THE fortunes of the Velim test circuit have closely followed those of the rolling stock industry it serves. Velim opened in 1963 to support Czechoslovak manufacturers such as CKD and Škoda, but its role has become increasingly internationalised. Since becoming a fully-accredited test laboratory in 1995, manufacturers from across Europe have come to rely on Velim as a valuable asset in the increasingly tortuous business of rolling stock testing and certification. VUZ became a Notified Body (NoBo) in 2006, enabling it to carry out vehicle and equipment authorisations in accordance with European Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs).
In addition to rolling stock, Velim has a number of other test functions, including electrification and power supplies, signalling, infrastructure, and material testing.
Velim is owned and operated by VUZ, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Czech Railways (CD). The test centre, which is situated near the town of Cerhenice in Central Bohemia, comprises two test tracks and four test preparation halls. The 13.28km outer test track has a minimum curve radius of 1400m and is designed for high-speed testing at up to 230km/h, while the 3.85km inner circuit is designed for 80-120km/h operation and has a minimum curve radius of 300m.
Due to the high financial demands of maintaining infrastructure, only the most necessary maintenance was carried out until the 1990s. New rails were installed on part of the circuit in 1995 but by the early 2000s the facility was showing the signs of 40 years of intensive use. Track, power supplies, and catenary no longer met the requirements of customers who needed to test high-output vehicles which the infrastructure could not support. With increasing competition from other facilities such as Zmigród in Poland, and Siemens Wildenrath test centre in Germany, reconstruction became a necessity.
In 2005 the Test Centre Modernisation Project was launched to bring the site up to current standards and renew the ageing infrastructure. The first phase was implemented in 2005-06 and involved renewing the superstructure on almost half of the outer test track. This and all subsequent investment in infrastructure has been built in accordance with the relevant TSIs.
Further modernisation of the test centre was divided into three phases, with financing from the European Union. The first stage focussed mainly on power supplies, with the construction of a new power supply substation and an increase in the output on the DC traction systems (up to 10 MVA) as well as adjustments enabling deep regulation of power supply voltage and the installation of energy recovery systems for DC traction.
The second stage involved renewing overhead electrification with TSI-compliant catenary, which was designed for operation at up to 250km/h, and upgrading the superstructure on the remainder of the outer circuit, facilitating 230km/h operation of tilting trains. "With the increasing power of modern locomotives we found most of our customers wanted more power from the substations, which prompted us to start modernising electrification equipment," says VUZ general director Dr Antonín Blažek. "This means that today we can test vehicles with an output of up to 10MW."
A new 144m-long test preparation hall was constructed during this phase of the modernisation project and two existing halls were rebuilt. Communications systems were upgraded and a 230m-long platform was constructed for aerodynamic testing.
In 2012 it was decided to prepare and implement the next stage of the project with financial support from the EU. This involved extending preparation hall 2 to 200m and hall 1 to 120m, and equipping the outer test track with ETCS Levels 1 and 2.
"The main goal of the modernisation project was to offer our customers modern railway infrastructure and testing technology including necessary facilities," Blažek says. "By taking these steps, VUZ is able to meet all requirements for testing and examining rolling stock and other railway equipment. Our goal is to become the first facility in Europe to be approved for testing lineside ETCS equipment as there are currently no testing facilities in Europe where real-life ETCS operating scenarios can be simulated."
Blazek says that while Velim would not be able to offer facilities for 300km/h testing without major investment, he can see the potential for a purpose-built high-speed test track in Europe. "In the case of high-speed train testing an increase of maximum speed would be welcomed by our customers, but we are limited by the radius of our curves," he says. "If a 300km/h test track is built I am sure it will find plenty of customers, but the construction of such facilities is a long haul."
With the modernisation of its facilities nearing completion, together with investment to expand its capabilities into new areas, Velim's role as a hub of rail industry testing looks set to continue.