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Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper


The Mont Cenis - The Fell Railway

The Mont Cenis road
The Mont Cenis road And the Fell railway, near the summit of the pass, on the Italian side.

Guide-books say that the pass of the Mont Cenis is dull. It is long, certainly, but it has a fair proportion of picturesque points, and it is not easy to see how it can be dull to those who have eyes. In the days when it was a rude mountain track, crossed by trains of mules, and when it was better known to smugglers than to tourists, it may have been dull; but when Napoleon’s road changed the rough path into one of the finest highways in Europe, mounting in grand curves and by uniform grades, and rendered the trot possible throughout its entire distance, the Mont Cenis became one of the most interesting passes in the Alps. The diligence service which was established was excellent, and there was little or nothing to be gained by traveling in a more expensive manner. The horses were changed as rapidly as on the best lines in the best period of coaching in England, and the diligences themselves were as comfortable as a “milord” could desire. The most exciting portion of the route was undoubtedly that between Lanslebourg and Susa. When the zigzags began teams of mules were hooked on, and the driver and his helpers marched by their side with long whips, which they handled skilfully. Passengers dismounted and stretched their legs by cutting the curves. The pace was slow but steady, and scarcely a halt was made during the rise of two thousand feet. Crack! crack! went the whips as the corners of the zigzags were turned. Great commotion among the mules! They scrambled and went round with a rush, tossing their heads and making music with their bells. The summit was gained, the mules were detached and trotted back merrily, while we, with fresh horses, were dragged at the gallop over the plain to the other side. The little postilion seated on the leader smacked his whip lustily as he swept round the corners cut through the rock, and threw his head back as the echoes returned, expectant of smiles and of future centimes.

The air was keen and often chilly, but the summit was soon passed, and one quickly descended to warmth again. Once more there was a change. The horses, reduced in number to three, or perhaps two, were the sturdiest and most sure of foot, and they raced down with the precision of old stagers. Woe to the diligence if they stumbled! So thought the conductor, who screwed down the brakes as the corners were approached. The horses, held well in hand, leant inward as the top-heavy vehicle, so suddenly checked, heeled almost over; but in another moment the brake was released, and again they swept down, urged onward by the whip, “hoi” and “ha” of the driver.

All this is changed. The Victor Emmanuel railway superseded a considerable portion of Napoleon’s road, and the “Fell” railway the rest, while the great tunnel of the Alps will soon bring about another change.

The Fell railway, which has been open about eighteen months, is a line that well deserves attention. Thirty-eight years ago, Mr. Charles Vignolles, the eminent engineer, and Mr. Ericsson, patented the idea which is now an accomplished fact on the Mont Cenis. Nothing was done with it until Mr. Fell, the projector of the railway which bears his name, took it up, and to him much credit is due for bringing an admirable principle into operation.

The Fell railway follows the great Cenis road very closely, and diverges from it only to avoid villages or houses, or, as at the summit of the pass on the Italian side, to ease the gradients. The line runs from St. Michel to Susa. The distance between these two places is, as the crow flies, almost exactly equivalent to the distance from London to Chatham (30 miles), but by reason of the numerous curves and detours the length of the line is nearly brought up to the distance of London from Brighton (47 miles). From St. Michel to the summit of the pass it rises 4460 feet, or 900 feet more than the highest point of Snowdon is above the level of the sea; and from the summit of the pass to Susa, a distance less than that from London to Kew, it descends no less than 5211 feet!

The railway itself is a marvel. For fifteen miles and three-quarters it has steeper gradients than one in fifteen. In some places it is one in twelve and a half! A straight piece of railway constructed on such a gradient seems to go up a steep hill. One in eighty, or even one in a hundred, produces a very sensible diminution in the pace of a light train drawn by an ordinary locomotive: how, then, is a train to be taken up an incline that is six times as steep? It is accomplished by means of a third rail placed midway between the two ordinary ones, and elevated above them.2

The engines are provided with two pairs of horizontal driving-wheels, as well as with the ordinary coupled vertical ones, and the power of the machine is thus enormously increased, the horizontal wheels gripping the centre rail with great tenacity by being brought together, and being almost incapable of slipping like the ordinary wheels when on even a moderate gradient.

