EUROPEAN railways started to introduce electronic passenger reservation systems in the 1960s, and this immediately gave rise to the need for online interconnection to each other to allow customers in one country to book services on trains operated in other countries.

The International Union of Railways (UIC) standardised such interconnection by defining a set of messages and procedures described in the 918 protocol. Since transmission lines at that time had limited capacity, the 918 messages were designed to minimise their length. They are bit-oriented, in other words each bit has a specific meaning, and only relevant bits are included in the message. Therefore each message must include a so-called "topographic label" indicating which elements are present. This obviously makes 918 messages complex information items whose processing must be done in assembler-like languages, requiring skilled experts.

To overcome these limitations some years ago a UIC working group developed a new version of 918 messages in XML syntax. However, until now this syntax has not been adopted by any operators because reservation messages had to be exchanged between an operator requesting a reservation and an operator attributing the place, and it was not viable for a single operator to spend the time and money required to develop the XML messages, when its partner operators were not ready to use the same syntax.

The adoption of XML syntax was therefore on hold waiting for somebody to make the first move. The situation was further complicated when the bit-oriented 918 messages were defined by the recent Telematic Applications for Passengers Technical Specifications of Interoperability (TAP TSI) regulation as the European standard.

As it turned out Rhaetian Rail (RhB) was the first railway to make a move. RhB is a Swiss narrow-gauge railway which carries more than 10 million passengers each year, 75% of which are leisure travellers and tourists. Apart from regional services, RhB operates its famous Bernina Express between Chur and Tirano, and the Glacier Express, in joint venture with Matterhorn Gotthard Railway (MGB), between St Moritz and Zermatt. These two daily trains are patronised by tourists from all over the world who want to experience the dramatic Alpine scenery.

Passengers wishing to travel on these trains must make a reservation in advance and until recently RhB had

two solutions for this: part of the seats inventory was managed manually by RhB staff for off-line sales, while the remaining seats were loaded into Swiss Federal Railways' (SBB) EPR reservation system, which is connected via 918 messages with the systems of all other European operators, thereby allowing the sale of seats on the scenic trains in the rest of Europe and overseas.

The danger from this arrangement was that all the seats in one inventory could be sold, and potential buyers refused, while seats were still available in the other inventory. Another problem was the high staff cost of trying to reconcile the two inventories, especially during the busy summer season.

However, SBB's recent decision to phase out EPR, and move its own trains to another reservation system forced RhB to build its own system. RhB did not want to write an application in assembler to manage bit-oriented messages when technology has moved on to XML messaging. But this posed a challenge: how to maintain connectivity with the reservation systems of the other operators? That's where Hit Rail came to the rescue.

Hit Rail is responsible for managing the international Hermes data communications network, a pan-European IP-based VPN, supplied by BT, Britain. Hit Rail has run Hermes as a robust, stable, low-risk and cost-competitive infrastructure, supporting its users at a required level of quality and reliability. To achieve this, Hit Rail has constantly upgraded its network, adopting the new transmission technologies that were consolidated on the market, passing from the initial X.25 to TCP/IP and now to MPLS.

But in the last few years Hit Rail has realised that with the advent of the internet, pure data transmission is becoming an almost free commodity. Hit Rail therefore decided to develop, in parallel with the VPN service, a new range of services called Heros (HERmes Open Services). Heros is a cloud middleware service offering message interoperability. It enables all railways to send messages in a format and through a channel of their choice to any connected organisation.

Heros users do not have to invest unnecessarily in new technology. Existing systems can be migrated to XML whenever the owner is ready, independently from other partners. New operators and infrastructure managers can build their systems directly with XML messages, avoiding investments in older formats and channels.

heroOne of the first implementations of the Heros services has been a translator between bit-oriented and XML reservation messages, for which RhB has been the first user.

It took two years for a Swiss software house to develop RhB's new reservation system, although the Heros part only took six months for Hit Rail, with the support of two RhB personnel working part-time. Tests started in April 2013 and the system went live in September 2013.

Heros is a native internet solution. At its heart is a middleware based on service oriented architecture. This replaces the traditional point-to-point messaging architecture, which requires the railways to configure their IT systems with the addition of every railway partner, per message type and message version.

The middleware handles the routeing and translating of the messages. Information needed by the middleware to complete any message exchange (sender, receiver, message type, and so on) is acquired through a combination of looking into the message and preconfigured settings of a registered client. Heros supports different channels: FTP, MQ Series,

Web Services, HTTP upload, and HTTP forms. Web forms are especially useful for smaller companies that do not have access to large IT systems, to type in the information to be sent, or to receive messages from their larger partners.

For the exchange of reservation messages through Hit Rail's 918 translator, both RhB and its partner operators use MQs, as the UIC standards prescribe, independently of whether bit-oriented or XML messages are used.

In terms of hardware, Heros comprises a number of servers for data handling, storage, single sign-on, as well as production and testing services. The Heros system can be accessed by direct connection with the Hermes VPN or via the internet with secure messaging (IPSec) or web interface (HTTP).

Hit Rail also provides two useful tools that can be used by the operator's reservation experts to facilitate their work. The tools are not only for the use of the translator, they have also proven very helpful for operators only using the traditional bit-oriented messages.

The first one, called Boomerang, is a web application designed to test Hit Rail's web services. It provides a web form capable of sending XML messages to one of the defined partners. It also provides a log system indicating the outgoing and incoming messages status, including errors. It works both as a web service client and web service itself.

The second, called VZAK, is a user-friendly web tool used to convert Ascii reservation messages into XML and vice versa. The user just needs to insert the Ascii or XML text into the relevant box in the web mask and click. The tool then parses the input message, validates it against the XSD scheme, converts the message, and informs the user about the conversion time.

By March, RhB's new system was receiving more than 700 reservations a day from SBB, German Rail (DB) and French National Railways (SNCF) through Heros, adding to the reservations handled directly by RhB.

RhB partners send reservation requests in the old format while RhB receives the requests in XML. The reverse is true for RhB's replies. Heros translates the messages seamlessly, adding less than one second to the reservation process.

The system works well technically, is proving highly reliable, makes a real contribution to the business, and is popular with RhB's sales personnel. Additionally, the experience has deepened RhB's technical expertise and widened its business opportunity. Heros is now an integral part of the RhB sales operation and is supporting the tourist season in 2014, with the complete suite of planned features and an improved user interface. In addition to SBB, DB and SNCF, RhB will gradually be able to receive reservations via Heros from other railway reservation systems.

"Hit Rail is a great partner to work with, with fast reaction on an operational level," says Mr Reto Schmid, RhB's head of marketing communication and e-commerce. "This connection provides interoperability which for us is a huge business benefit. Heros is the key to Europe."