Schwebebahn to reopen mid-2019

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Some of you will know of the problems facing the famous suspension railway in Wuppertal – perhaps because I’ve mentioned it or you may have seen reports on You Tube or in the German media about it. The latest is the railway wont be open for another six months or so while investigations continue in to the recent accident and work is undertaken to ascertain exactly what cause the line’s stromschiene – or power rail – to drop off the structure so alarmingly over a length of 350 metres.

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The stromschiene’s profile can clearly be seen in this screencap of a video showing a visit to Vohwinkel maintenance depot.

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The fallen power rail 18th November 2018. This normally sits on the underside of the main structure. Source: Twitter.

Wuppertal Stadwerke (WSW) has officially announced the Schwebebahn would not be opening until the summer of 2019. The extract from WSW’s newsletter below explains it all:

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Note: The Die Wuppertaler Schwebebahn Facebook pages were taken down entirely 6th January 2019. The above and below extracts are screencaps of the pages that were visible.

Info from the WSW NEWSLETTER:

“For six weeks now the Schwebebahn has been closed and the valley stuck in a traffic jam – a situation that afflicts Wuppertal, the citizens, the retail trade, the people in the valley, longer work hours, shopping or just the Christmas visits to the family.

According to our experts, the Schwebebahn will not be able to resume operations until the summer of 2019. We still have no clarity about the cause of the accident. Nevertheless, in coordination with the regulatory authority, we are working hard on improvements in order to reliably rule out a repeated destruction of the track in the future.

Our first and fastest way to do this is to strengthen the jaws that hold the conductor rail. The second measure will be the installation of over 2000 fall arresters on the conductor rail itself. Here is the construction of a corresponding system in work. The technical supervisory authority must also give the go-ahead for these new security systems. This is a process that takes time.

In the meantime, we try to limit the damage to our customers. The free rides offered on the on Sunday, has taken tens of thousands of Wuppertal residents to do their Christmas shopping by Schwebebahn express bus. The parcel service is well accepted and also the 10 Euro bonus in our app WSW move has been used a thousand times.

These measures can not replace the suspension railway, but they should also be more than a drop in the ocean.

I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Warmest greetings. Yours, Andreas Feicht CEO”

When WSW mention their 2000 fall arrestors its clear they intend to place four of these between each ‘A’ frame support, that’s a pair to each track. This covers the entire 13km of monorail superstructure with a total of 468 ‘A’ frame supports between Vohwinkel and Oberbarmen depot.

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The incident area on the Schwebebahn near Zoo Stadion involving the fall of a 346 metres section of power rail. This graphic is from a initial public inquiry at Wuppertal. Source: You Tube.

The above mentioned inquiry has suggested there may be a problem with the expansion joints, although there is nothing yet that proves, or disproves this. Current suspicion still deems a fault somewhere with the brackets that hold the rail.

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WSW’s detail on what happened from the first sighting of a fault to the total collapse of the power rail. Source: You Tube.

Some sources have suggested it’ll be 2020 before the monorail re-opens. However this is the worst case scenario and so far it hasnt come to that.

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Translation of the above FB message: “Standstill until the 20s? That would be a possible worst case. In case of a material defect of the conductor rail itself, the 26 km of conductor rail would have to be completely replaced. This would take much longer than other safety measures of the existing conductor rail, which could be done by summer 2019.”

The monorail’s closure has caused Wuppertal numerous problems as it relies on the railway for a good tourist income and local business have suffered badly. The Kaiserwagen tours have had to be suspended completely with huge numbers of bookings cancelled and hundreds of hopefuls wishing for a ride on the famous 1901 train have been left disappointed.

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The very popular Kaiserwagen tours have been stopped for at least six months or more. Source: Twitter

In recent years much of the line has been rebuilt because many sections were life expired. The depots have been rebuilt. Stations have also been totally rebuilt, and lifts/escalators installed. Brand new trains – the Generation 15 – have been introduced.

Despite all this recent work, this new phenomenon of power rails dropping from the superstructure is rather curious. The Altermarket section which was totally rebuilt in the sixties includes a substantial length of line above a main road, whilst other rebuilt sections of the time such as that past Bundesalle hasn’t presented any problems.

It has been claimed by some – for example the magazine Welt – that WSW has a poor maintenance regime. Whether that is the case or not remains to be seen. This will no doubt be something public prosecutors will have to ask.