The third rail is the ordinary double-headed rail, and is laid horizontally: it is bolted down to wrought-iron chairs three feet apart, which are fixed by common coach-screws to a longitudinal sleeper laid upon the usual transverse ones: the sleepers are attached to each other by fang-bolts. The dimensions of the different parts will be seen by reference to the annexed cross section:

Let us now take a run on the railway, starting from St. Michel. For some distance from that place the gradients are not of an extraordinary character, and a good pace is maintained. The first severe piece is about two miles up, where there is an incline of one in eighteen for more than half a mile; that is to say, the line rises at one step one hundred and sixty-four feet. From thence to Modane the gradients are again moderate (for the Fell railway), and the distance - about ten miles and a half from St. Michel - is accomplished without difficulty in an hour. Modane station is 1128 feet above St. Michel, so that on this easy portion of the line there is an average rise of 110 feet per mile, which is equal to a gradient of one in forty-eight - an inclination sufficiently steep to bring an ordinary locomotive very nearly to a halt.

Just after passing Modane station there is one of the steepest inclines on the line, and it seems preposterous to suppose that any train could ascend it. A stoppage of ten minutes is made at Modane, and on leaving that station the train goes off at the hill with a rush. In a few yards its pace is reduced, and it comes down and down to about four miles an hour, which speed is usually maintained until the incline is passed, without a diminution of the steam-pressure. I say usually, because, if it should happen that there is not sufficient steam, or should the driver happen to make a slip, the train would most likely come back to Modane; for, although the brake-power on the train is much more than sufficient to prevent it running back, the driver could hardly start with the brakes on, and the train would inevitably run back if they were off.

After this incline is passed, the line mounts by comparatively easy gradients toward Fort Lesseillon: it is then at a great height above the Arc, and as one winds round the faces of the cliff out of which the Napoleon road was cut, looking down upon the foaming stream below, without a suspicion of a parapet between the railway and the edge of the precipice, one naturally thinks about what would happen if the engine should leave the rails. The speed, however, that is kept up at this part is very gentle, and there is probably much less risk of an accident than there was in the days of diligences.

The next remarkable point on this line is at Termignon. The valley turns somewhat abruptly to the east, and the course of the railway is not at first perceived. It makes a great bend to the left, then doubles back, and rises in a little more than a mile no less than three hundred and thirty-four feet. This is, perhaps, the most striking piece of the whole line.

Lanslebourg station, 25½ miles from, and 2220 feet above, St. Michel, is arrived at in two hours and a quarter from the latter place. The engines are now changed. Thus far we have been traversing the easy portion of the route, but here the heavy section begins. From Lanslebourg the line rises continuously to the summit of the Mont Cenis pass, and accomplishes an ascent of 2240 feet in six miles and a third of distance.

It is curious and interesting to watch the ascent of the trains from Lanslebourg. The puffs of steam are seen rising above the trees, sometimes going in one direction, and sometimes directly the contrary, occasionally concealed by the covered ways - for over two miles out of the six the line is enclosed by planked sides and a corrugated iron roof, to keep out the snow - and then coming out again into daylight. A halt for water has to be made about halfway up; but the engines are able to start again, and to resume their rate of seven miles an hour, although the gradient is no less than one in fourteen and a half.

The zigzags of the old Cenis road are well known as one of the most remarkable pieces of road-engineering in the Alps. The railway follows them, and runs parallel to the road on the outside throughout its entire distance, with the exception of the turns at the corners, where it is carried a little farther out, to render the curves less sharp. Nevertheless, they are sufficiently sharp (135 feet radius), and would be impracticable without the centre rail.

