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The Gotthard railway (1/2)

by DoDo Sat Aug 24th, 2013 at 07:26:53 AM EST

The transit routes in Switzerland bear a significant part of the massive trans-Alpine traffic between Germany and Italy. In a 1992 referendum, voters approved the multi-billion-franks NEAT plan to redirect that traffic onto railways that provide a near-level route with giant tunnels crossing mountains at their base. The centrepiece of the plan, the 57 km Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT), is now being fitted with tracks and is scheduled to enter service in three years.

The opening of the GBT will also mean that most traffic will be withdrawn from the spectacular old Gotthard railway. As I did for Austria's Old Westbahn last year, I used my railway employee free tickets for a photo tour to document the line while all the express and freight trains still use it. In this first of two diaries showing a selection of my photos, I cover the northern ramp.

A Swiss State Railways (SBB) class Re 420 (old designation: Re 4/4II) with a late southbound EuroCity (EC) train to Milan (apparent replacement for a defect tilting train) at Wassen. The traffic jam on the parallel highway lasted all day. You can make out traces of the railway at two higher levels: the station building on the right edge and a gallery near the top edge


Built between 1871 and 1882, the Gotthard railway was a mega-project on a similar scale for its time as NEAT for our times. It was a marvel of engineering, but just the 15 km summit tunnel (the world's longest until 1906) cost at least 199 workers their lives. The double-tracking of the ramps (until 1896) and electrification (until 1922) were major projects, too.

From the north, the old and new lines diverge near Erstfeld, in the flat valley bottom of the Reuss river. The modern tubular concrete design of the portals of the GBT is... underwhelming.

From Erstfeld (472 m above sea), the old line starts to climb the east side of the valley, with a ruling gradient of 26‰.

Morning view from my northbound train home on its descent above the hamlet of Schützen, just before Erstfeld. The mountain at centre is the Bristen (3,073 m)

At Amsteg, the railway crosses the side-valley of the Chärstelenbach atop the first major viaduct – originally a simple iron truss bridge, the same type but bigger after the double-tracking (with a fishbelly truss reinforcement added a decade later), and since 1971 a 127 m steel beam bridge with concrete top.

An SBB Re 460 recedes with a northbound InterRegio (IR) limited-stop regional train. The central pylon is the original 1882 one, different colours even indicate the widening at the time of the double-tracking

Also at Amsteg, the flat valley bottom is over. During the electrification of the line, water from a reservoir upriver was brought in tunnels and tubes to a power plant in the village (the large building in the middle of the photo above).

About a kilometre above Amsteg, the line crosses a narrow section of the gorge of the Reuss itself atop another bridge that was replaced multiple times (since 1972, a 121 m reinforced concrete beam bridge), while the parallel highway also crosses the river in the opposite direction.

Above: A pair of German Railways (DB) class 185 (dual-system Bombardier TRAXX F140AC1) recede with a southbound intermodal freight train

Below: view from my train home

As steep as the railway is, the river is steeper, and above Gurtnellen, they get close again. Here the railway gains more height in a 1,476 m spiral tunnel. (You don't actually see it on the photo below: the portals belong to two short tunnels at either end of the spiral tunnel.)

Above: an SBB Re 620 (Re 6/6) and an SBB Re 430 (Re 4/4III), a common pairing for the Gotthard route also dubbed "Re 10/10", nears the bottom entrance of the spiral tunnel with a southbound intermodal train

Below: a pair of DB 185 (Bombardier TRAXX F140AC1) with a southbound intermodal freight train left the top end of the spiral tunnel

At Pfaffensprung, the gorge soon gets closer again. This is the location of the reservoir for the aforementioned hydropower plant.

Above: a pair of class Re 485 (Bombardier TRAXX F140AC1) locos of Switzerland's biggest 'private' operator BLS (most shares belong to public bodies) with a southbound container train

Below: an SBB RABDe 500 tilts into the curve doing a southbound InterCity-Neigezug (ICN) service, with the reservoir at Pfaffensprung gleaming blue in late morning sunshine. The highest peak visible is the Windgällen (2,986 m)

At the village of Wassen, we get to the most spectacular section of the northern ramp: the line gains further height with the help of two horseshoe curve tunnels, thus trains can be spotted at three levels. All three levels cross the side valley of the Meienreuss atop viaducts, all of which are masonry arch bridges since the sixties (of which the 60 m low-level one is visible below).

