Friday 10 October 2014

61: Seeing Switzerland: To the Gorgeous Gotthard

Welcome to the latest installment of the Railwaymedia blog, this one as promised will cover my recent trip to Switzerland to view, possibly for the last time, the stunning Gotthard route.
The railway linking the German and Italian speaking parts of Switzerland currently winds up the valley from Erstfeld to Göschenen before passing under Andermatt in the 15km long Gotthard tunnel. In 2016 it is planned that a new 'Base Tunnel' will be opened cutting out the entire route through the valleys either side of the old tunnel and creating the world's longest rail tunnel at 57km. With the Base Tunnel itself basically complete, just needing track and wiring, there is only a year or so in which to view the busy old route and its procession of passenger and freight trains. Hopefully this edition of the blog will encourage you to visit the line next year in what will probably be the last full year before it is reduced to a secondary line with probably just a local passenger service.

With a flight into Basel arriving early afternoon I only had time on the first day to spend an hour or so in the City Centre photographing the trams. There are a few different makes of trams to be seen with two operators, BVB which operate in a green livery and do more of the local routes, and BLT operating in yellow and red and which runs some longer routes to outlying towns.

Before my train to Erstfeld I stocked up on beer at the excellent beer shop located on the SBB station, it is a two and a half hour journey by way of a reversal at Luzern and the journey flew what with decent beer, comfortable train and stunning scenery. Lucky too to have the classic Swiss traction of their standard Re 4/4 Electric locomotives hauling the train for both sections.

Over the Gotthard route there are up to three trains an hour; there is an inter-regional to Locarno, an inter-city to Lugano, and a Pendolino to Milan running generally every other hour. The Pendolinos all originate in Zürich but the IR and IC trains alternate between Basel and Zürich with them both meeting at Arth-Goldau to allow cross-platform connections. That is how to run a railway! On my last visit both these services were loco hauled but now only the IR's are, the ICs are covered by SBB's class 500 tilting units. I expected as a result most locos to now be the newer Class 460 Lok 2000 type engines but I was pleasantly suprised that most were still Re 4/4s.

Whilst the trip was organised around just myself and my friend Richard, two others were meeting up with us on the Tuesday to see the Gotthard for themselves. The weather wasn't great but we still went to show them the classic locations of the line, starting with Silenen. This is the first large village up the valley from our base at Erstfeld. There is an hourly bus that runs alongside the line from Erstfeld to Göschenen; Inter-rail and certain other railway tickets are valid on the bus as it serves the places where SBB has in the past closed the stations serving the villages.

For this location at Silenen you alight the bus at Silenen Dägerlohn. Continue walking along the main road up the valley for about 500m, past the Post Office, then turn left up a footpath that takes you under the railway. Turn right at the top and you are on the road that turns parallel to the railway, as seen in the picture above. If the sun is out then it is best to visit here in a morning.

After a few hours at Silenen we caught the bus again up the valley to Wassen. It is about 25 minutes ride between the two; Wassen is perhaps the classic location on the route. As the valley rises faster, despite the lines gradient, than the railway can climb, at two points on the 'north ramp' the line has to spiral to gain height. The first is at Grünellen where it does a simple spiral, the second is at Wassen where it does two 180 degree turns (actually the first is almost 270) and so passes through Wassen on three seperate levels with the station and village being on the middle tier.

Previously I had only done the bottom location so wanted very much to try the others. It is a bit of a climb to the very top but as can be seen above it is worth it! Again if the sun is out then this would be best probably from late morning for a few hours before the sun becomes head-on. To reach this place you take the only road climbing west out of the village and after 200m take a small lane on the left that takes you under the (middle) railway. Immediately through the bridge there is a track on the left, simply follow this all the way up the hill, it zig-zags up the final bit, until you reach a tunnel mouth on the top level. There is a well worn path alongside the railway. From this location you get a fantastic view of the railway on all three levels looking down into the valley; a train appearing at the bottom will take about 6 or 7 minutes to reach you at the top with it being visible half way up too. To illustrate a little HERE is a stitched view showing the top two levels.

We had planned then to show Tim and Mark the classic bottom shot, however a sudden deterioration in the weather meant we had to shelter in the old station on the middle level enroute. The station is easy enough to find being on the main road through the village just south of the centre.

Continuing past the station you will come to a steep farm track on the left that descends below the motorway and through a long curved tunnel. This is the route you take to reach the main afternoon spot where the lower section of track turns out the valley straight into the hillside to do its first full turn in order to climb to reach the station. The picture at the very top of this blog is the view from this location taken on the Thursday when the weather was very slightly better!

