Peak performance: ABB developed its e-mobility muscles by climbing the Alps

The Swiss part of the company’s legacy required the engineering of innovative electric transportation for some of the world’s most challenging terrain

Geography, geology and necessity have all played roles in the innovative modes of electric transportation that ABB and its Swiss predecessor BBC have pioneered for more than a century in the Alpine Mountains. Those engineering innovations have been widely adopted elsewhere in the world, wherever the challenges of harsh climates or rugged terrain require energy-efficient breakthrough technologies.

Compared with other parts of Europe and the world where fossil-fuel-burning trains were common, Switzerland’s abundance of mountain-lake hydropower – and a lack of naturally occurring coal or oil – made electricity the country’s preferred power source. It was the steep mountains that provided the engineering incentives to make the Alps accessible via railroads, cable cars, gondolas and other specialized forms of transport.

Recent examples include ABB motors that power the world’s steepest funicular railway, the Stoosbahn, in the Swiss canton of Schwyz, which began service late last year. At about the same time, an ABB-powered cable car system began taking as many as 580 passengers an hour to the Zugspitze, the Bavarian Alps peak that is Germany’s highest. The Zugspitze cableway set several world records, including the highest elevation difference, and longest span – more than 3.2 kilometers – between base station and peak.

ABB’s prowess has been particularly prominent in enabling electric trains to traverse Switzerland’s mountains. The company’s partnership with Rhaetian Railways, which  travels through the rugged Graubünden region, dates to the delivery of the railway’s first electric train in 1913. ABB or BBC have been providing the electrical equipment for the traction motors and a large part of the railway power ever since. It has been ABB’s traction innovations that turned Rhaetian trains into energy-saving Alpine icebreakers able to meet the demands of the high Bernina pass, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. That same breakthrough technology is now being used in railways in China to ensure secure operations under harsh conditions.

And for more than a century ABB has provided the enabling technologies for 9-km railway that links the Swiss town of Grindelwald to Europe’s highest-altitude train station, the Jungfraujoch (3,454 meters above sea level). Thanks to ABB’s custom-made drive system, the Jungfrau Railway trains can operate safely and without interruption throughout the year, even during heavy snowfall.

ABB technology also plays a crucial role in the world’s longest railway tunnel, the Gotthard Base tunnel (57 km), which opened in 2016. ABB supplied the major electrical components for the entire power supply of the tunnel infrastructure, as well as the power and control systems for the ventilation system.

The Swiss challenges of geography, geology and necessity help explain why ABB has emerged as the leading innovator in electric transportation – e-mobility – in a mountain context. And that legacy, and the engineering breakthroughs it has entailed, help explain how the company became a global leader in sustainable e-mobility more generally – on land, on sea and even in the air – as a way to move the world’s people and goods in environmentally responsible ways.

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