“Friends, there is a lot to do!”

Switzerland has the densest rail network in the world. At the same time, the Swiss rail system – better known as the SBB – has one of the best on-time ratings worldwide. A contradiction in terms? No, says Marcus Völcker, Program Director at the SBB. He has been in charge of the RCS (Rail Control System), one of the SBB’s most complex software projects, since 2005.

The Rail Control System (RCS) is based on the open Eclipse architecture. It allows dispatchers, rail traffic managers and locomotive engineers to handle the densest railway network in the world and makes punctual, energy-optimized rail traffic possible.

Together with a team of software engineers that includes six Eclipse experts from BSI, the Rail Control System ensures improved rail traffic punctuality along with optimized energy efficiency. How this can be successful; why, thanks to these projects, the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) is at the cutting edge of technology worldwide; and why there is still much to be done – a look behind the scenes of the most complex scheduling project in the country

The counterpart to the air traffic control system that oversees Swiss air space and coordinates flights is the SBB’s Rail Control System (RCS). This in-house development provides for rail traffic monitoring and scheduling throughout Switzerland. The SBB has been utilizing the RCS as a uniform and integrated scheduling system for rail traffic since 2009. The RCS handles the densest rail traffic in the world and will turn punctuality and energy optimization into a reality for the additional traffic of the future. Because as Marcus Völcker, RCS Program Director at the SBB, knows: “The railway is growing.” Under his leadership, the SBB has developed a highly efficient, customized group of applications extending from track management to the mapping of operating status and scheduling to topology management. All of the applications are networked extensively on the basis of the open Eclipse architecture and supply data and services to more than 20 other systems.

On track with trailblazing solutions

The rail network is even denser than the air route network. This presents a real challenge for the 200 dispatchers, 1,500 rail traffic managers, and 3,500 locomotive engineers who are responsible for punctuality and smooth-flowing rail traffic. “When you are managing the densest rail network in the world, there are two very important aspects in addition to safety: punctuality and capacity. The projected additional capacity is only possible by increasing efficiency, which is precisely where we enter the picture. With the RCS, the SBB’s dispatchers are able to monitor and manage rail operations in real time, allowing us to optimize punctuality while we are up and running. In turn, this increases the capacity of our network”, says Marcus Völcker, describing how everything comes full circle. His team is unbelievably precise when it comes to predicting rail traffic. Dispatchers are able to observe situations at the very second they occur and make the right decisions. “A train travels past a signal every two seconds, that means 300 to 800 status changes in the network per second, which we receive as notifications”, states the Program Director. 10,000 such notifications are processed per second and their impact is communicated to the client. “This near-real-time processing places a great demand on the software architecture. In addition to performance, 24-hour availability is also an important aspect”, remarks Völcker.

“The challenge is easy to describe: we are missing a dimension.”

Marcus Völcker, RCS Program Director at the SBB

Braking is losing

One of his projects is called “ADL” (“adaptive Lenkung”, or “adaptive control” in English), which is lovingly referred to in-house as “Wer bremst, verliert” (“Braking is losing”). Here, a train is testing new software for energy optimization on the Olten–Basel route. No wonder: As a company, the SBB has one of the highest levels of energy consumption in the country. When preparing to move, a freight train uses as much energy as a single family home in an entire year. There can be between 2,000 and 2,500 unplanned stops per day. The purpose of ADL is to detect conflict situations, to allow trains to decelerate with optimum energy efficiency, and to optimize travel speeds. “When we manage to do that and to do it well, we save as much energy in a year as a city of 30,000 inhabitants uses”, explains Marcus Völcker.

“The RCS is no run-of-the-mill architecture; it is real-time architecture that has a direct impact on what is happening out on the railway. That is fascinating.”

Marcus Völcker, RCS Program Director at the SBB

On time thanks to conflict resolvers

In other words, ADL optimizes the individual train, but does not actually resolve the conflict. For conflict resolution, the SBB is working on another project called HOT, which is intended to minimize delays at heavily traveled conflict points. To do this, the software uses a very complex mathematical procedure to calculate the optimum order of the trains for minimal delays of all trains at the stopping point. “OK, punctuality in rail traffic is old hat, but it simply does not function at dense nodes. That is what makes the project so exciting for us”, says Marcus Völcker, laughing. With a real-time architecture, the SBB is the first railway in the world to be hot on the heels of a solution. HOT is scheduled to be implemented as early as 2013 at Switzerland’s densest nodes in Zurich. What is particularly fascinating to him about this project is “that the programming has a direct impact on this fascinating element we call the railway, and that we, as railway customers, can experience on a daily basis if we have done a good job. Being a part of this is a real motivating factor for many of us.”

Speaking of being a part of things

BSI team members have been participating in these exciting projects for more than a year. Marcus Völcker is especially appreciative of the Java and Eclipse expertise that BSI staff members bring to the table. “They are extremely good programmers with Scrum experience; a young crew with a good social and interpersonal vibe. We are on the same page. For me, that is extremely important because this is about building a team. We do a lot together and stick together – that makes us strong”, notes Marcus Völcker.

Milestones and discoveries

For Marcus Völcker and his team, each time they “go live” constitutes a milestone, since they only work with live data, never stored data. “It is much more complicated than you think. There are always special situations. The service life of outdoor rail equipment such as signals, switches, etc. is 30 to 100 years. We have to be able to simultaneously master both state-of-the-art systems as well as the oldest ones around”, states Marcus Völcker. But the successes accomplished spur the team again and again to great achievements: Since its launch in 2009, the RCS has improved on-time performance by three percent. “That is ten thousand minutes of delays that were able to be saved thanks to the right information getting to the right people”, remarks Marcus Völcker. The RCS is an excellent basis for further projects. Marcus Völcker is already making new plans: “For example, we could control trains so that they function like a Smart Grid, in other words, generate energy in the locations where it is needed. When a freight train brakes, this energy can be used for starting up several commuter trains.” The innovator concludes the extremely exciting conversation: “Friends, there is a lot left to do!”

Marcus Völcker has been working since 2002 as a consultant for various international railways, mainly working on projects at the SBB, where, among other things, he had been in charge of IT for the SBB’s Infrastructure Division. After the Hamburg native finished his university studies in Hamburg and in the US, he worked as a general manager and IT director in the media industry prior to establishing himself as a consultant.