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The Rigi Railway

The First European Rack Mountain Railway: the curious line which runs from Vitznau, up the Rigi, to Kulm




WHEN the possibility of moving wheeled vehicles along a pair of rails by the aid of the steam engine first was discussed it was considered quite impracticable for sufficient friction to be produced between the wheel and the rail to propel the locomotive and the train. Bearing in mind the small area of contact between the two surfaces, this feeling, in the days when the locomotive was young, is quite excusable. It was held to be imperative that the locomotive wheels should be provided with teeth or studs disposed around the peripheries of the wheels and engaging with holes in the track to secure locomotion.

Accordingly, when John Blenkinsop laid down a railway at the Middleton Collieries, near Leeds, in 1811, he introduced a rail carrying corrugated teeth, outside one of the track rails, with which a driving wheel, mounted outside the carrying wheel, geared. Two years later Blackett, at the Wylam Collieries, argued that Blenkinsop was wrong in his contentions, and that a train could be impelled under adhesion alone providing the grade was not too steep. He proved his theories in a practical manner, with the result that the Blenkinsop tooth system became superseded, and Stephenson, when he directed his energies towards the perfection of the steam locomotive, adopted the adhesive principle.

Although Blenkinsop was proved to be wrong in one phase of the argument, he unwittingly offered the railway engineer a means of overcoming gradients which are too steep to be worked under adhesion. He conceived the rack railway, which now enables the masses to indulge in the sport of mountaineering in safety, luxury, and comfort. Blenkinsop’s rack railway was torn up - sections are preserved in the South Kensington Museum - but the principle did not lie dormant for many years. An American engineer suggested that the method should be adopted on steep grades, the rack being laid between and not outside the metals. In 1847 a railway between Indianapolis and Madison was built upon this principle. In 1858 another American, Sylvester Marsh, concluded that, although the rack might be superfluous in connection with trunk line working, it could be turned to useful purpose for scaling lofty mountains merely for the transportation of sightseers and tourists. He sought and obtained the concession to build such a line to the top of Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, U.S.A., and in 1868-9 this line was built.




But although Marsh indicated the possibilities of the rack railway, it was Switzerland which brought the idea to an advanced and perfected stage of development. This was only to be expected, seeing that the “playground of Europe” is vitally dependent upon its tourist traffic. Obviously, the more attractions it can offer to visitors the heavier must be its revenue from this source. Tourists will travel miles to enjoy a “magnificent panorama”, and what better coign of vantage is possible than a mountain top whence are unfolded rolling vistas of glacier, lake, river, and snow-crowned peak? To the Swiss nation the invention of the rack railway has been the biggest boon of the century; “Mountaineering by rail” has become the most popular pastime in the world.

Still, in Switzerland, this movement was born independently of America. While Sylvester Marsh was striving to secure his concession for the Mount Washington railway, Mr. Nicholas Riggenbach, who took the first steam locomotive into Switzerland in 1847, and who was locomotive superintendent of the Central Swiss Railway in Olten, took out a patent on August 12th, 1863, for a new system of track and locomotives for the ascent of mountains - a rack railway and locomotive for operating the same. Nothing further appears to have been done in connection with the idea by the inventor, who at this time apparently was ignorant of Marsh’s similar efforts in the United States. But when the Mount Washington railway was completed Riggenbach made a trip to North America, and inspected the line, which, though independently conceived, was virtually built upon the principle he had evolved and had patented seven years previously. Upon his return to his native land, in 1869, he immediately built a short length of railway working upon the rack rstem at some quarries near Berne, here he tested his theories.

When this railway was completed naturally it became an object of interest among engineers. Among these were Messrs. Naeff and Zschokke. They were impressed with the possibilities of the idea, and, joining forces with Riggenbach, it was decided to test it upon a comprehensive scale - to provide some popular mountain with this means of ascent. Casting around, their selection fell upon the Rigi, which had come into popular favour because Heinrich Keller, the well-known geographer, had returned from a trip to its then difficult summit, with enthusiastic descriptions of the wonderful views revealed from its crest. His pictures so appealed to the public, and made such a deep impression, that kindred spirits, Dr. Abel, Mr. Escher Von der Luith, Dr. Horner and Mr. Keller, subscribed between them the sum of £100 for the provision of a hotel upon the Rigi summit, for the convenience of those who toiled to the top to enjoy the view. It was an unpretentious building, being merely an Alpine hut such as is to be found on every hand throughout the Swiss and Austrian ranges to-day for the convenience of mountaineers. It was appreciated by the scores who, attracted to the crest, embarked upon the journey, and was the forerunner of the existing magnificent hostelry which now crowns the summit of the Rigi.



Thereupon Riggenbach, Naeff, and Zschokke sought a concession to provide the Rigi with a mountain railway, since it was realised that this peak offered the most promising opportunity to sound the public attitude towards such facilities. The requisite powers were obtained, and Yitznau, at the foot of the mountain, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, was selected as the lower terminal. From that point the line follows a winding ascent to Kulm, at an altitude of 5,900 feet, the total length of the line, which is of standard gauge, being 4·38 miles. The maximum gradient was set down at 20 per cent. - 1 in 5 - while the curves are of 591 feet radius. The configuration of the mountain side fortunately assisted the constructional engineers, the only two heavy works being the Schwanden Tunnel, 240 feet in length, and the immediately adjacent Schnurtobel Bridge, 235 feet long, supported on five trestles, over the Schnurtobel gorge, through which rushes the Grubisbach 70 feet below. Both the tunnel and the bridge are upon the maximum grade, while the bridge is on a curve of 591 feet radius.

