Getting to the top of Lucerne’s Mt. Pilatus – Cogwheel Railway
Mount Pilatus is most dramatic mountain you see when walking around Lucerne’s medieval town or having a meal close to the Chapel Bridge. Ecologically and geographically it’s the first Alp in Switzerland.
How Did People Get to the Top?
In 1863, days of the British Thomas Cook‘s first group of travelers to Switzerland, there were porters who helped people get to the top. They walked a sedan looking carriage, one porter in the front and the other in the back, and walked you up the mountain.
It took the porterage carriers at least 4 hours up and 3 hours down Mt. Pilatus to earn 2 Swiss Francs per day. Apparently this was a very good wage in the day.
In the corridors of the Mt. Rigi Kulm hotel, you will see pictures of how these carrier chairs looked. Also in the Matterhorn museum you will see pictures of 4 carriage porters per passenger. Carriage porters would have to swap themselves out in order to keep the constant pace getting the passenger to the top.
The 1871 success of the Mt. Rigi cogwheel railway, put the carriage porters out of business. The train became an overnight success.
Soon engineers actively sought ways to build railway lines up other mountains.
▹ The problem with the Mt. Rigi cogwheel system was that it had a maximum ascent rate of 25%.
▹ To get to the top of the 7000 ft. Mt. Pilatus required an ascent up to 48%.
The steep grade became a real obstacle in conceiving a very safe railway line.
After devising many railway option a Swiss engineer, Eduard Locher devised a new cogwheel system that today is stilled call the Locher Rack System.
Locher Rack system (seen from above)
The Locher rack system, invented by Eduard Locher, has gear teeth cut in the sides rather than the top of the rail. Two cog wheels on the locomotive engage with the rack.
This system allows use on steeper grades than the other systems, whose teeth could jump out of the rack. It is used on the Pilatus Railway.
Locher set out to design a rack system that could be used on gradients as steep as 1 in 2 (50%).
▹ The Abt system – the most common rack system in Switzerland at the time – was limited to a maximum gradient of 1 in 4 (25%).
▹ Locher showed that on steeper grade, the Abt system was prone to the driving pinion over-riding the rack, causing potentially catastrophic derailments, as predicted by Dr. Abt.
To overcome this problem and allow a rack line up the steep sides of Mt. Pilatus, Locher developed a rack system where the rack is a flat bar with symmetrical, horizontal teeth. Horizontal pinions engage the centrally-mounted bar, both driving the locomotive and keeping it centered on the track.
This system provides very stable attachment to the track, also protecting the car from toppling over even under the most severe crosswinds. Such gears are also capable of leading the car, so even flanges on running wheels are optional.
The biggest shortcoming of the system is that the standard railway switch is not usable, and a transfer table or other complex device must be used where branching of the track is needed.
Following tests, the Locher system was deployed on the Pilatus Railway, which opened in 1889.
No other public railway uses the Locher system, although some European coal mines use a similar system on steeply graded underground lines.
The Pilatus is still the steepest rack railway in the world, with a maximum gradient of 48% and an average gradient of 35%. When you go up or down the Mt. Pilatus railway, the Locher system is still used to get you up and down the 2.86 mile track.
You can experience the Mt. Pilatus rack railway on a number of ECHO Rails & Trails Tours.