bahn at 130. Switzerland’s famous rack railway and the steepest example in the world opened to the public on 4th June 1889. The line uses a unique patent of rack rail devised by Eduard Locher who realised the normal types of rack railway would not be able to manage the extremely steep gradients up the mountain’s side.
Billed as ‘a train with a death wish…’ the Pilatus Railway has been running safely for 130 years. The railway has changed very little since the days of electrification in 1937, however big changes are on the way over the next few years, including new stations and a fleet of faster, more powerful trains.
The railway starts at Alpnachstad and climbs for just over two and half miles to Pilatus Kulm station, sited just below the twin peaks of the Essel and the Tomlishorn. Its iconic electric railcars have now been operating for over eighty years – twice as long as the original steam trains that first operated on the line.
Early drawings depicting construction of the line. Source: Booklooker
A ride up the mountain in the early days (with pictures and description):
Here is an early description of the ride up Pilatus (English translation a bit iffy even with Google!):
From the Thalgrunde the train pulls itself over the tree-studded mats of the ‘Obsee’, enters a deciduous grove, which is followed by a gruesome gorge, ‘Wolfort’, before going into pine forest by way of a strange stone bridge lying on a curve.
The Wolfort viaduct. Lovely pic but faked obviously. Despite a correct view the bridge doesn’t look like that also the train is smaller! The span is indeed curved and the topmost part leads into the Wolfort tunnel. Source: Scripophily
Dramatic view of the Wolfort crossing. Source: Source: Camp to Camp
The railway passes the said gorge to pass through two steeply rising tunnels through the ‘Risleten’ (these are obviously the Spycher tunnels), where the rock and debris that has been trickling down for millennia, has deposited mighty debris heap on the mountainside.
The fantastic views from Aemsigenalp (or as it is known now, Ämsigen.) The Bürgenstock is quite prominent. Source: Scripophily
More early views of Aemsigenalp. Source: Twitter
Soon the region of alpine pastures is reached at ‘Aemsigenalp.’ Here is not far from some venerable giant weather fir, the view is already great. Under one sustained 48% climb, the track encounters a magnificent cliff surrounded by rocky outcrops – the ‘Mattalp’.
Approaching the Mattalp and the vertical ‘Donkeys Wall’. How should the train find its way up? Source: Scripophily
Here are suddenly rising, inaccessible rocks the railway finds quite contrary. How should it get up there? It finds the way; it turns eastwards against the ‘Rosegg’ and climbs from there at dizzying heights at the vertical sloping Donkey’s Wall, which breaks through four tunnels.
The ‘Donkey’s Wall’ section on the Eselwand with three of its tunnels visible. Source: Scripophily
Coming down the the cliff face that is the ‘Donkey.’ Source: Wonders of World Engineering
Astonished at the greatness in this wild mountain world, we look down on the deep valley underneath Mattalp. Like a ladder leaning against the mountain can be seen the track and we can hardly believe that we came up there. The train drives around the western corner of the huge dome of the “donkey,” take one last daring run…
Coming through the final tunnel section towards the summit itself. Source: Scripophily
Finally, through a high portal, we enter the station building of ‘Pilatuskulm’, which nestles next to the mountain hotel on the rock face.
The top of the mountain – with four steam railcars stabled on the summit siding in early days. Source: Camp to Camp
From steam to electrification:
The earliest Pilatus Bahn poster I could find – for 1892. Source: Scripophily
The railway was an immense success. Initial plans for 15,000 passenger trips a year were hugely excelled in the first year (which was short anyway) when 37,000 passengers were carried.
Electrification was mooted as early as 1905 but deemed too expensive. One reason for this was the steam railcars took an hour and twenty five minutes to get up the mountain. It was very slow because of the steepness of the ascent and the fact the steam locomotives had to be quite small to keep within the line’s profile, including its gauge and tunnels. By the 1930s the eleven steam railcars were seriously in need of replacement and this pushed forward the need for electrification.
With electrification however the time taken to ascend the mountain was reduced to a mere half hour.
The railway is noted for employing unique forms of switches. There are three types in use. Normal pointwork cannot be used because the special type of rack rail precludes this, so the switches are either the moveable type of track first conceived for the opening of the line in 1889, or the more recent type of flip track which have been installed on the approaches to the summit station.
1933 poster depitcing the steam rack railway in its final years. Source: Germann Auktionen
At the base station, Alpnachstad, and on the approaches to the line’s depot, the third type of switch, being moveable sections of track are used to allow the railcars to move from one section of track to another. The need for these moveable sections is due to the very constrained layout at Alpnachstad.
Even though the line has been electrified since 1937 one of the original steam trains was retained to work specials up to Pilatus Kulm and also undertake maintenance duties when the cantenary wires were down for the winter.
This steam railcar is now kept in the Swiss Museum of Transport at Lucerne. There is another in the museum at Munich.
Poster released for the first year of the line’s electrification in 1937. Source: Twitter
The electric railcars were delivered by rail to Luzern, and then hauled by tractor to Alpnachstad, before being winched up the sides of the mountain to the depot where they were then united with their power chassis. The video below shows the huge amount of manual labour involved in getting the new railcars to the depot and onto their new chassis.
You Tube video showing the arrival of the new electric trains in the 1930s.
The depot is unusual in being the only part of the line that’s level, imagine trying to work in a maintenance and repair environment with the trains set on a gradient!
Very rare view showing the interior of the Pilatus railway depot. Source: Siemens.
1890s view of the line’s depot, seen from the Pilatus hiking path, with a good view of the lakes.
The same exact location in 2012. Source: You Tube
Plaque at Alpnachstad denoting the line as a historical mechanical engineering landmark. Source: Twitter
Pilatus Bahn 130th Anniversary Posts: