Switzerland; a relatively small land-locked country in Central Europe known for its mountains, wonderful alpine roads, chocolate, watches, Swiss Army knives and . . . railways.
I have mixed feelings about Switzerland.
It can be a strikingly beautiful place, but it gets to me; the countryside is, I feel, often rather too over-manicured and can resemble pictures on a box of chocolates. For alpine motorcycling Switzerland is right up there, wonderfully maintained roads in some of the most magnificent landscape our planet has to offer. So I guess you can’t have it both ways.
It’s also undeniably it is one of the most expensive countries in the world to go shopping, though fuel prices are often reasonable. It’s public transport network is arguably the most efficient, punctual and integrated anywhere and fare-wise actually very reasonable to use. Busses, trams and trains all seamlessly link into each other with the precision of a fine Swiss watch.
The famous Swiss Railway Clock
So, lets look at those railways…
Railway construction in Switzerland got started in the mid 1840’s, by 1850 the famous British railway engineer Robert Stephenson was engaged to construct a network of over 600km of lines and the first true alpine route was opened through the Gotthard Pass in 1882.
In the early days of railways, nearly everything was powered by steam and for the Swiss there lay a problem; Switzerland has no source of coal. The country quickly became reliant on imported energy, which was both expensive and unreliable. The country was and still remains on the cutting edge of Hydroelectric power the Swiss railways became, of necessity, early pioneers of electrification. By 1939 nearly 80% of the network was electrified, whilst other European countries could only manage around 5%!
Most of the trunk and international routes are laid to what is known as “Standard Gauge,” the distance between the rails being 1435mm (4ft 8 1/2in) and many secondary and mountain lines are metre gauge, 1000mm.
Arguably the most famous of the metre gauge systems is the Rhaetian Railway, which operates in the canton of Graubünden in South-Central Switzerland and even extends to Tirano in Northern Italy. Serving the major tourist destinations of Davos, St Moritz and Klosters, the Rhaetian Railway has become known to travellers from around the world.
Rhaetian Railway train in Tirano Italy.
Two lines of the Rhaetian have grown to almost legendary status, the Bernina and the Albula, which are now both recognised as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Bernina route is renowned for the “Bernina Express” which crosses the Pass of the same name, whilst the Albula is famous for Crocodiles!
At this point you may be forgiven for thinking that yet again Old Dookes has lost the plot, but please stick with me.
The metre gauge Albula line is 38 miles long (61km) and links Thusis with the spa resort of St Moritz, crossing the Albula Pass on the way. The route was opened in 1904 and is one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railways in the world. Originally the line was worked by steam locomotives, but by 1919 electrification work had commenced. For the technically minded, a 11Kv overhead system at 16.7Hz AC was built.
The newly electrified route needed some pretty powerful locomotives to keep the trains moving and therein lay a problem, because back in 1919 electric motors were bigger than we can make them today, a lot bigger!
The solution that the Rhaetian settled on was to use two of the biggest motors available. Then to mount them on the frames of a railway locomotive and link the drive to the wheels via a system of shafts and rods; quite crude, yet brilliantly simple.
The new locomotives weighed 66tonnes, were 43ft long, had a centre cab and long noses at each end.
With that impressive long nose they soon gained the nickname of “Crocodiles.”
For over 50 years the 15 Crocodiles were the sole motive power over the Albula route and each notched up impressive mileage during their working lives. Gradually their numbers began to dwindle, today there are only two left in service on the Rhaetian and then only for special workings. Four others survive as museum exhibits.
Last September when Harls and I were passing through Switzerland I planned that our route would take us over the Albula Pass. I also knew that one of the museum Crocodiles was on display at Bergün railway station which is almost the halfway point of the Albula Railway, so it seemed logical to pop in and have a look.
The road over the Albula Pass is delightful; it would have been even more so if we didn’t have seriously sub-zero temperatures that morning. Thank goodness for heated gloves and jackets! From the South the hairpins start almost as soon as you turn onto the Pass road in the village of La Punt Chamues, but unlike some other passes they don’t go on for long as you are already at serious altitude.
Heading to Albula.
Early snow had given the scenery a delightful dusting of the white stuff and for Northern Hemisphere dwellers a sense that Christmas was coming. Fortunately the road was dry and clear, even if the temperature took my breath away as we climbed to the summit. Poor old Harls was having a tough time of it though, her carburetor was icing up in the thin alpine air and the lack of oxygen saw a serious drop in performance, good job we weren’t in a hurry!
We paused at the Pass, partly to take in the moment and also to let Harls warm up a bit; I know, it seems strange to stop to let the engine warm up, but it’s the way in the mountains.
As we began our decent, I set my sights on Bergün and the elusive Crocodile, but first there was a load more lovely twisty bends to enjoy.
For anyone that hasn’t either ridden a motorbike, or even a pedal cycle, it’s a little difficult to explain just how fantastic it is to ride around sweeping bends as your machine leans into the curve. Get it right and it’s simply magical; get it wrong and it’s, well, not so nice. . . fortunately we mostly get it right!
Pulling into Bergün station car-park, I kicked Harls side-stand down, grabbed my camera and went off in search of the “Croc”. I found it sitting in it’s own protective shed at the North end of he station and duly took a number of photographs.
The preserved “Crocodile.”
It’s quite an impressive beast and I must say that by and large it looked pretty well looked after. I have a bit of a hang-up about any machine that is parked up as a museum piece, yes its great that it has been preserved, but just sitting lifeless and cold it’s like the living breath has been sucked out of it.
Crocodile captured I wandered back towards Harls, but being a railwayman at heart I couldn’t resist a visit to the station platforms just to see what was going on. In short… not a lot! There were no scheduled departures and no-one else about, but wait a minute that signal is showing a “Proceed” aspect; perhaps there’s a freight train about.
Within a few minutes the rails began to sing their distinctive metallic song indicating a train was approaching. I looked to the North, scanning the line eager to spot the approaching train.
My jaw dropped open and I had to look twice; approaching me at speed was a Crocodile on the head of a train of excursion passenger cars!
A living breathing “Crocodile!”
The 78-year-old locomotive, one of only two left in working order, swayed over the point-work and tore through the station, it’s air whistle echoing a shrill warning off the surrounding hills and it’s side rods clanking a happy song as it passed by me.
Yes I was a train spotter again, but hey can you blame me!
I’d come hunting Crocodiles and my word, I’d found one alive and well in it’s native habitat!
“The biggest kick I ever got was doing a thing called The Crocodile Rock.”
Catch you soon.