Another SBB RABDe 500 tilting train doing a northbound ICN service descends the low level while a formerly Cisalpino, now Italian State Railways (FS) ETR 470 tilting train doing a 'southbound' (but temporarily northbound) EC service reaches the horseshoe curve tunnel at the end of the mid-level. All three levels are visible on the left

The most-photographed spot on the northern ramp is the wide curve at the southern end of the lowest level (also see above the fold).

Above: a Siemens ES64U4 and a Siemens ES64F4, both leased from Mitsui Rail Capital Europe (mrce) by German 'private' operator TX Logistik (currently fully owned by Italy's state railway Trenitalia), with a northbound intermodal freight train

Below: An SBB RABDe 500 tilting train doing a southbound ICN service. You can make out the middle level (including its Meienreuss viaduct on the right edge) above the highway with the traffic jam

As seen from the other valley side, at the end of the curve, the line bridges the Reuss river and enters the first, 1,084 m horseshoe curve tunnel.

SBB Re 460 076 (bearing advertisement for a watchmaker) with a northbound IR

The station of Wassen is at the middle level, but it is without passenger trains since 1994, when only limited-stop regional trains remained. At the southern end, there is a 185 m artificial tunnel, with remains of a narrow-gauge granite mine railway on top.

Above: a pair of quadruple-system Bombardier TRAXX F140MS locos belonging to Swiss private operator Crossrail with a 'southbound' (temporarily northbound) intermodal train traverse the deserted station above the curve at the low level and the highway traffic jam

Below: 105 seconds prior to the before-last photo, SBB Re 460 076 with its 'northbound' (temporarily southbound) IR reached the station. Above the tunnel portal: shed and loading crane of the granite mine railway. In the background: the church of Wassen and again the Windgällen

From the hill of the village church, there is an excellent view at the upper two levels, including the 122 m mid-level and 54 m upper viaduct of the Meienreuss.

Above: a few hours prior to the above photo, SBB Re 460 076 with a 'southbound' IR was temporarily heading north on the mid-level bridge of the Meienreuss

Below: an SBB Re 430 (Re 4/4III) on a solo run on the upper bridge of the Meienreuss

Also, there is a view towards the 1,090 m upper horseshoe curve tunnel.

An SBB Re 460 with a 'northbound' IR temporarily heads south after exiting the upper horseshoe curve tunnel

The valley side is so steep on the next few kilometres that most of the line disappears in tunnels and galleries protecting it from falling stones and avalanches.

On the top level behind the church of Wassen, another SBB Re 460 with a northbound IR is about to meet a pair of DB 185 (Bombardier TRAXX F140AC1) with a southbound freight

The northern ramp ends at the station of Göschenen (1,106 m above sea).

In pouring rain, an SBB Re 420 (Re 4/4II) climbs the last metres of the northern ramp upon arrival in Göschenen with a southbound IR

At Göschenen, the line enters the 15 km Gotthard Tunnel. The north portal has been rebuilt in 1957–1960, the apparent second tube on the left is for freight trains and the one-time terminal for the loading of road trucks (now located at Basel). Inside the mountain, the tracks soon merge into a single-tube double-track tunnel.

SBB Re 460 112 with a northbound IR exits the tunnel. These trains consist of a 1st-class panorama car, air-conditioned 1st- and 2nd-class cars, and older 2nd-class cars with retractable windows for the pleasure of photographers

Above the panorama car and the platform tables, you can make out the bridge of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, a narrow-gauge rack railway climbing the passes near the sources of the Rhine, Reuss and Rhône rivers, which I shall cover in a separate diary (after the one on the southern ramp).

