20 Nov 2017

A journey into the future

Extract from Signal+Draht, edition November 2017

Passenger numbers in local and long-distance travel are increasing throughout Europe, stretching infrastructure to its limits. Railway operators have long known that the implementation of structural measures and the purchase of new rolling stock alone are not sufficient. Only the simultaneous, continuing digitisation and automation of processes can ensure competitiveness in the long term. The Swiss Regionalverkehr Bern-Solothurn (RBS) has taken an important additional step on the road to the future. The company has introduced a modern control system software solution as an adaptable element of a flexible system architecture. With this, it has managed to strike a balance between operational possibilities and the demands of safety, on-time service, and informing its passengers — even during extensive construction work.

Man and technology at the limit

Today, the trains of the Regionalverkehr Bern-Solothurn run in a minimal 90-second rhythm, transporting more than 51,000 passengers each day—and rising. That makes this modern bus and rail company one of the most heavily utilised private railways in Switzerland. Although the infrastructure was originally designed for far fewer passengers, the approximately 420 RBS employees have managed to ensure a solid on-time record for its trains, and with this, a high level of customer satisfaction.

To continue to maintain these high quality standards in the future, in recent years, the company has gradually begun to expand numerous track sections to double track and to renew the rolling stock, a process that is still far from complete. With its two narrow central platforms and one-sided access, the four-track terminal station in Bern long ago reached its capacity limits. On peak days, more than 60,000 passengers pass through the station, which was once designed to handle approximately 16,000 passengers per day. With the expansion of the underground station, the groundbreaking ceremony for which is scheduled to take place in the fall of 2017, RBS is facing another mammoth construction project, with a planned completion date of 2025.

Upgrading and modernising the interlocking control systems from the 1980s, which as a central element of rail traffic processes constitute another key aspect of infrastructure, has been forced to take a back seat to other construction measures. IT systems and dispatching processes are particularly affected by the growing demands for flexibility and resilience.

Previously, the control system consisted of local relay signal boxes, which were operated from the control station via an electromechanical remote control. Dispatchers did a remarkable job: In the event of deviations, experts analysed each situation with the help of a push-button control centre display and then decided on the measures to be taken based on their extensive experience with and knowledge of the schedules. For example, this applies to the scheduling of crossings when considering the punctuality of two trains that cross paths. The track section was also determined by hand. With ever-growing traffic volume, the continuous load on the dispatcher was enormous. [...]