The International Steam Pages

The Rhätische Bahn Steam Snowblower, 2009

This report is just one of a number from James Waite about the narrow gauge railways of Switzerland with a strong emphasis on steam operation. See also:

See also James' earlier report of a visit to this railway.

James Waite reports:

Here are some notes and photos of a trip we made to the RhB for a run with no. 9213, their 0-6-6-0 Meyer snowblower (SLM 2419/1910) on Sunday 1st March, one of its two public outings advertised for 2009. It was our first visit to the Bernina line, always a bit different from the rest of the RhB with its 1,000 volts dc current system which dates from the building of the railway in 1908-10 whereas the main RhB system is 11kv ac. The line was an independent concern until it was taken over by the RhB in 1942 at a time when its finances were strained because of the collapse of Swiss tourism during WW2.

We had some difficulty finding a hotel - every place in Pontresina (the town at the bottom of the pass where the snowblower is kept) seemed to be full, but eventually found a room at the Berninahaus at Suot Bernina station near the top of the pass, a really remote spot at over 2,000 meters up. So, off we went and drove to the hotel via the Julier Pass the day before the run. It was one of those beautiful Alpine sunny days, deep blue sky and not a cloud to be seen. Passing Pontresina station around 18.00 hrs we could see that the loco was already being fired up inside the shed judging by the thick brown smoke emerging from the shed chimney - a bit like watching the Sistine chapel when they're electing a new pope!

The hotel was delightful in every way - excellent food and a very comfortable room looking out down the valley and over the railway. Our room was lined with pine and so well heated that we slept with the window open all night despite a temperature outside of -6.5! I got up early Sunday morning (and spent a long time scraping the ice off the car) and got down to the shed about 07.40 hrs as the crew were finishing preparing the loco. They drove it outside about 15 minutes later. I was soon joined by a couple of Dutch enthusiasts who had driven from Amsterdam for the weekend. One of them told me that they had been trying to buy tickets to ride the train for the past five years but this was the first year they had been successful, despite the high price (269 CHF each). It's evidently a very popular event! It took the crew a long time to oil everything and fortuitously they then tested the rotor - a bit of a challenge, this, to photograph. I eventually got the spinning effect at 1/18th of a second at f22, steadying myself against a catenary support. Unfortunately it clouded over while I was there and remained cloudy for most of the day. Also in the shed was 9219, one of the two 1967-built diesel snowblowers that now do most of the snow clearing work on the Bernina line. However no. 9213 is still kept in reserve for use when the snow is really heavy as it has been in Switzerland this winter – and apparently was called upon to rescue one of the more modern snowblowers which had become derailed on the day of the previous public trip in February.

One of the problems of the day is that the railway uses two regular routes for the snowblower runs, one starting at Cavaglia, on the Italian-speaking side of the pass, heading northwards, stopping at Alp Grum for lunch and then returning non-stop to Pontresina and the other starting at Morteratsch and heading south to Alp Grum. They don't decide which route to run on until the morning of the run depending on snow conditions etc. They were extremely informative about this and sent me the full timetable for both routes several days in advance. In the event they opted for the southern section - not good for us, this, as there's no road access south of Ospizio Bernina.

Back to the hotel for breakfast – after admiring a moufflon grazing on the hillside outside the window of our room. We decided to wait there to see the loco running through on its way to Cavaglia. In the event the participants were transported in a two car set formed of railcars no’s 32 and 31, both built in 1908, two years before the snowblower, though their bodies have been rebuilt) with the loco following immediately behind towing electro-diesel no. 802. We presumed the cavalcade had gone through non-stop and went to check out from the hotel - only to see the loco passing the hotel entrance ten minutes or so later which prompted the staff to down tools and rush out onto the hotel terrace to watch it! Happily there was a runpast at a bridge a couple of kms before Ospizio, one of the few points where the line leaves the roadside, and this coincided with the only brief sunny period of the morning. There was a service vehicle with a small grab arm being towed behind the railcars. This was used to dislodge snow onto the line for the snowblower to remove immediately afterwards. It all looked most impressive though it wasn't possible to see much of the machine when it was in action for all the steam and snow everywhere!

We got one more grab shot near Ospizio by which time the weather was closing in seriously. We had planned to go on the train to Alp Grum and wait for the snowblower to return but the weather had become so misty that there didn't seem to be much point in doing this. The road leading to Ospizio station had not been cleared of snow - the best part of two meters or more thick. Some of the linesiders trudged down to the station on foot but we decided to drive on to Poschiavo, at the bottom of the pass in Italian-speaking Switzerland and only a few miles from Italy proper, as we wanted to have a look at the old electric locos there if the depot and works were open. Fortunately they were, notwithstanding that it was a Sunday, and the chap in charge was very happy to let us look round. 151 and 161 were both outside in the station yard painted in the orange colour the RhB use for their shunting and service locos. It’s quite remarkable that they are still in everyday service considering that they were built 100 and 98 years old respectively.

