Stretching for 57km beneath the Alps and completed a year ahead of schedule, Switzerland’s new Gotthard base tunnel is the longest and deepest railway tunnel ever built. Thales’ cutting-edge signalling holds the key to getting the most out of this vital strategic asset.
Throughout history, the Alps have stood as a formidable natural barrier to human mobility – a rocky, beautiful and in places impenetrable mountain range, curving for more than 1,000km across the heart of Europe.
A new generation of tunnels is challenging the dominance of the Alps and redrawing the map of Europe in the process. Gotthard, the newest and longest trans-Alpine rail tunnel, is the centrepiece of an ambitious programme to boost Switzerland’s rail connectivity, cut road traffic and safeguard the Alpine environment. The tunnel was built by AlpTransit Gotthard AG, a subsidiary of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), on behalf of the Swiss federal government.
Advanced rail signalling is playing a vital part in realizing the dream of high-speed Alpine transport. As partner and prime contractor of the Transtec Gotthard consortium, Thales signed a CHF 2 billion contract for the installation of railway technology on 29 April 2008. Thales not only provided the general project manager of the consortium but also staffed key functions such as RAMS management (reliability, availability, maintainability and safety), finance and head of commissioning.
“Thales’ role was to supply the overall signalling system for the Gotthard tunnel,” explains Denis Laroche, vice president, business development, Thales. “This is an electronic system that controls the trains and ensures safe operations.”
The signalling deployed in Gotthard is ETCS Level 2, which uses continuous radio communications to link the train with the signalling system. This makes it possible to run trains safely at speeds of up to 250kmh. ETCS Level 2 is a service-proven solution with a long track record: Thales implemented the same system for Gotthard’s sister tunnel, the Lötschberg base tunnel, opened in 2007.
Perhaps surprisingly, there are no signals anywhere inside the Gotthard tunnel. Instead, all the information train drivers need is provided via a cab signalling display. This is essential because conventional trackside signals cannot be reliably sighted at high speeds.
“Running trains through a tunnel with significant capacity and at high speed is a very delicate thing,” says Dr Veider, Thales’ vice president of strategy and product policy for main line signalling. “A superior train control system is absolutely mandatory.”
As well as supporting faster journeys and meeting the demand for up to 300 trains per day, ETCS is designed to enable borderless journeys across Europe with no need to change locomotives to accommodate different train control systems.
“Switzerland was one of the first countries to adopt ETCS and its main line network is a reference for the world,” notes Laroche. “Gotthard is at the heart of Europe’s railway system and it is part of the transport corridor between Rotterdam and Genoa in Italy, so the project is vital not only for Switzerland but also for Europe.”
The tunnel promises faster, greener freight movements and dramatic improvements in journey times for passengers. The new high-speed link will cut the travel time from Zurich to Milan to just over three hours– slicing 40 minutes off the current fastest trip.