From Byron to Buchli

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Col de Jaman.
© Always Worth Saying 2023, Going Postal

As we continue our clockwise trip around the northern shore of Lake Geneva, we take a slight detour behind the town of Montreux. The above photograph is captioned ‘Col de Jaman’ which is a high mountain pass reaching to 1,512m which connects Montreux to Montbovon in the canton of Fribourg. The pass is overlooked by the Dent de Jaman which looks similar to the bleached skyline visible in the photograph.

The observer looks up the valley on the Montreux side, possibly even just at the start of the hills behind the lakeside Swiss Riviera resort.

At first, I thought the rough ground where the photographer stood was forestry, as with the bare hillside opposite. But that hillside looks so bare and so steep one begins to suspect landslides and avalanches. With bushes dotted about opposite, perhaps force majeure de nature a few years earlier? On this side only a few small weeds peep from the debris as if a landslide during the spring thaw, summer rains or an avalanche the previous winter.

Being down the valley, off camera to the right will be Caux where old friend of our family album Empress Elizabeth ‘Sisi’ of Austria was staying when, during a fateful 1898 trip to Geneva by ferry, she was murdered by an Italian anarchist.

The Palace Hotel dominates the Caux skyline. We shall imagine Sisi about her rooms excitedly preparing for a ferry trip and 60 years later my grandparents excitedly leaving Montreux and driving one and half miles along the lakeside to pause at Chillon Castle.

You can stand in the very same spot in the present day.

A look around shows tourists, a railway line, the coast road and an addition to the landscape since the 1950s, a mega highway on stilts wrapping itself around the mountains. At this point the hillside is so steep that the westbound carriageway is higher than the eastbound making the structure more impressive or more of a blot on the landscape, depending upon your view.

Equally recognisable as the Castle Chillon is the pictured Belle Epoch steamboat, one of a series of paddleboats built between 1896 and 1927. Several are still in service and muster along the lake every Pentecost Sunday for a Parade Naval Day. The venue varies between the various ports used by Lake Geneva pleasure boats both on the French and Swiss side. The vessels look similar, with the photograph not allowing a clear view of the name around the paddle wheel.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Castle of Chillon, Montreux.
© Always Worth Saying 2023, Going Postal

If she is the Geneve, then she is very boat that Empress Sisi made her way to on Geneva’s Quai du Mont Blanc while thinking she had been struck by a watch thief rather than fatally stabbed by an anarchist. On the other hand, if the steamer is the Helvétie, this is the vessel we saw last time alongside the Olympic Museum in Lausanne where my grandparents took a photograph of the ornamental gardens.

When the Street View image was taken, Helvétie was serving as a floating temporary Olympic Museum while the main museum was being renovated. The Helvétie herself is now undergoing a full restoration and is expected to return to service in time for her centenary in 2026.

The remaining working boats belong to CGN, or Compagnie Générale de Navigation sur le lac Léman, who operate four working paddle steamers and two further electric-powered paddle boats which cruise daily.

As for the castle, the site has been occupied since the Bronze Age with ‘Chillon’ assumed to mean ‘rocky platform’ in some ancient language. At 100 yards long and 50 yards wide the castle is the same size and shape as the island it occupies.

Its history is marked by three great periods: those of the Savoy family, the Bernese bailiffs and the Canton of Vaud with its first mention in writing dating from 1150 during the time of the Counts of Savoy. In the latter half of the Savoy period, part of the building served as a prison with the famous jail housing Bonivard, a wronged converted Protestant priest who opposed the Catholic Savoys.

My grandparents and, three decades later, myself and other senior staff at Going Postal aren’t the only old romantics to have passed by. Rather than a Ford Prefect, Lord Byron was accompanied by his set during an 1816 Grande Tour. His lordships companions were physician Dr John Polidori, Byron’s mistress Claire Claremont, Claire’s stepsister Mary Godwin and the poet Percy Shelley.

Mary Godwin was to marry Percy Shelley and, as Mary Shelly, wrote the classic gothic horror novel Frankenstein, no doubt in part inspired by her own clockwise plod around the castles and forbidding crags of Lake Geneva.

Byron was inspired by the ‘dungeon’s spoil’ tale of Bonivard to write The Prisoner of Chillon in tribute.

Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:
A thousand feet in depth below
Its massy waters meet and flow;

Thus much the fathom-line was sent
From Chillon’s snow-white battlement,

Not sure I understand the 392-line narrative work but Puffins can be certain that Byron visited because, as with the columns of the temple of Posseidon at Sounio, he carved his name there. Being upper-class to my middle-class, besides a notebook, pen, camera, dining car reservation, chips from the Noga Hilton and passport, Byron was permitted to carry and use a hammer and chisel.

Incidentally, I could have sworn Bryon graffitied the columns at Palmyra. Others disagree. Since I don’t have a photo of my own – or if I do it’s forgotten among a mountain of stuff in the attic – and since the aforementioned were blown up by Islamic State in the Levant, I suppose we’ll never know.


Last time, we travelled from Lausanne to Vevey by road and allowed ourselves to be tempted up the hillside by rail, rack, pinion and tramway to Blonay. This time we have a famous piece of mainline to explore.

Hugging the lakeside is the line from Lausanne to Italy’s Domodossola via Brig and the 12-mile-long Simplon Tunnel. Known simply as the Simplon Railway it covers 144 miles in standard gauge double track and is electrified at 15Kv / 16 2/3 Hz. The first section was opened in 1857. Brig was reached by 1878. The first tube of the Simplon tunnel opened in 1906 with a second tube being opened to traffic in 1922.

The line is captured in the iconic poster below, showing the lake and Castle Chillon. The mountain ridges behind are the Dents des Midi. The town in the dip is the Rhone Valley’s Villeneuve. As for the locomotive in the foreground, mmm…

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Cardinaux poster for the Simplon Railway.
The electric Simplon Line – Switzerland,
Emil Cardinaux via SBB Historic
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Another of those marvellous 1935 Railways of the World articles which we first encountered when travelling through Iraq to join the Taurus Express at Aleppo, shows the Simplon locomotive in more detail.

Recognisably it is an Ae 4/7, a class of 127 locomotives built by various Swiss manufacturers between 1927 and 1934. Why are they allocated 4/7? Because they have seven axles, four of them powered.

As a mainline carrying heavy international trains across challenging Alpine gradients, the Simplon’s locomotives needed four large and heavy traction motors.

Using an axle as a rotor within a stator is fraught because of the limitations of size under the locomotive and the need for gearing to provide effective torque. Ordinarily, traction motors sit on the bogey above the powered axle and are connected via a pinion on the rotor to a gearwheel on the axle. However, as the traction motors get bigger, too much un-sprung weight sits on the wheelset, resulting in the track being hammered.

The solution on the Ae 4/7 was the Buchli drive, named after its inventor Swiss engineer Jakob Buchli.

The traction motor is placed in the spring-mounted locomotive frame and connected to the drive wheel by the usual pinion and gear wheel by a series of gear segments, links and lever pivots allowing the wheelset to move independently to the weight of the traction motor.

With the weight of the traction motors completely disconnected from the driving wheels, there is less hammer on the track and a move even distribution of weight across the seven powered and unpowered wheelsets.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Example of a Buchli drive.
Buchli-Toggle drive with inner frame,
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Buchli drive explained.
Buchli drive schematic,
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

A massive success, the locomotes were still in service thirty years later in my grandparent’s day, fifty-five years later in my day and even into the nineteen nineties.

While we’re on the subject of heavy locomotives, one feels obliged to nod towards the Arctic iron ore trains also powered at 15Kv 16 2/3 Hz

With a similar problem but a different solution, the Swedes built the Dm3, a mighty beast with traction motors on the frame and power transmitted to drive wheels via a jackshaft, flywheel and rods.

Therefore, there were four driven axles, none unsprung. Added to this the units were triple articulated allowing for a 1D+D+D1 formation delivering 9,700 horsepower.

Having been in the far north when I was a youngster, I returned for my 50th birthday. A life more complicated saw me accompanied by Mrs AWS, four children, a curious niece and a ton and a half of luggage. The Dm’s hadn’t survived and had been replaced by the IORE, a class of 34 locomotives articulated in pairs.

Smaller, lighter engines due to advances in materials and electronics these still impressive beasts deliver more oomph than the Dm’s. Having a more conventional Co-Co wheel arrangement results in each articulated unit having twelve powered axles. The resulting 30-tonne axle load would be too heavy for the UK but is not unusual in Continental Europe, Australia and North America with their more generous loading gauges and resultant heavier, longer trains requiring more power.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
LKAB Dm3 in Narvik,
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
IORE passing Vassijaure station,
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0


© Always Worth Saying 2023