182, the Bernina mini-crocodile, was inside the works painted in RhB brown, their old electric livery. It left the railway in 1978 for an exhibition of crocodiles at the Swiss Transport Museum at Lucerne and then moved on to the CF de La Mure in southern France. Here it never saw service for the obvious reason that the La Mure line is electrified at 2,400v and for many years it was dumped. In 1996 it was rescued by Associazione 182, one of the RhB enthusiast clubs, and returned to Poschiavo where it received a protracted overhaul. It’s now treated solely as a historic loco though it was built as recently as 1925 (SLM/SAAS no. 3210), a mere youngster in these parts! There were also railcars 30 and 34, two more of the 1908-11 series, painted in their original Bernina yellow colour with full lining out - very pretty. The running shed contained 801, the other electro-diesel and 9218, the other diesel snowblower.

At midday we set off back up the pass. At the top it was now very foggy. We decided to call it a day and set off to St Gallen, in the northeast of the country, where we were spending Sunday night. We called in at Samedan depot, near St Moritz, en route - here were 707, one of the Bo-Bo-Bo articulateds on the traverser, 2-8-0 no. 108 (SLM 1710/1910), 222, a SLM 1913-built 1B1 electric and 414 (SLM 3297/1929), one of the RhB baby crocs. These are rapidly becoming an endangered species with only two, no’s 414 and 415, left in working order. 412, the croc which was controversially painted blue some years ago and which we had seen in action shadowing no. 108 in February 2008, suffered a major bearing failure in September 2008. It was withdrawn from service and broken up to provide spare parts for the two survivors. Club 1889, another of the railway’s enthusiast clubs, also operate at the depot and keep two Bernina 4-wheeled carriages in the original yellow colour and 2-6-0T no 14 (SLM 1476/1902) which is in the course of heavy overhaul. It now carries the name “Heidi” and is another loco which has returned to the railway after many years absence – in this case with an enthusiasts club based on the Montreux Oberland Bahn between 1977 and 2000.

We carried on northwards via the Vereina tunnel and reached St Gallen late afternooon. We had checked in at the Hotel Dom in the centre of town, an interesting establishment run by a charity to provide employment for handicapped people and to train them for work in the outside world. The following morning we called at the Appenzellerbahnen's depot at Herisau, near St Gallen. We'd set this visit up in advance. Jorg Schmidt, the depot manager, was a really helpful person and took us for a tour of the railway’s extensive workshop and depot there. The main object was to see ex-RhB 2-6-0T no. 14 which was purchased by the railway’s supporters club in 1972 and has been used for specials on the railway periodically since then. It was in beautiful condition though currently out of use as the club is fund raising for boiler work. The boiler was built in 1986 so hopefully there can't be too much wrong with it. Apart from the loco we were also shown a beautiful antique forge, some historic railcars and an old coach being lovingly rebuilt by the supporters club. The standard gauge Sudostbahn also has a steam loco in their works at Herisau on the opposite side of the line but unfortunately their works are closed on Mondays.

I was going to say that the snowblower must be just about the oldest "real" loco still around, even if it only sees occasional commercial use - but on reflection I think the Paraguay locos are a few years older. (What about these in Java - Merican 04-2T 4 and 6, OK 1901? RD) Nonetheless it will see its 100th birthday next year, as will the line it serves. Not bad! It's seriously in need of a fresh coat of paint, unlike the RhB's historic fleet of locos which look immaculate, but I guess this just adds to its charms as a working beast! There used to be a second identical machine, no. 9214 (SLM 2399/1913). It was sold in 1990 to the Dampfbahn Furka-Bergstrecke, then in the early stages of restoring the rack railway over the Furka pass which had been abandoned a few years before on the opening of the Furka base tunnel. However it was unsuitable for use on a rack line and it’s now based at the Blonay-Chamby museum railway. It’s not in working order though the museum occasionally demonstrates the rotor in action.

The Blonay-Chamby line is also the home of RhB no. 181, the Bernina line’s other significant historic loco, a lanky electric loco originally built by Brown Boveri in 1916 with two 6-wheeled bogies with outside coupling rods. In 1928 it underwent major reconstruction by SLM, emerging with 4-wheeled bogies, and now carries their works number 3295. It runs there on special occasions. The Bernina line must be most unusual for an early electric railway in that pretty well all its original stock has survived, much of it still in daily use on the line.

Pontresina depot


The bridge near Ospizio (apparently called the "Wildwestbrucke"!)




Rob Dickinson