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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

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What you can't deduce from the photos in the diary is that most of them were made during the peak of a heatwave which broke temperature records in Switzerland. Even at this height, it was around 30°C. I drank four litres just while on the road and fought a losing battle against sunburn.

For landscapes without railways, check my photos in the Summer Holiday Photo Blog; and two bonus photos below. First, a morning view of Göschenen the day after stormy day:

On the second photo, the first rays of the Sun reach a hamlet opposite Wassen in the late morning:



*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Aug 20th, 2013 at 02:53:54 PM EST
Your photos are really terrific. Thanks for the diary.

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher
by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Wed Aug 21st, 2013 at 10:58:43 AM EST
Yes, fantastc diary. thank you. I want to go there now.

Will there still be a service once the new line kicks in ?

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Aug 22nd, 2013 at 03:23:54 PM EST
The precise use of the line isn't decided yet, the only thing certain is that it won't be closed. There is talk of routing some or most freight trains by day via the old line. This is related to a problem I keep emphasizing in relation to upgraded mixed-traffic lines, the one about different-speed trains limiting capacity: in this case the speeds are 100 km/h and up to 250 km/h, meaning a travel time difference of 20½ minutes over the length of the GBT, and there will be at least three fast trains per direction every two hours. The IR trains may stay as they have four stops on the section bypassed by the tunnel and I saw a fair number of passengers at all of those stations. On the south side, an all-stopper service was re-introduced recently (albeit only once a day to gather commuters), which will probably remain – it would be nice if something similar would be done on the north side, too.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 22nd, 2013 at 03:58:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great photos and article, as usual! Some of them look like those pictures you see in model railroading magazines, where there is a mountainous village with multiple trains all adjacent to each other.

Unrelated question: I read recently that one reason it takes freight trains so long to stop under emergency conditions is that the brakes are adjusted so that when the car is empty, full emergency braking will still not cause the wheels to lock and get flat spots. Is that really the case?

The ratio between full and empty on a coal gondola, for example, is about 6:1. (140 tons laden, 22 tons empty, for aluminum gondolas as used over here.) That would suggest that you only get roughly 15% of the potential braking effort when the cars are loaded. Seems pretty sub-optimal...

by asdf on Fri Aug 23rd, 2013 at 05:47:04 PM EST
I'm not entirely sure about the situation in the USA but in present-day Europe, this certainly isn't true.
  1. The pneumatic braking system of most wagons are equipped with so-called load-proportional valves which adjust the pressure and thus the braking effort relative to the car's total mass. Most of the rest is equipped with hand adjusters for the same purpose.
  2. The purpose of load-proportional braking isn't merely to avoid wheel slip, but also to avoid train ruptures due to uneven braking.
  3. AFAIK the reason freight trains take so long to stop is that the braking system is adjusted for a slow development of full braking force, to avoid train ruptures and large longitudinal forces resulting from one end of the train already being fully braked while another end is still rolling freely. That's because in long trains, due to the relatively low speed of the propagation of the pressure drop in the main brake pipe, it takes a substantial time for all brakes to activate. In recent times however, heavy-haul railways (who run the longest trains) started to equip their rolling stock with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, so faster braking is possible.


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Aug 24th, 2013 at 02:15:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some relevant numbers from UIC and EU standards:
  • minimum transmission speed (speed of the reaction of the brake cylinders to the drop in the pressure of the main brake pipe): 250 m/s;
  • brake cylinder filling times: 3-5 s in brake mode P (passenger), 18-30 s in brake mode G (freight)
  • maximum length of a train taken into account by the standards: 700 m in brake mode P, 1000 m in brake mode G (freight)
  • maximum number of unbraked cars in a train: 50%
  • maximum length of a group of unbraked cars within a train: 80 m

I should also note that ECP brakes are a new advanced development for freight trains (two-way digital communication along the train, no use of the main brake pipe); but for passenger trains, electropneumatic (ep) brakes (which still use air off a [second] brake pipe) have long been in use.

As for North America, I find wagons have empty/load braking, too. Trains are much longer, however. I couldn't find the prescribed brake cylinder filling time.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 24th, 2013 at 07:26:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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