The next day we planned to do a longer trip having a day away from the Gotthard, and intended to head to Chur to see once again the excellent narrow gauge Rhätische Bahn. The quickest way to reach there from Erstfeld is via Zürich taking about 2 and a half hours but a far more pleasant way to reach it is by using the Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn (MGB). Catching the train up the valley from Erstfeld to Göschenen you change there onto the rack railway to Andermatt. This climbs very steeply (HERE is a picture of a MGB train leaving Göschenen) through the Gotthard Pass, from where the mainline and tunnel takes its name. On my last visit I failed to get the picture from the train of the Devil's Bridge half way up (pictured above), but was a bit quicker at remembering this time!

Changing at Andermatt the main route of the MGB heads either direction to Brig and Visp in the west and up via Oberalppass to Disentis in the east. This latter is the route to Chur. Unfortunately the low clouds obscured the view of Andermatt from the train as it climbs to the 2048m high Oberalppass; we had better weather in 2008 and this picture below shows what you can see as the train climbs, you can make out at the bottom the start of the line this was taken from curving to the left away from the station and depot on its 600m ascent from Andermatt to the summit.

I managed to cover reasonably well the MGB and its trains in 2008 with a day spent at Oberalppass photographing the Glacier Express portions. There are usually two seperate Glacier Expresses in each direction. During the summer months as these have more coaches they have to each run as two seperate portions over the steeply graded MGB so eight different workings can be viewed at Oberalppass within just over two hours. The day I spent there can be seen HERE.

The main purpose was to get to the Rhätische Bahn so we stayed on through to Disentis where a cross-platform transfer is made onto the waiting RhB service. Whilst the RhB have bought a few new units in the last few years they have largely replaced older EMUs, the main exception being the locos on the Chur to Arosa line. Fortunately two major loco hauled routes still exist, that from Disentis through Chur to Scuol Tarasp and from Chur to St Moritz, both running hourly.

These two routes meet at Reichenau Tamins. There is a good location to the west of the station (above) where the line crosses the point where the Vorderrheine and Hintererrheine rivers meet and form the River Rheine itself. Before we reached there we stopped off at another classic location, Versam-Safien, where the Voderrheine passes through a spectacular gorge.

I had been half tempted to spend the day, given the poor weather, travelling on the RhB as it possible to do a circle from Chur via Filisur, Davos and Klosters but that would have taken me all day and so I went for my original plan of visiting the section of the route between Chur and Landquart where it runs parallel with the SBB mainline. This is nowehere near as interesting as the mountainous bits to the west and south but I had found using Google 'Streetview' a reasonable location at Zizers. Unlike Britain, Switzerland hasn't allowed Google to map all its roads with car mounted cameras however the RhB has allowed them to set up a camera on a truck and has toured all the RhB routes, which can now be seen on Google streetview! The view of the bridge at Zizers I went to is HERE.

I was starting to get a bit cold and wet by this point but it was worth a walk up to the bridge as there are good views either way (a zoom lens would be useful) of both the mainline and the Rhätische Bahn. There is a fair bit of freight on the RhB, generally running to set timetables. I'm sure these are available somewhere but I wasn't aware of the times so getting a couple of pictures was a matter of luck. Most of the RhB engines are of two types, the older Re 4/4s pictured above and the newer design as seen in the Reichenau-Tamins shot. They also have a handful of Ge 6/6s designed more for freight work, one appeared heading towards Chur with a slightly untaxing load.

We woke up Thursday morning to blue skies over Erstfeld, although with the sun not yet penetrating the valley. As I had never visited the 'south-ramp' the other side of the Gotthard Tunnel we caught the train through to the other side. The valley the railway runs down is quite a bit different to that on the north side, not withstanding the place names all sounding Italian. We weren't really sure of any decent locations for photography so caught the train two stops to Faido. With a centre platform and the sun worng we quickly caught the train 15 minutes later back up the hill to Airolo which, like Göschenen to the north, is at the end of the tunnel. As such there is a fire train stabled there for emergencies, there was also when we arrived a diesel shunting trucks round the station area. The platform again was central which wasn't ideal but the sun was good for southbound trains.

The road you can see zig-zagging up the mountain behind the train is the other end of the Gotthard Pass and takes you to Andermatt then back over the Devil's Bridge down to Göschenen, a slightly longer journey though than the direct 15km tunnel the trains traverse!