The rack rail designed by Riggenbach differed from that used by Marsh on the Mount Washington railway, and was a distinct improvement thereon. It was placed centrally between the running rails, and was formed of two channel irons 4¾ inches deep by 2⅜ inches wide, the vertical web being ½ inch, and the flanges 2/5 inch thick. These two channel irons are spaced 5 inches apart, and the teeth of wrought iron are riveted into them at each end. Instead of using round teeth, as Marsh adopted, Riggenbach preferred the taper form which experience has shown to be preferable, inasmuch as it not only ensures safe locking of the gear at different depths, but resists more efficiently the tendency of the gear-wheel to climb the rack, so that full security against derailment is ensured. Riggenbach’s type of tooth, with certain modifications, has been adopted since in all types of racks for railways. When built the iron track was laid upon longitudinal and transverse sleepers, but the effluxion of time demanding the overhauling of the railway in 1885, the wooden sleepers were removed in favour of iron, while the track was relaid with steel rails.



The first locomotive, like the rack, had to be designed especially for the work, and was of unusual design. It was constructed at the Olten works of the Central Railway, with which Riggenbach was associated, and comprised a vertical boiler, set at such a rake to the horizontal as to reduce as far as possible the variations in water level arising from the differences in the gradients which had to be negotiated. The boiler was mounted on a four-wheeled carriage, the rear axle with its wheels running loose. The cylinders were placed outside the frames, and by means of connecting rods and cranks drove the intermediate shaft, which carried two pinions gearing into spur wheels having 43 teeth and keyed on the driving or lower axle. On this axle also was keyed centrally the toothed wheel, 25 inches in diameter, and having 20 teeth, which meshed with the teeth in the central rack. Consequently, through this gearing, the vehicle was propelled either forwards or backwards. The second, or upper, axle not only carried the two carrying wheels running along the rails, but a central spur wheel as well, which geared with the rack. This wheel was practically an emergency braking device to be brought into action in the event of an accident to the driving rack wheel.

The carriage - one comprised each train then as now - was pushed up the mountain and trailed in the decent, but was not coupled to the engine. It had seating capacity for 54 passengers, and was fitted with powerful independent brakes, so that even when fully loaded it was able to be pulled up instantly on the steepest banks, independently of the engine, in case of a mishap befalling the latter. The normal braking facilities on the engine operated upon the disks of the crank-shaft. In the descent no steam was employed, movement being by gravity controlled by an ingenious method of introducing air into the steam cylinders, the valves of which were reversed while the regulator was shut off. Air, drawn into the cylinders by the movement of the pistons, became compressed, thereby exerting a gentle retarding effect upon the progress of the train. A valve, worked by the driver and throttling the exhaust of the air, served to govern this braking action.

After some eleven years’ service the vertical boiler was abandoned in favour of the horizontal type. Similar considerations concerning changing levels of the water arising from the differences in the gradients had to be borne in mind, and this gives the engine the appearance of tilting forward when on a level track. In the latest Rigi locomotives the cylinders are placed at the leading end, outside the frames, the driving cog-wheel, engaging with the teeth of the rack, owing to its larger diameter, being placed close behind the front carrying axle. The rear axle carries an emergency rack brake as in the original engine, while the disposition of the brakes is the same, with the addition of a centrifugal governor whereby the speed is controlled automatically. When this limit is exceeded the steam brake is brought into service. This automatic steam brake is a special and ingenious device, and its reliability and efficiency having become emphasised, the Government now compel its installation upon all steam rack railway locomotives used upon the Swiss lines.

Travelling upon the Rigi railway cannot be said to be excessively fast, seeing that it averages about 4·7 miles per hour with an average load of 25 to 28 tons. Therefore any qualms on the part of the timorous are unnecessary. To overcome the 3,937 feet difference in altitude between Yitznau and Kulm 74 minutes are occupied in either direction. This may seem slow; but before the coming of the railway the climb involved a tedious, fatiguing toil afoot of 3½ hours.

The railway was completed in 1871 and proved an instant success. The novelty of mountaineering by rail proved irresistible, and the novelty never has worn off so far as the Rigi is concerned. Now more than 120,000 passengers are carried up and down in the course of the year. The ascent costs about 5s. 10d.; the descent 50 per cent. less. In summer ten trains are run daily in each direction, and if the exigencies so demand the total may be raised to eighteen, enabling some 600 passengers to be sent to and fro in the day.

TROMITI STATION, Rigi Railwayhe Rigi railway, being the first of its character in Europe, always has compelled historic interest, but since the first train crawled to the summit of the mountain in 1871 mountain peaks innumerable have been subjugated by the rack railway, operated both by steam and electricity.


[From Part 7 of Railway Wonders of the World by Frederick A. Talbot, 1913]

You can read more on “The Conquest of the Clouds”, “The First Mountain Railway” and “Rack Rail Locomotives” on this website.