Bringing power to the Top of Europe

ABB technology conquers the mountains

Towering over a spectacular part of the Swiss Alps, the mighty Jungfrau, at 4,158 meters, even looks down on the peaks of the nearby Eiger and Mönch. A breathtaking journey up to the massive peak’s prominent saddle, the Jungfraujoch, the Jungfrau Railway winds through tunnels hewn out of the mountains arriving at the “Top of Europe,” the highest railway station in Europe at 3,453 meters above sea level. A 45-minute ride through snow, ice and rock covers more than nine kilometers. ABB technology has played a pivotal role in this monumental feat of engineering. The original line was electrified by Brown, Boveri, and Co. (BBC), the forerunner to ABB and today, more than a hundred years later, ABB technology continues to energize the line, while ABB traction transformers on board power the trains to bring visitors to the summit year round.

ABB branded Jungfrau Railway train
ABB branded Jungfrau Railway train

Up to a million passengers are transported by the Jungfrau Railway each year to the Jungfraujoch, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in Switzerland, and also the most international: around 70 percent of the visitors come from Asia, especially China. At the top, they enjoy a unique, alpine experience with fantastic views in the midst of the UNESCO world heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch region.

Urs Kessler, CEO of Jungfraubahnen, and Remo Lütolf, Managing Director of ABB Switzerland, in front of the new ABB branded Jungfrau Railways train
Urs Kessler, CEO of Jungfraubahnen, and Remo Lütolf, Managing Director of ABB Switzerland, in front of the new ABB branded Jungfrau Railways train

Starting with a vision

This unique experience is possible because of a breakthrough the Swiss industrialist and financier Adolf Guyer-Zeller had in 1893. When hiking in the region he had a vision of cutting a railway tunnel through the mountains to reach the summit of the Jungfrau. He resolved he would build a railway from there up the landmark mountain. That evening, he sketched the route.

From the outset, it was clear that operating steam locomotives was not an option for the Jungfrau Railway, because two-thirds of the route was to run through tunnels. So it was fortuitous that the founders of BBC had the vision at the same time to harness electrical energy for a new age.

The groundbreaking ceremony of the Jungfrau Railway was in 1896. Electrified by BBC, the section between Kleine Scheidegg and the Eiger Glacier was first put into service with the final section to the Jungfraujoch completed in 1912. The combined pioneering spirit of the two companies, Jungfrau Railway and ABB, created not only a tourist wonder of the world but also an ongoing partnership.

Providing the technology

From the start BBC provided the electrical traction equipment for the locomotives of the spectacular mountain railway. Because the Jungfrau Railway was only partially a rack-and-pinion railway up until the early 1950s - the last section ran largely on rails - the locomotives had to be equipped with a combined rack-and-pinion and adhesion drive.

A further technical peculiarity has held to this day: the Jungfrau Railway is one of only four railways in the world that use three-phase electric power.

Each of the railcars taking passengers to the Top of Europe has state-of-the art powertrains from ABB, consisting of a traction transformer and a compact power converter. The traction systems convert electricity from overhead power lines to the voltage levels and frequencies required for train motors and supply the required electricity for power systems.

The traction converter serves as the “accelerator pedal” of a train in a manner of speaking – and also the gearshift and brake, because with electrical brakes it can feed the energy generated back to the grid via the traction transformer. This constitutes an especially important contribution to energy efficiency especially for a mountain railway: three trains travelling downhill generate sufficient energy with the electrical brake for one train travelling uphill.

The Jungfrau Railway also relies on surge arresters from ABB. They protect against harmful overvoltage transients that can occur, for example, as the result of a lightning strike.

Despite the extreme altitude, the Jungfrau Railway runs year round, regardless of winter conditions. On the open section of line, the snow can quickly build to a height of more than a meter. Since 2011, to make sure it keeps to an ever-tighter schedule even during intensive snowfall, the Jungfrau Railway runs a special locomotive from Stadler Rail that features a split snow blower on each side with an adjustable throwing range of between 15 and 35 meters. This unique snow-blowing locomotive also has lowerable snow ploughs and a powerful track blower. The two traction motors and the two motors for the snow blowers are supplied with electrical power by a traction transformer and converter from ABB.

Generating power

Since 1908, the Jungfrau Railway has generated most of the traction power it needs in its own hydro-electric power plant in nearby Lütschental. In 1939, BBC installed an innovative static frequency converter in the power plant, in order to connect the traction power grid (40 Hz) with the normal power grid (50 Hz). The company provided its services reliably for over 20 years. In recent times, ABB has supplied the power plant with air-insulated switchgear.

The Wilderswil substation of the energy supply company BKW is the main feed point for supplying the entire Jungfrau region. Between 2015 and 2016, BKW replaced and modernized the existing outdoor high-voltage switchgear with gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) from ABB in order to ensure the security of sustainable power supply for the region.

Until 2012 water tank cars on the railway were used to supply water to the Jungfraujoch and the stations on the way. This required transporting 14,000 liters of water each day on the line, which also reduced passenger capacity on the trains. To bring about a more energy efficient solution, two high-performance pumps powered with ABB motors and frequency converters now pump water to the Jungfraujoch along a 7 km long pipe under enormous pressure, drastically reducing the amount of energy consumed. ABB also delivers such solutions to ski regions, which need the most energy-efficient water supplies possible for snow-making facilities, e.g. for St. Moritz, the venue of the last World Ski Championships.

Creating more success

The Jungfrau Railway has an impressive track record: in 2000, it carried around 500,000 passengers up to the Jungfraujoch. In 2015, it reached the million mark for the first time. This quantum leap – which also brought with it the demand for more railcars with greater capacity – was achieved primarily with the development of the Asian market, especially China. With the “Top of Europe” brand, the Jungfraujoch has managed to establish itself as the highlight of any trip to Europe. ABB is proud of helping to write this success story with its innovative solutions both for the infrastructure and for the rolling stock.


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