The line’s one major disaster in 1999 where a train fell into the River Wupper was clearly down to negligence. Overnight maintenance work had finished yet one of the contractors had failed to notice they had not removed a pair of clamps from the running line and it was for that very simple reason the train’s wheels hit this and the train came right off its superstructure.

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The 2013 scene east of Kluse. Source: WDR

When the 2013 incident happened at Friedrich Engels Allee just east of Kluse, Andreas Feicht, head of Wuppertal Stadtwerke asserted “We will resume operation only when the cause of the accident is established.” It seems they may have not fully established the cause of that incident because it happened again on 18th November 2018.

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The 2013 scene showing staff carrying sections of power rail from Friedrich Engels Allee. Source: WDR

With all the money and effort put into rebuilding the line and making it fit for modern metro purposes it seems quite a tall order to claim WSW is skimping on maintenance.

However the court held in Wuppertal in regards to the 1999 accident found workers from construction company Lavis had been rather sloppy with their procedures. What was made worse were two inspectors from WSW whose job it was to check the quality of the contractors’ work. They admitted to the court they had no torches, it was dark and they just could not see what they were checking.

Due to this utter incompetence everyone invovled missed the two clamps left on the running rail and people lost their lives as a result. It beggars belief anyone would wish to inspect the monorail’s permanent way in the darkness! It is perhaps things like this that cause locals to have some skepticsm when it comes to maintenance of the Schwebebahn although WSW have been doing their very best to ensure the line is totally safe to use – and in fact they would not be taking the steps they have – which is to postpone re-opening of the line until the summer of 2019 with every effort of making absolutely sure their railway is safe to operate.

The Schwebebhan is undoubtedly a difficult railway to maintain. The whole line is held up by supports whose bases have to be checked and many of these are on inaccessible sections of the railway. Because it runs above a river mostly its not easy to just walk up and inspect the structures apart from the topmost section which has a walkway.

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Section of the Schwebeban being renewed. The power rail is fitted to these newly built sections of infrastructure so it does not have to be retrofitted later. This means the fixings can be very carefully checked before being put into final position. I don’t think any of these new sections are affected in any way. Source: WSW.

When major work has to be done including replacement of the structure, its quite a complex procedure and sadly means the railway has to be closed for a number of weeks. The recent work at Oberbarmen in 2015 was done in good time but that is only because they were able to get the running tracks and the new station operable well ahead of the completion of the rest of the work, which then continued whilst the railway continued in service. The affected section east of Zoo Stadion was refurbished in 2001 but so far its not know if the work done at that time compromised the fittings in any way.

The structure does carry a walkway that enables maintenance workers to check the integrity of the main parts, including the running rails and this is the more normal aspect of the work involved. Whilst trains are running there are also inspections being undertaken. Its just like walking along an ordinary railway and checking the rails whilst the trains are running. All the power cabling, the signalling, is also on the upper part of the structure so its easily accessible and the signals can be accessed from above too.

The problem with the power rail however is this sits almost directly below the running rail. Its actually slightly off centre so it can inspected separately from the running rails and this can be done by either peering through the superstructure or lifting panels from the walkway itself.

Any work that is needed on the power rail or its supports can generally only be done at night when the trains are not running. If any urgent issues arises this require trains to be temporarily halted while changes are effected. And this is the problem.

One of the drivers had reported seeing part of the power rail sag by the Bayer works and WSW were quick to attend to the problem. Before they could do anything however almost 350 metres of power rail fell off all the way back to Zoo Stadion. This indicated there was a very serious problem at hand.

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Work underway to cut up the affected power rail near Zoo Stadion – the walkways have to be lifted up in order to do this. There’s a video showing this work too.

After a century of service without any instances of power rail dropping off the superstructure its something the monorail has not encountered before and WSW urgently need to find a long term solution for this aliment.

The trains themselves have power shoes beneath their bogies to gain power form the live rails. These are essentially a miniature pantograph. The actual power collection system has been in use an extremely long time and its hardly likely there’s any problem with the way the trains collect their power.

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Few know what these pantographs look like and generally there aren’t any photographs that show them – because they are difficult to see. The picture above shows an older type of pantograph, the power rail itself and a support bracket. This is a crop from this Wikipedia image.

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Staff at Vohwinkel depot working on the pantograph belonging to a Generation 72 monorail train. Source: WSW.

The Generation 15 trains use a different design. I cant find any pictures except this screencap from one of WSW’s videos:

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A newer type of pantograph can just be discerned on this Generation 15 train. Source: WSW.

WSW video showing work being done on the Generation 72 pantographs.

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