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Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

Cog Trains & Incline Systems: Clockwork Precision & Marvelous Engineering

Cog railways, which are also known as rack railways or rack and pinion railways, have a rack rail with teeth, usually located in between the track’s running rails. Trains operating on cog railways have their own cogwheels that fit the rack rail, allowing them to travel up and down steep gradients. Consequently, most of the world’s rack railways are located in mountainous regions, but there are some which are used for trams and transit systems in urban areas where there are steep hills to deal with:

(top image: Mount Washington Cog Railway via; bottom: Pikes Peak Cog Railway via)

The very first cog railway was the Middleton Railway in West Yorkshire in the UK. In 1812, Salamanca, the first commercial steam locomotive, ran along the tracks there, hauling coal wagons.

(image via)

Here is an interesting sketch of the vintage incline system:

(image via)

The earliest mountain cog railway, using a system developed by Sylvester Marsh, was built in New Hampshire in the late 1860’s. On July 3, 1869, a steam-powered train completed the first trip to the 6,288 feet summit of Mount Washington and was considered one of the wonders of the age. The Mount Washington Railway is the second steepest rack railway in the world and is still running today, with seven steam locomotives and one using diesel:

(images credit: MrToastie, Cog Railway, M J Klein)

Also in the USA, another cog railway, known as the Manitou and Pike’s Peak Railway, is located in Manitou Springs, Colorado. This one, dating back to the early 1890’s, runs to the top of Pikes Peak. The railway now uses diesel engines, but some of the earlier steam locomotives are still on display there:

(images credit: Lisa M. Hadley, 2)

In part inspired by the Mount Washington railway, the first mountain rack railway in mainland Europe opened in 1871 on Mount Rigi in Switzerland. The Vitznau-Rigi-Bahn railway is still in operation today and uses the Riggenbach system, which is similar to the one developed by Marsh in the United States:

(image credit: Peter Walter)

The number seven locomotive first entered service on the Vitznau-Rigi-Bahn railway way back in 1871 and in 2011 still runs on occasion, for special events and for tourists:

(image via)

In Konigswinter in the German Rhineland near Bonn, this museum exhibit shows the mechanism of Riggenbach system (left). Another system, invented by Emil Strub in 1896, is apparently very easy to maintain and is now used in many of the world’s cog rail systems (right):

(images via 1, 2)

The steepest cog railway in the world is also located in Switzerland. The Pilatus Railway or Pilatusbahn line runs to near the top of Mount Pilatus, with an altitude of almost 7000 feet, from Alpnachstad on Lake Lucerne, and has a maximum gradient of 48%.

(images via)

The line was opened in 1889, but was so steep that the main engineer, Eduard Locher, had to design a whole new rack rail system, which you can see here (below left):

(images via 1, 2)

In the Locher system, there are none of the usual switches or points on the line, but rotary switches instead. Here’s a rotary switch at the station near the top of the mountain (shown above right).

(images via 1, 2)

Here we see the train close to the summit of Mount Pilatus:

(image via)

The Schynige Platte Railway or Schynige Platte Bahn is another cog railway in Switzerland near Interlaken, which passes through some absolutely spectacular alpine scenery:

(image via)

Still in the Alps, here we see the locomotive from the cog railway in Puchberg/Schneeberg in Austria:

(image credit: Andra Moclinda-Bucuta)

Also in Austria, the Achenseebahn railway is located in Tyrol and some parts of the line are so steep that the Riggenbach rack system had to be used. The Achenseebahn thus qualifies as the oldest steam powered cog railway in Europe:

(image via)

The Schafbergbahn cog railway in Upper Austria:

(images via)

Roman Abt, who worked as an engineer for Riggenbach and devised a rack system that improved on Riggenbach’s design - the Abt system, used by the Manitou and Pike’s Peak Railway mentioned earlier. The Abt system was first employed in Germany in 1885 and is still used today on the Snowdon Mountain Railway in North Wales in the UK. Here we see the wheels, axle and rack wheel:

(image via)

Here’s the Snowdon locomotive making its way up the mountain:

(image credit: Howard G. Millichap)

So for now, this is a brief overview of the world’s cog, rack railways and rack and pinion railways. In the next part we will highlight more of beautiful European cog railways, and speak about vintage incline systems - often a long-gone feature of many historic urban landscapes.



Simon Rose is the author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children, including The Alchemist's Portrait, The Sorcerer's Letterbox, The Clone Conspiracy, The Emerald Curse, The Heretic's Tomb and The Doomsday Mask.



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Anonymous Dave L. said...

Fun fact...for cog railways that are steam powered, great effort has to be put into ensuring the boiler remains level. If it doesn't, and the firebox (where the coal or oil is burned to produce heat for the engine) is left uncovered, then the metal components can overheat and create an explosion hazard. That's why cog steam locomotives are designed to either sit level, or at least so that their boilers set level, during the course of their ascent/descent.

Anonymous Tom said...

Really enjoyed this article, Avi! I come from the West Riding of Yorkshire and there's definitely plenty of railway history around there. Also check out funicular railways - popular in the Welsh mountains I believe, at least once, and driven by a cable, so slightly different to the rack/cog but same principle.

Blogger Michael Aironaut said...

I've been up Snowdon twice on the trains. Fascinating stuff!

Blogger Dávid said...

I would like to share an other interesting cog railway!


Blogger Rob Lang said...

Cog railways are also called rack railways. The earliest cog-driven railway was actually in the UK in 1812: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rack_railway

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting.



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