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The opening of the GBT will also mean that most traffic will be withdrawn from the spectacular old Gotthard railway.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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