schweblogo - Schwebebahn to close for a year

The Schwebebahn certainly is in a bad way. The issues highlighted in my last report on Germany’s famous monorail have certainly got far worse. The fall-out from this is the system will have to close down on Mondays to Fridays for almost a full year, leaving only services running at the weekends. This is due to the need to replace much of the system’s running rail as well as sort out other infrastructure problems. Its said the cost of this has so far amounted to six million Euros. The decision to close down the monorail on a near full time basis was made at a special Wuppertaler Stadwerke board meeting on 2nd July 2020.

It is said the Schwebebahn’s minimalist service will begin this August 11th and be in force until August 2021.

The new trains in the 122 million Euro fleet have a long list of defects which totals around 200. Not five, not ten defects but 200! The situation’s so bad just ten trains are currently available for service out of a total fleet of 31. WSW held a press conference on Friday 3rd July and its Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Dietmar Bell, told the press it was a ‘difficult day for Wuppertal’ in having to shut its famous monorail for another year.

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‘Schwebebahn is down for a year.’ Source: Radio Wuppertal

Previously I had highlighted how the trains’ wheelset problems have exacerbated issues and that services were being forced to go much slower until a solution could be found to the problems. That slowdown in turn damaged the remaining trains’ wheelsets with a knock-on effect which also caused considerable damage to the tracks. Over the last few weeks the extent and damage of this particular problem has become obvious. There’s no way a normal seven day week service can be run.

The Schwebebahn was previously running a much reduced service because many trains were out of service with wheelset problems. Previously it had been hoped a full service would once again be running by August 2020. With numerous other problems now quite evident, including considerable sections of damaged running rail, its looking like any resumption of a normal service will be a full year later than expected!

One German headline suggested, ‘The WSW has run out of trains.’ Exactly. They have few serviceable trains left and in many senses they now haven’t the track to run these on!

The Q&A page created by WSW tries to answer most of the important questions surrounding this latest debacle:

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Google’s English translation of Wuppertaler Stadtwerke’s Q&A page on the Schwebebahn’s problems.

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The necessary but rather unpopular Schwebebahn Express bus service will be in use again from 2020-2021.

The latest (as first reported by Railway Gazette a few days ago) is that a good bit of the system’s 26km of running rail will have to be replaced. This will take place during the week – which leaves only weekends for the remaining available trains to provide a service.

There has been a whole gamut of other problems related to the new trains and the running rails. I’ll cite Railway Gazette who described those other problems in its recent report:

The operator has been complaining about defects in its new fleet for the past four years. Eight trains were taken out of service earlier this year after the detection of failures in bonded joints on the lightweight vehicles, which posed the risk of parts of the air-conditioning systems falling off. The trains reportedly could not be repaired immediately because the certification for Düsseldorf-based Kiepe Electric to undertake such bonding work had lapsed. The glued joints are now being checked for fatigue damage every three weeks, against the eight years originally envisaged. WSW confirmed that it was preparing a lawsuit against the manufacturer, alleging poor performance and seeking damages.

I had not known about that particular aspect of the new trains, but having undertaken some investigation and judging by the extent of that issue and other problems being discussed on German rail forums and in the German media, the Schwebebahn’s certainly having an extremely difficult time. Its just bad luck after bad luck. It has been said some parts of the trains roofs were on the point of falling off. That wouldn’t have been good if such an incident had occurred above one of Wuppertal’s thoroughfares. WSW is very mindful of the 2018 episode where a whole section of power rail dropped off the line’s structure on to the streets below – and which thankfully no-one was hurt with just one car damaged.

It could be said some of the problems are due to the fact it is a very unique line but it also seems there is some issue in terms of how it should be modernised. The previous rolling stock – Generation 72 – was procured and put to use with considerably little trouble compared to what we are seeing with the Generation 15 trains. Its clear there’s some failure to understand the particular needs of the system, and that may well be in part due to the fact the Generation 72 trains ran well for more than forty years with little problems. That in part was because the engineers of old knew exactly what was needed.

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One of the cars being taken away for detailed inspection. Source: Twitter

The trains’ manufacturers Vossloh Kiepe blame WSW for the problems. They claim WSW missed the servicing cycles for maintenance of the trains. Vossloh said ‘Timely procurement of consumables in terms of dates and quantities is the responsibility of the operator and not the manufacturer of the vehicle.’ The company’s opinion is that ‘from a vehicle technology point of view there is no reason to restrict operation’ of the new trains. Of course it means there’s a legal battle looming – with both WSW and the manufacturers standing their ground whilst blaming the other side for the difficulties being experienced.

On this page (in German only – unless one uses a translating app) WSW does its best to explain fully the problems with the new trains and the disappointment that holds. WSW also explains why it is seeking legal recourse.

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WSW does its best to explain why it sourced new trains from just one manufacturer – Vossloh Kiepe.

In most reports tyres (or tires) are being mentioned but this doesn’t mean rubber tyres as some people have assumed. Rather its the steel tyres that are melded onto a central axle and the whole component (wheel plus axle) is fitted into place on the trains’ bogies. Until the 72 Generation trains it was proper railway tires which were heated up and expanded over a central disk and like other major works and overhauls, this work was done at Vohwinkel depot. It might have been a more labour intensive process but at least it kept the trains on the move.

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The monobloc (one piece) nature of the new train wheels is evident in these pics.

This time round its the whole wheel plus axle. Though these are said to be more expensive, in the long run WSW had hoped it would result in less maintenance as well as considerable train performance benefits. People are of course questioning why WSW choose to have one piece wheelsets instead of the old system where it was just the actual tire bit that was changed whenever a wheel needed changing or re-profiling. This is because there is simply no way a train wheel could be renewed simply by replacing the old tire with a new one. The entire wheel (and the axle fitting) has to be replaced and apparently the production of these is specialist – which means only a few sets can be procured at a time. This is why there are not enough new wheelsets to go round and its a reason so many of the line’s trains are out of service.

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Management examining the Generation 15’s wheels. Source: Twitter

As I pointed out in my previous post the new wheels had a somewhat different profile to those of the Generation 72 trains and earlier. That new profile was meant to make the trains’ running quieter, smoother and more efficient and in reality this just has not been the case. Part of that however was the need to impose a speed restriction in response to the line’s previous issues, including those very heavy power rails that suddenly dropped from the monorail’s superstructure on to the city’s roads. This slower running of the trains caused the wheel’s profile to be worn differently to what was expected – and that in turn affected the quality of the running rails – the result being trains were making an awful lot of noise much to the annoyance of the many residents who live alongside the Schwebebahn.