The run across the top of the pass, from the Summit station to the Grande Croix station - a distance of about five miles - is soon accomplished, and then the tremendous descent to Susa is commenced. This, as seen from the engine, is little less than terrific. A large part of this section is covered in, and the curves succeed one another in a manner unknown on any other line. From the outside the line looks more like a monstrous serpent than a railway. Inside, one can see but a few yards ahead, the curves are so sharp, and the rails are nearly invisible. The engine vibrates, oscillates and bounds: it is a matter of difficulty to hold on. Then, on emerging into the open air, one looks down some three or four thousand feet of precipice and steep mountain-side. The next moment the engine turns suddenly to the left, and driver and stoker have to grip firmly to avoid being left behind; the next, it turns as suddenly to the right; the next, there is an accession or diminution of speed from a change in the gradient. An ordinary engine, moving at fifty miles an hour, with a train behind it, is not usually very steady, but its motion is a trifle compared with that of a Fell engine when running down hill.

It may be supposed from this that traveling over the Fell railway is disagreeable rather than pleasant. It is not so: the train is steady enough, and the carriages have remarkably little motion. Outside, they resemble the cars on the Swiss and American lines: they are entered at the end, and the seats are arranged omnibus-fashion, down the length of the carriage. Each carriage has a guard and two brakes - an ordinary one and a centre-rail brake: the handles of these come close together at the platform on one end, and are easily worked by one man. The steadiness of the train is chiefly due to these centre-rail brakes. The flat face A and the corresponding one on the opposite side are brought together against the two sides of the centre rail by the shaft B being turned, and they hold it as in a vice. This greatly diminishes the up-and-down motion, and renders oscillation almost impossible. The steadiness of the train is still further maintained by pairs of flanged guide-wheels under each of the carriages, which, on a straight piece of line, barely touch the centre rail, but press upon it directly there is the least deviation toward either side. 3 There is no occasion to use the other brakes when the centre-rail brakes are on: the wheels of the carriages are not stopped, but revolve freely, and consequently do not suffer the deterioration which would otherwise result.

The steam is shut off and the brakes are applied a very few minutes after beginning the descent to Susa. The train might then run down for the entire distance by its own weight. In practice, it is difficult to apply the proper amount of retardation: the brakes have frequently to be whistled off, and sometimes it is necessary to steam down against them. Theoretically, this ought not of course to occur: it only happens occasionally, and ordinarily the train goes down with the steam shut off, and with the centre-rail brakes screwed up moderately. When an average train - that is, two or three carriages and a luggage-van - is running down at the maximum speed allowed (fifteen miles an hour), the brakes can pull it up dead within seventy yards. The pace is properly kept down to a low point in descending, and doing so, combined with the knowledge that the brake-power can easily lessen it, will tend to make the public look favourably on what might otherwise be considered a dangerous innovation. The engines also are provided with the centre-rail brake, on a pattern somewhat different from those on the carriages, and the flat sides which press against the rails are renewed every journey. It is highly desirable that they should be, for a single run from Lanslebourg to Susa grinds a groove into them about three-eighths of an inch in depth.

Driving the trains over the summit section requires the most constant attention and no small amount of nerve, and the drivers, who are all English, have well earned their money at the end of their run. Their opinion of the line was concisely and forcibly expressed to me by one of them in last August: “Yes, mister, they told us as how the line was very steep, but they didn’t say that the engine would be on one curve, when the fourgon was on another, and the carriages was on a third. Them gradients, too, mister, they says they are one in twelve, but I think they are one in ten, at the least, and they didn’t say as how we was to come down them in that snakewise fashion. It’s worse than the G. I. P. 4, mister: there a fellow could jump off, but here, in them covered ways, there ain’t no place to jump to.”


2. This third rail, or, as it is termed, “the centre rail,” is laid on all the steep portions of the line, and round all except the mildest curves. Thirty miles, in all, of the road have the centre rail.

3. The carriages are not coupled in the ordinary way, and although there are no buffers, properly speaking, and in spite the speed of the train being changed incessantly, there is a freedom from the jarring which is so common on other lines. The reason is simply that the carriages are coupled up tightly.

4 The Great Indian Peninsula Railway, the line with the celebrated Bhore Ghaut incline, sixteen miles long, on an average gradient of one in forty-eight, which is said to have cost £800,000, or about double the entire cost of the Mount Cenis Railway, and six times its cost mile for mile. The Fell Railway cost £8000 per mile.