February 10, 2016

Swiss infrastructure quality goes under the microscope

Written by  Anitra Green
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SWITZERLAND's Federal Office of Transport (BAV) published a report on January 14 detailing the reasons behind the deterioration in the condition of the country's standard-gauge infrastructure and outlining potential solutions to the problem. 

 

In 2013, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) identified a need for a fresh approach to infrastructure maintenance after it discovered rising traffic levels had triggered a steady deterioration in the condition of the network. As a result, BAV started work in 2014 on a report on the general state of the network with the aim of ascertaining the true extent of the problem and identifying potential remedies.

In the meantime, the federal government has already agreed a 15% increase in funding for the SBB's maintenance budget, which will rise to SFr 7.6bn ($US 7.6bn) in 2017-2020. However, this problem is also affecting the private railways, which need more resources. One of the main drivers of the rising costs is the need for increased investment in rails, sleepers and below-track infrastructure.

SBB NAThe scope of the study has been limited to the standard-gauge networks operated by Switzerland's three largest railways, SBB, BLS, and SOB with the main focus on the most heavily-used lines.

The report shows that the correlation between cause and effect is complex, but two key findings emerged. The huge increase in wear-and-tear on the track is a direct result of the rise in traffic over a period of 20-25 years, with higher speeds and heavier rolling stock to meet customer demand. Secondly, the railways have been unable to keep pace with the need for increased maintenance. There are several reasons for this - inadequate records of infrastructure condition, construction strategies that were not consistently followed, lack of skilled personnel, and short-term cost pressures.

The Mattstetten - Rothrist high-speed line, which opened in 2004 as part of the Rail 2000 programme, is taken as a case in point. Rails have already been replaced after 10 years of service, considerably less than the expected lifespan. The analysis showed that the problem stemmed from a combination of factors both in the run-up to the opening of the line and the failure to implement preventive maintenance measures such as tamping and rail grinding once the trains were running. However, this example is only of limited use when applied to the entire network.

A comparison between the three railways reveals that SBB track generally has a shorter lifespan than BLS or SOB. This could be a result of the higher degree of wear-and-tear affecting these lines and the reduction in preventive maintenance. BAV says more research is needed in this area.

To overcome these problems, BAV has proposed a number of measures with varying degrees of urgency. One that has already been agreed is the introduction of attritional pricing in the Swiss track access charging system as from the beginning of 2017, a measure which will be based on the 'user pays' principle. Until now, freight trains operating through Switzerland have been priced by weight. It is hoped that this new system will act as a financial incentive for rail operators to use rolling stock appropriate for the lines.

In addition, BAV's proposals for funding the railway over the next four years is now based on an overall picture of the infrastructure - a first for Switzerland's railways - thanks to guidelines introduced last year for standardising review procedures. These guidelines were developed in cooperation with the railways themselves.

The report also recommends giving more weight to infrastructure maintenance strategies in the railways' service level agreements, with the aim of encouraging them to take a more systematic approach not only in assessing the state of their infrastructure, but also in following a consistent long-term strategy in maintenance concepts and providing value-for-money. Infrastructure managers and operators should aim to achieve better coordination, the report suggests, and take due consideration of the interests of the infrastructure sector. Infrastructure divisions in turn should improve their cost analyses to cover the entire life-cycle of their networks and optimise the collection of data on the current condition of assets.

With these measures, BAV hopes the condition of the railway network can be made more robust and more stable over a longer period of time, and maintenance costs can be kept within bounds. It also recommends further research and urges the railways to commit to the quest for solutions.

 

SBB on track

SINCE 2009 SBB has produced annual reports on the state of its infrastructure, and while these show that the overall condition of the network is good, the state of its track can only be regarded as adequate.

SBB has already adopted some of the measures put forward in the BAV report. Under the next service agreement for 2017-2020, SBB has pledged to develop its preventive maintenance activities, optimise procedures, and drop activities that offer no customer benefit.

However, even with additional funding it will take several years before the backlog and the completion of new infrastructure such as Zürich's Durchmesserlinie and the Gotthard Base Tunnel is set to bring more traffic onto the network, with implications for the volume of maintenance work. To meet this challenge SBB has launched its RailFit 20/30 programme with the aim of cutting costs across all sectors.

SBB says it has also improved communication and cooperation between its infrastructure, passenger and freight divisions in recent years with its Ensemble project, and has developed an overall strategy for all three divisions. SBB believes that becoming a more integrated railway is vital to providing productive, high-quality transport services on a heavily-used network with increased maintenance activity and an ongoing programme of upgrades.

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