Gauge change – Zweisimmen

Gauge change – Zweisimmen

The Montreux Oberland Bernois (MOB) and the Bern Lötschberg Simplon (BLS) railways have begun through services between Montreux and Interlaken. The project to provide a single train service between the two destinations was put on hold mostly due to the pandemic that took hold of the world in 2020 and 2021. Just before that calamity both companies had a chance to test their innovative gauge changing equipment at Zweisimmen and these were passed with satisfaction. The test train was passed through the new bogie conversion equipment more than 1500 times with success.

Although there have been numerous test trains on both the BLS and MOB systems (as well as through runs) the very first real test prior to the launch of the Golden Pass Express (GPX) came on 1st November 2022 when a full complement of train staff and operating personnel were involved in a live world operation of the new service. Part of that was in order to establish the various operating responsibilities and staffing duties between the two companies. On top of that the contractual agreements were also agreed and signed by the companies’ respective managers – Georges Oberson for the MOB and Daniel Schafer for the BLS. To begin with the actual train services are to be one each way at first but this is due to be increased during 2023:

The first commercial GPX departure will start at 09.08 on December 11 from Interlaken West station. At 09.35, 115km away, another train will make the reverse journey from Montreux, according to MOB.

The GPX will run only one trip in each direction until June 10 2023 because tourism demand has not yet fully recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the MOB said. From June 11 2023 the company will ramp up the service to four daily return trips. (Source: International Rail Journal.)

In terms of what actually happened on the day itself there was practically nothing on social media in terms of wishing to know how the trains progressed. That’s not until it was getting towards lunchtime in the UK when a Tweet was posted showing the first eastbound service (eg Montreux to Interlaken) at Spiez and a number of enthusiasts photographing/filming the train as it departed for Interlaken.

About the same time a group of regional news media (PMEMagazine, Radio RTN etc) began publishing the first full feedback on what had happened that morning. It was reported Jérôme Gachet for the MOB had said:

A large audience was there and the trains were full. Unfortunately, people had to be refused, mainly those who had not reserved their places. Among the travelers, a lot of ferroviphiles and train enthusiasts who wanted to make this first trip, but also passengers who came by chance. Today, the train from Montreux had a little delay at Zweisimmen due to a small technical problem, but nothing really bad.

Montreux Oberland Bernois published their first social media post on Facebook around 8pm (UK time.) The picture at left was taken as the first eastbound Golden Pass Express rounded the bend at Les Sciernes (a favourite spot.) That on the right was taken at Interlaken Ost.

Baern Today had a brief write-up this evening on the new service and it reported ‘the maiden voyage was not very glamorous – there was a 45-minute delay due to technical problems.’ There is also a video with a brief shot of the first service arrival at Interlaken Ost plus interviews.

The 45 minute delay referred to was at Zweisimmen when the gauge changing facility played up and gave the Interlaken bound train some grief. It was exceedingly cold (about -7c) in Zweisimmen so its perhaps that had caused equipment to malfunction. That might have been the one on the no6 road because its the one generally used for eastbound traffic and its a considerably new machine. It could however have been the electrics which caused a failure in communications between the train and its gauge changing bogies as the system’s computers is designed to analyse the state of the train as it passes through the facility and report back in detail to the train’s driver. (There’s more on this aspect of the operation in a later post.) If any other details do arise regarding that 45 minute difficulty it’ll be posted here.

Update 12/12/2022:

Bahn Online today reports that one of the end units has been named Interlaken. This was undertaken during a ceremony at Interlaken Ost yesterday after the train had arrived from Montreux. The other end units already have names as reported below. According to Bahn Online the substantial delay encountered at Zweisimmen yesterday were due to interface problems. It does seem a computer glitch had occurred which wouldn’t be too surprising given the complexity of the equipment.

Update 13/12/2022:

Swiss Info published the following article just after lunch – this has an interesting video (including some unseen footage such as an aerial of the GPX units arriving at Gstaad.) Also some detail on the equipment and an interview with Hans-Bernard Fletcher of the BLS.

It emerged today (13th December) that the 45 minute delay at Zweisimmen was due to one of the guide railers (unsure of the correct name sorry) not deploying. What this meant was the train could not use the gauge changing facility. Each of these guide railers have to be fully deployed. Quite why it didnt deploy isnt known atm – whether it was electronics, communications interface or a stubborn mechanism that was to blame. Until that one aspect of the train could be sorted it wasnt going anywhere.

Component that was at fault on the first eastbound GPX on 11 December 2022. These are normally in an up position and drop down only when a gauge change procedure is needed.

Update 15/12/2022:

Several videos have emerged of the GPX. Alas one that was taken on the maiden eastbound voyage I found too difficult to watch easily because of the editing and the constant zooming despite some interesting scenes en route. The same person however did a more straightforward one for the actual ceremony upon the train’s arrival at Interlaken.

