Snow, snow and yet more snow fell in January 2021. Avalanches are a big risk. They’re thundering down all over, including at Lake Brienz. The Zentralbahn railway line is buried. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed – as has been the case every time the track has been buried since the opening of the line in 1916. We want to keep it that way. And an automatic avalanche alert system has been doing just that since last winter.

Alarm alert

An extensive measuring system was installed in seven avalanche paths with the highest risk. It triggers an alert automatically to prevent trains colliding with avalanches. In summer, the same system is used to raise the alarm in the event of falling debris. In the latter case, however, only the road is closed automatically with traffic lights, because, with its high bridges, the risk to the railway is considerably lower. “Before its introduction, the local authority of Oberried, the road authority and we at Zentralbahn each assessed the situation using our own systems,” explains maintenance team leader Andreas Schild. “We studied the avalanche bulletin, the weather and the situation in the catchment area.”

At a safe distance

When there was a high risk of avalanches, Zentralbahn organised an avalanche watch to monitor three avalanche paths and stop any trains if necessary. Specifically, this meant that an employee went out to monitor the situation in the field. Today, sensors and cameras perform these dangerous tasks. “The biggest advantages of the new system are that we can now monitor seven avalanche paths automatically and permanently, and that employees no longer need to enter dangerous areas when there’s a risk of avalanches,” adds Schild. Assessing the situation and exchanging information with partners have also become much easier, because the system provides valuable information in real time. Andreas Schild’s conclusion after the first winter: “The system has performed well. We cannot eliminate the risk, but we have greatly reduced it.”

Working with tablets

Real-time data transfer is also simplifying work at Zentralbahn’s workshops. “That is the biggest advantage of the new digital solution for our employees,” says Matthias Bütikofer, who is responsible for planning and managing vehicle maintenance. “Team leaders and operations get a real-time overview of work that has been completed on vehicles. They can also respond to subsequent changes or incident alerts quickly and with no need to revise documents.” Flashback: until two years ago, the planning and control team used to hand over all working documents and  checklists to the workshop on paper. Order feedback from the maintenance unit was also provided on paper only. “Today, feedback on maintenance work flows directly into our system from tablets.” This includes visual inspections of suspensions and wheel sets, or replenishing the grease used to lubricate gears and wheel flanges.  

Train passengers also benefit from the continuously updated data in maintenance. As Matthias Bütikofer says, “Because all employees have access to open incidents, they can work independently on repairs once the preventive orders have been completed. This can lead to higher fleet availability and fewer train cancellations caused by disruptions.” Although the software did initially have some teething troubles that called for a little patience, Bütikofer wants to continue down the digital path: “I don’t want to go back. Persevering with the process of digitisation will pay off in the long term.”  

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