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The Pilatus railway: The steepest rack railway in the world

David Goran

The Pilatus railway is a mountain railway in Switzerland that connects Alpnachstad on Lake Lucerne to a terminus near the summit of Mount Pilatus.

At an altitude of 2,073 meters, it is considered the steepest rack railway in the world, with a maximum gradient of 48% and an average gradient of 35%.

A view of the terminus of the Pilatus line Photo Credit

A view of the terminus of the Pilatus line Photo Credit

 

A railcar at the summit station. Photo Credit

A railcar at the summit station. Photo Credit

The first project to build the line was proposed in 1873, suggesting a 1,435 mm standard gauge and 25% maximum gradient. However, it was concluded that the project would not be economically viable.

Steam railcar, circa. 1910. Photo Credit

Steam railcar, circa. 1910. Photo Credit

Eduard Locher, a Swiss engineer from Zürich with great practical experience, devised a unique system with the maximal grade raised to 48% to cut the length of the route in half. Locher came from a family of engineers already active in the construction of railroads, buildings, bridges, and tunnels since the 1830s.

Steam multiple unit, circa 1890. Photo Credit

Steam multiple unit, circa 1890. Photo Credit

 

The line was opened using steam traction on 4 June 1889 and was electrified on 15 May 1937, using an overhead electric supply of 1550 V DC. Photo Credit

The line was opened using steam traction on 4 June 1889 and was electrified on 15 May 1937, using an overhead electric supply of 1550 V DC. Photo Credit

On 24th June 1885, the concession for the construction of the railway was granted and four years later the line started operating. The rack was actually doubled, engaged by opposing twin horizontal cogwheels carried on vertical shafts under the car.

This design eliminated the possibility of the cogwheels climbing out of the rack and additionally prevented the car from toppling over, even under the severe cross winds common in the area.

It has operated successfully since its opening in 1889

It has operated successfully since its opening in 1889. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

 

The train ready to leave, June 4, 1889. Photo Credit

The train ready to leave, June 4, 1889. Photo Credit

 

Pilatus railway track. Photo Credit

Pilatus railway track. Photo Credit

 

The Locher system rack and pinion. Photo Credit

The Locher system rack and pinion. Photo Credit

Specially designed automatic brakes prevented the train from exceeding a strictly limited speed and ensured its safety. The car’s electric engines are used as generators to brake the car during descent, but this electricity is not reused – it is just dissipated as heat through resistance grids.

The electric carriages are approximately 36 feet long and provide seating accommodation for forty passengers. Photo Credit

The electric carriages are approximately 36 feet long and provide seating accommodation for forty passengers. Photo Credit

 

The line still uses original rack rails that are now over 100 years old. Photo Credit

The line still uses original rack rails that are now over 100 years old. Photo Credit

 

A turnout consisting of a bridge that rotates about its lengthwise axis. Photo Credit

A turnout consisting of a bridge that rotates about its lengthwise axis. Photo Credit

Originally, the steam engines were used as compressors to provide dynamic braking, since the use of friction brakes alone is not practical on such steep slopes. Two original steam cars still exist.

One is on loan to the Verkehrshaus der Schweiz (Swiss Museum of Transport and Communication) in Lucerne, and the other at the Eisenbahnmuseum (Railway Museum) in Munich, Germany.

Driver place in Pilatus Railway and Pilatus train speedometer. Photo Credit

Driver place in Pilatus Railway and Pilatus train speedometer. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

 

One of the two original steam cars exhibited in Munich, Germany. Photo Credit

One of the two original steam cars exhibited in Munich, Germany. Photo Credit

The scenery route operates between May and November when the cog railway is not buried by snow, with trains departing every 45 minutes during the day. Today, the cog railway transports about 300,000 passengers a year to the top of the mountain in about 40 minutes.