The first westbound GPX at Wimmis, its the station just after Spiez. This shows the GPX on the BLS in classic formation hauled by a locomotive. The corresponding service eastbound however has the locomotive at the rear of the train in push mode and this is because of the way the standard gauge tracks at Zweisimmen are arranged. The reverse is true for the GPX between Zweisimmen and Montreux. There’s more on that in a later post.

The very first GPX departure from Montreux on 11th December 2022 hauled by Ge 4/4 8001.

The GPX at Montreux on 13th December 2022. Clearly this is after its arrival from Interlaken in charge of Ge 4/4 8002 – the set is being taken to the sidings.

These videos will be moved to a different page later.

Several days earlier the International Rail Journal had mentioned the new trains had been named and that was undertaken in a ceremony at Gstaad on 9th December 2022. Both trains were lined up on the station’s island platform with one named by Michael von Grünigen (a noted Swiss skier) on the main through track and that named by pop star Shania Twain on the platform loop. One of the trains is known as Gstaad and the other is Shania Train. There’s considerably little in the way of media news on this ceremony however a video of the Shania Train naming can be seen at Linkedin. Its been said Roger Federer will take part in filming for a brand new GoldenPass Express advertisement to be made in the new year.

Shania Twain at Gstaad to name a train after herself! Source: Berner Zeitung.

Some more pictures can be seen on the MOB’s Facebook page. Whilst Shania Twain has the excitement of naming a train at Gstaad, Alstom are certainly hoping the new system will be of great success:

Some of the media have come up with strange descriptions for the new service! Take CNN whose headlines say:

‘The amazing new Swiss mountain train that can jump rail tracks.’

LOL – anyway the plan to provide a through route between Montreux and Interlaken (and ultimately Luzern) has been a dream since Victorian times. In the 1930s a third rail was conceived as a means of allowing through trains from either end. The problem however is trying to find a means of providing standard gauge along the entire length of the MOB! Places such as Les Scrienes as well as the lengthy descent into Montreux provide a major headache because of the extremely sharp reverse bends – the only answer being to build a major new railway!

The plans were first devolved in 1987 with a view to providing a third rail between Zweisimmen and Interlaken, and following that the reconstruction of the track layout at Spiez station in 1998 were perhaps the first sign of concrete steps towards making the dream a reality. This work was done so the station would be future proofed in terms of any possible new MOB stock using it, however that was done on the basis there would be a third rail installed.

533 001 - Upgrading the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF) #2

Standard gauge rail stock could use the narrow gauge via specially adapted trucks. In 1976 the SBB’s cinema coach took a trip to Broc and its seen here on the GFM’s Sarine viaduct. Of course that older method was not convivial thus an automated system was developed by the Ateliers de Constructions Mecaniques de Vevey for freight stock. Source: Delcampe.

The focus then turned towards improving the facilities for standard gauge stock to reach Gstaad and beyond. This wasn’t passenger but rather freight operations. The modus to this point in time had been to use Vevey trucks (narrow gauge wagons that carry standard gauge wagons) and the process was automated (in other words the wagons were simply shunted onto the Vevey trucks ready for forward dispatch by the metre gauge locomotives of the MOB.

Example of a Vevey ‘Rollböcken’ in use at the Cailler factory in Broc-Fabrique. Sadly this system is no longer in use. Source: Wikipedia.

The Vevey system’s name arises from the fact it was designed by the Ateliers de Construction Mécanique Vevey whose factory stood at the juncture of the main Swiss standard gauge system and the metre gauge Chemins de fer électriques Veveysans (CEV) which was in turn connected to the CP, GFM and MOB systems. Clearly the company could see at first hand the problems of transferring standard gauge wagons to the narrow gauge! Back in the 1960s the Ateliers de Constructions Mecaniques de Vevey S.A. devised some of the earliest gauge conversion equipment for the Spanish Railways system. That was a failure and it was the TALGO system that succeeded. However a later developed Vevey system did eventually get to be used in Spain – thus even standard gauge trains have been transferred through the wider gauge Spanish system using these special bogies.

The next picture shows that old gauge converter system which was in use on a number of metre gauge Swiss lines. The Montreux Oberland Bernois in fact rebuilt parts of its system in order to accommodate the larger freight stock that would be needed to be conveyed on its tracks. The Vevey system was of great benefit and a huge time saver however it simply was not suitable for passenger stock.

Scene from 2004 video showing wagons from the BLS/SBB system being shunted onto Vevy bogies via an automatic converter ready for onward working on the MOB. Source: Youtube.

As just mentioned, work was done at various points on the MOB to enable larger wagons to be carried. Some of the earliest work had been done in the 1930s and 1940s on the Montreux to Les Avants line to enable larger wagons to be carried and this included larger tunnels and new bridges.