Rather than waste the sunshine trying to find any locations this side we returned through the tunnel to Wassen. We went to the top location but the sun was already starting to get head on. I found a decent spot half way down the path for a view of northbound trains on the middle level through the village and spent an hour there before moving on to the main loacation at the bottom. Two oddities passed whilst I was waiting there, one was a single coach infrastructure diagnostic EMU and the other was this diesel shunter which for some reason was pushing an old EMU coach uphill.

Having bought a few beers from the convenient supermarket in Wassen village before I climbed up to the top level, I think I bemused the woman by buying some more two hours later enroute to the lower level. We had done the classic Wassen shot in 2008 but with perfect weather it needed to be repeated one last time before the Base Tunnel opens, though being October the shadows from the steep valley sides meant we lost the sun early so retreated to the excellent bar in the village. The best shot of the day was of heritage livereied Re 4/4 number 11108 on an inter-regional service.

The final day our flights weren't until late from Basel, mine back to Manchester not until 2130, so we had a full day to spend somewhere. My initial plan was to work my way to Basel covering one or two railways I've not yet photographed; there are many in Switzerland! It was again blue sky when we awake in Erstfeld so Richard decided to head up the valley again whilst I caught the 0832 train towards Luzern, planning to make an initial stop in Arth-Goldau to see how restoration of the wooden station of the Rigibahn spanning the mainline was going on. The further north I got though the murkier it became and Arth-Goldau was almost foggy and pretty cold.

The Rigibahn is a rack railway, the first in Europe, that climbs from Arth-Goldau to the top of Rigi Kulm (1752m) with a second line that goes down from there to the shore of Lake Lucerne. The old station is still being restored, the interior of which trains used to stable at night (see picture HERE), and what at first looks like a temporary station is now situated just outside, though the massive concrete stop blocks suggest it is not temporary and it is awaiting buildings. There is actually another temporary station in use further up the line past the workshops and shed.

With the weather looking no better I decided Richard had had the right idea so caught the next train back to Erstfeld connecting onto the bus towards Silenen. The sun had apparently only reached the level of the line at about 1000 so I hadn't missed too much with my diversion to Arth-Goldau. Having done the main Silenen shot before I got off the bus two stops early to try a different location, a small road bridge. The curve of the line, the cutting and the nearby barn is not ideal but at least it was a different view looking down towards Erstfeld. I believe there is another location, probably best in summertime, beyond the bridge in the distance, so a friendly local told me.

The locos pictured here are brand new Bombardier Traxx engines to an updated design, owned by Railpool and leased to BLS. They are of course electric locomotives but also have a small diesel engine fitted for working in sidings and yards that don't have overhead wires.

By the time I reached the Silenen location Richard was ready to move on. He headed back to Wassen I had another hour or so then moved to another new location for me, Gürtnellen. This was a bit of a risk as I was unsure what time the sun bacame right, nor for how long, at this spot. I got there about 2pm and the light was only just becoming correct, by 4pm when I had to catch the bus in order to get back to Basel for my flight, the shadows were already becoming a problem. I understand that in summer this location is best from about 3pm onwards until early evening.

To reach here you need to alight the bus at Gürtnellen Wiler/Gotthardstrasse. There is just the one road opposite down into the village, cross the river and turn immediately left. Follow this lane until it passes under the railway. Now a track it climbs uphill away from the railway but after about 100m there is a signed footpath back down towards the line through a gate.

I ended up with just under two hours at this beautiful spot and it was strange to think that despite having a full day on the Gotthard (I could only have had another 30 or 40 minutes worth of sunlight here), I still got back home to Preston later that day, well in the early hours of Saturday. My final shot from Switzerland, very nicely, was of a classic pair of SBB Re 4/4s on a freight.

I hope this selection of pictures will be of interest to anyone who might be considering visiting the Gotthard route in 2015 before most trains get diverted away from it through the Base Tunnel, and the directions to the main locations will be of use. All the pictures I took can for about a month be found in my New Additions section, after which they will be moved to the 2014 Trips bit.

I've no plans as yet for any more trips, with the clocks due to go back soon light will become even more at a premium in an afternoon so days out will have to involve longer visits to the pub than hitherto. I might make an effort this year to photograph some of the seasons Rail Head Treatment Train workings, I've got a week to research where these are running before my next days off.

Thanks as always for taking the time to read my blog, please watch out for future editions or check the Railwaymedia website for new additions. Bye for now.

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