63 years of ge 6/6 II at a glance

The beginnings

Ge 6/6 II 702 is ready to go in Celerina in 1984.

Picture: © Luc Wullschleger

At the end of the 1940s, Rhaetian Railways (RhB9 had to urgently modernize and enlarge their rolling stock, especially the engines. Their 15 locomotives of the Ge 6/6 I series, built in the 1920s and famous under their nickname "Crocodiles" due to their protruding two snouts on both sides of the cab, were not capable anymore of hauling the long and heavy trains on the steep grades of the network with the necessary speed, 1947 and 1953, ten modern powered bogie locomotives were delivered as the Ge 4/4 I series. With a maximum power of 1600 hp, these locomotives soon reached their limits as well after a few years, and an even larger, more powerful locomotive series was needed.

The solution was a six axle locomotive (Bo-Bo-Bo or 4-4-4 arrangement), using many of the proven components of the four axle Ge 4/4 I series. Technically the design was modern for the time being: low voltage on-load tap changer, single-phase series-wound motors. The outer two bogies and the motors could be exchanged with the Ge 4/4 I. The locomotive body was cut in the middle and articulated, allowing rotation around the lateral axis in order to easily handle track slope changes.

The Ge 6/6 II are capable of speeds up to 80 km/h and have a mass of 65 metric tons. They power output is at 1776 kW or 2400 hp at a reference speed of 46 km/h respectively. Their towing capacity ist at 205 metric tons on 45‰ grades and 280 tons on 35‰ grades. The middle bogie kann move sideways to allow sharper turn radii.

The first two locomotives were delivered in 1958 by Swiss companies SLM, BBC and MFO at a price per locomotive of 230'000 CHF. They were assigned the numbers 701 and 702 and were christened to the names of Raetia and Curia (the roman latin names of the canton/district as well as the district capital city)

The two pilot production locomotives performed very well, thus five more were ordered and delivered in 1965. They were 200'000 CHF more expensive than the first two locomotives, and given the numbers 703–707.

Engine 701 carried the name of the Roman province Raetia, which up to this day is synonymous with the canton of Grisons/Graubünden, where the RhB operates. Locomotive 702 was christened to the Roman latin name of the capital city of Chur, Curia. The other five engines were given the names of larger villages located at the end of the main lines of RhB. Beside the name, every locomotive carried their number and a coat of arms of the respective village (loco 701 carried the coat of arms of the Canton Grisons/Graubünden).

Technically, all Ge 6/6 II are identical. The first two engines had three smaller front windows and a narrow door on both front sides to allow passage from one locomotive to another. These doors were weld shut later, and the further five locomotives were delivered with only two larger windows and no front side door.

The heyday of the "700s"

Ge 6/6 II 703 hauls heavy freight train 5129 over "Albula IV" bridge between Muot and Preda on 25. Juni 2020.

Picture: © Georg Trüb

During the 1950s, several large hydroelectric power plants were planned and built in the Canton of Grisons (especially the Bergell valley). These works immediately brought heavy workload for the new locomotives, especially transporting concrete. Quite like on the Gotthard pass route of SBB (Swiss Federal Railways on standard gauge), the concrete trains were initially led by a four axle Ge 4/4 I locomotive and a new six axle Ge 6/6 II after the fifth concrete car. Because of loose concrete dust from the front five cars, sucked in to the motors of the second engine, this typical Swiss way of putting up a train consist had to be dropped.

The Ge 6/6 II were winning their bread primarly in the concrete train business during their first years. Thereafter, they soon became the mainstay of motive power for the famous express trains on the Albula line. There they spent most of their lives, until in 1993 the new Ge 4/4 III were delivered and knocked the "Albula workhorse" off its place.

Starting in 1985, the cabs of the pilot series locomotives 701 and 702 were adapted to the cabs of the main series (numbers 703-707): their three narrower front windows were exchanged to two wider front windows, and the front side door dropped. It was also during this time that all locomotives were painted in today's well known RhB red. In 1998, the scissors pantographs were exchanged with modern single-arm pantographs – like the Ge 4/4 I had gotten before.

The 700 series was spared from larger accidents most of the times. Of all locomotives, it had to be "ours" (number 703) that was involved in an accident on 22 November 2011, when she was seriously damaged during an accident in the station of Rueun. Hauling a freight train, she was dispatched through a station track where – unbeknownst to the dispatcher – a construction work train had been manoeuvered in by a roadside gang. Driving around a curve at track speed, the engineer threw her in emergency when he got aware of the error, but still hit the consist of a flatcar loaded with an excavator and a shunter locomotive. Nonstandard communications and phraseology between the roadside gang and the Rail Control Center in Landquart was found as the reason for the accident.

The end of a legend

End of an era: The first of the 700 series, 701 "Raetia", is being scrapped on 10.2.2021 on the premises of Vögele Recycling in Chur.

Picture: © Siegfried Messidat

When the new Ge 4/4 III was put in service as of 1993, the Ge 6/6 II were slowly but surely bumped from their task of hauling the heavy express trains over the Albula line. They were then primarily assigned to hauling heavy freight trains on the whole core route network, but every now and then they found their way to the head of a passenger or even express train. Wherever there was something heavy to be hauled – the 700 series was there to haul.

Starting in the 2010s, first afflictions of old age surfaced. To make things worse, RhB decided to do a radical fleet renewal and upgrade. In 2009/10 a series of 15 new three-car EMUs (ABe 8/12), and in 2011/12 5 four-car EMUs (ABe 4/16) built by Stadler Rail and branded "Allegra" after the local greeting word were put into service. The same company has been building and delivering 56 four-car EMUs ABe 4/16 "Capricorn" since 2019. These EMUs are earmarked to take over most of the passenger operations. This way, modern locomotives can be deployed into freight services, and older locomotives become obsolete.

The Ge 6/6 II, together with a few of their originally 10 smaller sisters of the Ge 4/4 I series, were still kept in service as reserve locomotives until November 2021. While the smaller Ge 4/4 I series got a grace period, the larger Ge 6/6 II were taken off the roster at the end of 2021, and their death knell sounded. The first one of them had already been scrapped in Chur on 10 February 2021, and now her six sisters have been parked in Landquart.

Luckily RhB has decided to retain locomotive 707 "Scuol" as a historical heritage (rumor has it that even 705 "Pontresina" will be retained). Originally, 704 "Davos" had been assigned to be the one to survive as heritage. But a severe defect in 2021 and a subsequent detailed inspection revealed damage of large extent, urging RhB to change the assignment.

Chances are fair that one of the "Rhaetian workhorses" will survive as a historical heritage locomotive and will continue to cruise on the RhB tracks with the well known popping sounds of their electrical load switches and the sound of the low-voltage tap changer.