Cog Railways

On July 5, 2011 · 6 Comments

Many years ago my fiancé (now wife) and I traveled through northern New England for two weeks. This was so long ago that we actually tent-camped our way through a string of rustic state parks with few amenities. That changed to Bed-and-Breakfasts once we got married, and then changed again to whatever hotel happened to have an indoor pool and a free breakfast buffet once the kids came along. Imagine though, a time when I once trampled through the wilderness without regard to creature comforts.

One of our stops delivered us to the top of Mount Washington, the highest point in the state of New Hampshire and indeed anywhere in the northeastern United States: 1,917 metres (6,288 feet). The observatory atop the mountain claims to be the "Home of the World’s Worst Weather" but it didn’t live up to that reputation during our visit. It was postcard perfect.

View Larger Map

We saw a terrible column of black smoke rising from the valley. What could possibly burn on the barren rock above the tree line? It moved closer. Soon enough we saw that it belching from an ancient machine, a mighty hissing steam engine pushing a passenger car, the Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington Cog Railway

I didn’t know anything about the cog railway prior to our visit. I will take a ride if I ever return, now wiser and lazier after the passage of more years than I’d like to admit.

The Washington Mountain Cog Railway is an institution. It was the very first mountain cog railway ever constructed, and of course it continues to be the oldest by definition. Tourists have taken the railway safely to the summit of Mount Washington since 1869, pushed along nearly unimaginable gradients up to 37%.

Cog Railway Mechanism
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain

Generically it’s a "rack and pinion" railway, a technology particularly suited to steep mountainous terrain. The rack is a toothed track strung along a rail bed and the pinion is a cog wheel that aligns with the rack. It’s easier to picture than describe. They’ve been deployed worldwide in places where ordinary trains would spin their wheels on their tracks.

United Kingdom

View Larger Map

A rack and pinion design has worked efficiently for over a century at Snowdon, the highest peak in the British Isles other than Scotland. The Snowdon Mountain Railway rises to a 1,085 m (3,560 ft) summit from Llanberis, a village in Gwynedd, North Wales. It is the only example of a cog railway in the United Kingdom.

Reputedly the SMR served as an inspiration for the fictional Culdee Fell Railway, which in turn spun off into the whole Thomas the Tank Engine phenomenon. That probably doesn’t matter much to you unless your household went through a Thomas the Tank Engine phase, as mine did when the kids were younger.


View Larger Map

Not every cog railroad dates back to the Nineteenth or earliest days of the Twentieth Century. The technology continues to fill a small but important niche in the modern world.

Perisher is a large ski resort in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. The only road into the area was frequently blocked by the same weather that makes the resort so attractive, an overabundance of snow. The proprietors dug a tunnel through a mountain to provide an alternate path, and within the tunnel they constructed an underground rack railway. Perisher Skitube Alpine Rail has delivered skiers to the resort since 1987.


View Larger Map

A segment of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu, India, is a cog railway climbing up through thick, uninhabitable jungle slopes. The rack-and-pinion portion of the railway running from Kallar to Coonoor includes "208 curves and 13 tunnels, and 27 viaducts" as noted by UNESCO when it added Nilgiri to the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site. It has operated here since 1908.


Exibir mapa ampliado

More accessible, yet also confronting the challenges of extreme topography, the Trem do Corcovado of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, climbs to the top of Morro do Corcovado. This is the famous mountaintop crowned by the statue of Cristo Redentor — Christ the Redeemer — that is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic images of the nation.

There are other examples, but Cog railways are still a rather unusual phenomenon. Even so, a rack-and-pinion design is still the best technology for a very special set of circumstances. That hasn’t changed in more than a hundred and fifty years.

On July 5, 2011 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “Cog Railways”

  1. AF says:

    Don’t forget Switzerland! It seems to be the absolute epicenter of cog railways. I have traveled up the Rigi Bahnen and the Jungfraubahn myself and have friends that have done others. They appear to all be uniformly spectacular.

  2. Adrian says:

    Being from Switzerland I’m surprised by your exotic selection of examples. Cog Railways to mountain tops are quite common across the alps.

    Wikipedia to the rescue:

    Though the German version is a bit more exhaustive:


    • No disrespect intended to Switzerland, Germany and the Alps, of course, with their many fine examples. The instances selected (other than Mt. Washington) were used as illustrations primarily because they were located in places where one would not ordinarily expect to see a cog railway. 🙂

  3. Christine says:

    If you’re ever near Colorado Springs, make sure you visit the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway! It was built around 1890, and is approximately 9 miles to the top (as opposed to the 27 mile route an ordinary railroad would’ve required, with lots of loops and switchbacks).

  4. Peter says:

    Let’s see … the Mount Washington cog railway charges $62 for a round trip in the summer, for a trip that covers a total of six miles … no doubt making it the world’s most expensive railroad on a mile-for-mile basis!

    • Voyager9270 says:

      I disagree. The Jungfraubahn in Switzerland charges CHF 112.00 for an adult return ticket between Klein Scheiddegg and Jungfraujoch — a distance of 9.3km or 5.78 miles. At current exchange rates, that comes out to just under US$133. On a per mile basis, Mt. Washington is $10.33 while Jungfraubahn is $11.42. And keep in mind that 80% of the Jungfraubahn route is in a tunnel. That’s a lot of money for not a lot of scenery!

Comments are closed.

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
Don't miss an article -
Subscribe to the feed!

RSS G+ Twitter
RSS Twelve Mile Circle Google Plus Twitter
Monthly Archives
Days with Posts
September 2017
« Aug