The same was done in the 1990s to enable larger wagons to venture beyond Zweisimmen and part of the line near Sannemoser was diverted onto a new alignment (including a new viaduct) to enable this to happen. This of course facilitated freight traffic to the eastern half of the line including Gstaad.

In many resects this earlier work would also pave the way for the eventual introduction of standard gauge passenger stock on the MOB. Since the Vevey system wasn’t really suitable for passenger stock the MOB had to investigate ways of transferring passenger stock seamlessly from the standard gauge to the metre gauge. One downside to this has been freight transfer from the standard gauge to the narrow gauge which has largely been discontinued – and that in part was brought about by the main SBB implementing changes to how its freight stock was moved about the country.

Hence in many respects the only gague transfer that would by this time be needed would be those passenger trains proposed by the MOB. The very first time any variable gauge train on test from the MOB through to Interlaken occurred in 2010, when the company’s first experimental prototype ventured onto BLS metals and was seen at both Interlaken and Spiez in July 2010. Other pictures can be seen at Rail Suisse Forum.

These early experiments in 2010 showed the way forward but it needed a lot of improvement. In the event a system based upon one used in Japan for transfer from standard gauge to narrow gauge was employed. This was modified considerably to suit the Swiss conditions and the first demonstrations of the new system took place at Montreux in 2014.

Fast forward to 2020 and the new system – now fully developed and tested no end of times even though it was delayed by the COVID pandemic – is due to be brought into passenger use during December 2022.

The MOB’s own stock was seen at Spiez on test in January 2020. The centre coach is its experimental variable gauge car. Source: Twitter

Here’s a news report on the experimental coach being seen at Spiez for the first time. And yes! The MOB has used its experimental variable gauge car on normal services between Montreux and Zwesimmen. See this video.

The first of the new vari gauge coaches under construction. Source: Twitter

The new coach bodies are designed by Pininfarina in Italy but built by Stadler Bussnang in Switzerland including completing the fit out with electrics and the fitting of the bogies and other underframe equipment. The new Goldenpass coaches are then delivered to the MOB at Zweisimmen.

The new Goldenpass service is expected to be launched in December 2022.

The service will consist of through coaches (the main passenger saloons) plus east side and west side passenger cars (what we in the UK might call barrier coaches) which are specific to their sections, these being either for the metre gauge Montreux Oberland Bernois or the standard gauge Bern Lötschberg Simplon (BLS.) The vehicles used through to Interlaken these vehicles will have the variable bogies but those east/west side ones will be used mainly on the sections they are designed for. This is because of the need to interface the main through coaches with the locomotives that are being used.

These interface/assistance (or translator coaches) will ensure the main train is kept fully operable and that the electrics and other equipment such as braking, computers, even automatic train control, are switched over effectively and seamlessly from one system to the other. It means an east side interface coach will be at the Interlaken end of the train whilst the west side assistance coach will be on the Montreux end of the train.

The first of the new vari-gauge coaches arrived at Zweisimmen in April 2021 for tests before moving to Chernex later that month. (Chernex is the MOB’s works and major depot facility high up in the hills above Montreux.) This coach (Bsi 293) is one that is to be used on the Zweisimmen to Interlaken section of the line in conjunction with a BLS locomotive. These coaches are known as interface cars and their use is to primarily ensure compatibility between the through coaches and the BLS OHLE AC system. These ‘east side’ coaches however come equipped with variable bogies to permit them to be easily transferred to Chernex for maintenance.

The second such new coach, which in fact is a ABst 381-384 series driving car arrived at Zweisimmen in late May 2021. This one will be used also primarily on the BLS section although again it is equipped with variable gauge bogies for transfer to Chernex.

The new driving car primarily for the BLS to Interlaken section arriving at Zweisimmen – ironically underneath the tracks which will be its secondary route of operation! The bridge (under which Lenkstrasse runs) has been expanded to allow for more track connections at the western end of Zweisimmen station. Source: Twitter

The new stock from Pininfarina seen during October 2021 at Zwiesimmen on BLS standard gauge tracks. Source: Twitter

So far most trial operations have taken place on the BLS as far as Boltigen though the stock has travelled to Spiez, Bern, and Kandersteg as well as Montreux. On 13th October 2021) the stock was seen at Interlaken Ost as part of the Swiss Travel Mart exhibition.

A recent picture (April 2021) showing a variable gauge coach at Les Avants heading in the Zweisimmen direction. The car on the right (Ast 116) is one of the 1985 built GoldenPass driving trailers. Source: Considérations Ferroviaires.

The new stock seen at Spiez in July 2021. Source: Facebook

The vari-gauge coaches pay a visit to Bern! August 2021. Source: Bahn Bilder.

One of the vari-gauge coaches at Chernex in June 2021. The narrow gauge is used for transfer of variable gauge stock to the company’s depot near Montreux. Source: Twitter

Video of the new stock arriving at Chernex by narrow gauge.

Continued in Part two.