Friday, May 4, 2012

The Pilatus Railway

Ascending a mountain with a cog railway is an exciting thing to do. Once I've taken a seat I impatiently await that first bump when the locomotive starts pulling or pushing the train upwards.  Hundreds of meters higher, I hope the trip will reach its destination safely. It is ridiculous to think the car would break from the tracks and run back at dazzling speed down the mountain. Fortunately when more awesome landscapes emerge I forget my irrational fear of heights.

Image source : Pilatus Bahnen

Pilatus Bahn
At the heart of Switzerland, the Pilatus Railway, or Pilatusbahn in German, runs from Alpnachstad, on Lake Lucerne, to a terminus near the summit of Mount Pilatus at an altitude of 2,132 m (6,995 ft). The line started operating 4 June 1889, about 125 years ago. Some details :
  • length : 4.6 km
  • vertical climbing distance: 1,629 m
  • rail gauge : 800 mm
  • downhill speed : 9km/h
  • uphill speed : 10km/h
  • maximum incline : 48%
The railway was electrified on 15 May 1937.

Share of 500 Francs in the Pilatus-Bahn-Gesellschaft from Alpnach
English : Pilatus Railway company
Share of 500 Swiss Francs
Alpnach, 1888
double-click to enlarge

The steepest railway in the world.
In The Triumphs of Modern Engineering, 1898, Henry Frith nicely describes what the tourists could expect when going up and down with the Pilatus railway :
The Pilate Mountain Railway is two miles and sixty-one chains in length, about half of which distance is straight and very steep. The remainder of the line is curved sharply. Some idea of the actual steepness can be gained by inspection, but the uninitiated may wish to read that the steepest ascent is one foot in two feet distance, and the average is not very much less .... yet the engine does its duty nobly, if with considerable noise and much gasping. Up amongst the pines it goes, turning the corners as quietly as it is its nature to, and disappearing amid the trees, its course only outlined by a veil of blue smoke. ...The times of ascent and descent vary : one hour and a half is the time for the ascent, an hour and forty minutes to come down. The speed is about seventy-five yards in a minute.
detail from share in Pilatus Railway company with signature of Eduard Guyer-Freuler
detail from the share above
Signature of Eduard Guyer-Freuler (1839-1905)
Swiss entrepreneur and chief commissioner for the 
world exhibitions of 1876 and 1878

The nervous will not go up ; but there is no danger, humanly speaking. .. The transit is effected by a combined locomotive car, which contains thirty-two passengers. The cars have "catches" to the rails to prevent accidents. The brakes are very powerful, and atmospheric air is utilised, as in the Rigi train. There is also an ingenious arrangement by which a brake comes into action if the speed exceeds three miles an hour on the down grade. Thus all alarm may be put aside, though we fear that the excessive gradients may on first appearance frighten some timid travellers ...

Thus spoke Henry Frith. And steep it is. Look at the video below and you'll get a better idea.

source: YouTube member mecusor1

How cog railways deal with mountains
A cog railway, also known as a rack-and-pinion railway, is a railway that has a toothed rack rail (with teeth on top) between the usual rails. Cog wheels fitted on the trains mesh with this extra rack rail. This system allows trains or trams to operate on steep gradients. You can see an animation of the principle here.
Some historic data  :
  • 1812 : The first cog railway was the Middleton Railway which ran between Middleton and Leeds (UK).
  • 1869 : The first mountain cog railway was the Mount Washington Cog Railway inaugurated in New Hampshire (USA).
  • 1871 : The Mount Rigi Railway  in Switzerland started operating as the first European mountain cog railway.

In 2011 the SwissMint issued a silver PilatusBahn
 in the Mountain Railways Commemorative Coin Series.

Pilatus Summit impossible to reach ?
Despite the invention of the cog railway system, it seemed impossible to reach the summit of the Pilatus mountain. The cog-wheels engaging with a rack-rail would be unable to cope with the abnormal gradients. At the time cog railways could safely deal with a maximum gradient of 25%. Steeper grades would cause the pinions to ride up and out of the rack with a derailment as the result. Particulary applicable to this project, rock displacements and avalanches would play havoc with the tracks. In 1873 a first project to build a railway to the summit of Pilatus was proposed suggesting a 1435 mm gauge and 25 % maximal gradient. It was concluded that the project would not be economically viable.

Eduard Locher
builder of the Simplon tunnel
Österreichs Illustrierte Zeitung, 1905, see here

Eduard Locher uses private capital to finance his bold plan
Despite the critics, Eduard Locher-Freuler (15 Jan 1840 - 2 June 1910), a Swiss engineer from Zürich, would manage to overcome the obstacles. Locher came from a family of engineers already active in the  construction of railroads, buildings, bridges and tunnels since the 1830s.  Edward understood that he needed an unconventional solution for the Pilatus railroad. Together with his brother-in-law Eduard Guyer-Freuler (see his signature above), Locher worked out a project during the years 1883/84. They proposed a project with a maximal grade of 48% in order to cut the route in half. Abysses were to be bridged and overhanging rock formations were to be tunnelled through.

Share of 200 Zürchergulden in the Theater-Actien Gesellschaft Zürich
Theater-Actien Gesellschaft Zürich, 1891
Share of 200 Zürchergulden = 466.67 Franken
issued to Eduard Locher-Freuler
double-click to enlarge
detail from share in Theater-Action Gesellschaft Zürich
Eduard Locher was not only a share holder
of the new theater in Zürich, but he also built it.

On 24th June 1885, the concession for the construction of the railway was granted. The government provided no subsidy for the construction of the line, so Locher decided to build the railway with private capital from his own company "Locher & Co". Nine months later, the railway company was founded on 29 March 1886 as the Pilatus-Bahn-Gesellschaft with an initial capital of 2 million Franken.

The Locher rack system
Conventional cog railways could not cope with the high gradients of the steep track proposed by Locher. In his solution, Locher placed a horizontal double rack between the two rails with teeth on either side. This was engaged by two cogwheels carried on vertical shafts under the car. 

Wikipedia Locher System
picture by Roland Zumbühl
This approach prevented the cogwheels from climbing out of the rack and the car from toppling over under the strong cross winds. Specially designed automatic brakes prevented the train to exceed a strictly limited speed and ensured the safety. Because of the steepness, a special locomotive was built with a boiler that was placed crosswise. With the Locher system it was not possible to use an ordinary railway switch. Instead a complex device like a transfer table was necessary where the track needed to be branched.

Pilatus Railway on stamp
Tanzania 1991

After the final tests, the Pilatus Railway went into operation in 1889. The Locher system was demonstrated on the Paris world exhibition in the same year. The railway company was economically viable throughout its entire lifetime. No other public railway systems use the effective but complex Locher system. Today, the cog railway transports about 300,000 passengers a year to the top of the mountain in about 40 minutes.


Does anyone know about other Pilatus certificates ?

Reference links


  1. I rode the line back in the 90s and took video at the exact same spot you did! Nothing has changed. Glad to see it did not decide to fall down the mountain when you got there. Max Hensley

  2. Hi Max,
    Thank you for the comment. For the record, I did not ride that mountain train (yet), but I have tried others. The video was taken by another YouTube member. Regards,

  3. An interesting and informative post. I enjoyed reading it.