Clever combination
Transport

Clever combination

In the Furka Base Tunnel, Arocs road-rail vehicles are used by the fire brigade.

The next winter is round the corner. Then, scores of winter holidaymakers will again pass through the Furka Base Tunnel in the car-carrying trains of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. Because tunnel safety is of utmost importance in Switzerland, there is a professionally equipped tunnel fire brigade. They put their faith in the Arocs with road-rail technology.

The Eiger, Jungfrau, Mönch, Monte Rosa massif, Pilatus or Piz Bernina have a good reputation in mountaineering circles. And they aren’t solitary mountains either: more than 3,350 peaks in Switzerland are over 2,000 metres high. The mountain world of the Alps and Jura is imposing. However, for thousands of years it was primarily a huge obstacle for people to get around. 

Even today, the differences in altitude cause problems for rail transport – especially in winter, when hundreds of passes are impassable, but in summer too. Due to the low frictional resistance between the wheels and tracks, conventional trains are naturally only able to overcome inclines to a limited extent. The solution in the mountains is numerous curves and tunnels or rack railways. In high mountain massifs such as the Alps, railway operators must even go one step further to ensure a transport solution that can be used all year round. The magic word is base tunnel. These are tunnels that lead through a mountain in one line and without any steep inclines. 

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At least as important as passenger trains are the trains carrying cars through the Furka Base Tunnel.

There is a whole series of base tunnels like these in Switzerland at lengths between 8 kilometres (Hauenstein Base Tunnel) and 57 kilometres (Gotthard Base Tunnel). The Furka Tunnel, which was opened in 1982 and is part of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn on the 144-kilometre route between Zermatt and Disentis, is also one of these. With a length of almost 15.4 kilometres, it is more in the mid range, but it connects by far the most spectacular and exclusive of Switzerland’s mountain regions: people who travel from Zermatt to St. Moritz on the famous Glacier Express with champagne and a top-class lunch in the glass carriage use the Furka Base Tunnel just as much as thousands of winter sports enthusiasts from Germany and Central Switzerland who spend their skiing holidays in the Upper Valais every year.

The south portal of the tunnel is located at an altitude of 1,368 metres near Oberwald in the canton of Valais. From there, the tunnel leads to Realp in the canton of Uri, which is another 170 metres higher up. The base tunnel replaces the old Furka Steam Railway with the associated tunnel, the highest point of which is 2,160 metres above sea level. In winter, railway operation there would have to stop. The Valais cantonal government then managed to push through the construction of a base tunnel at federal level, which makes it possible for the line to operate all year round today. Over 225,000 cars are transported on shuttle trains every year. The volume of passengers is 7.3 million travellers. On top of this come 41,000 tonnes of cargo.

1368

metres above sea level is where you’ll find the southern entrance of the Furka Base Tunnel.

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Safe connection: one of two firefighting and rescue train of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn driven by Arocs approaches the Furka Base Tunnel near Realp, which connects the Rhône Valley with Central Switzerland.

The Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn has a company fire brigade with 46 employees. For the Furka Base Tunnel, the fire brigade has its fire stations at each end. The firefighters are volunteers who all have another job at the railway. This is also the case for Commander Roland Guntern, who emphasises: “We aren’t a professional fire brigade, but a militia organisation. In Switzerland, this refers performance of public duties as a side job.” As a fire brigade instructor, the 46-year-old regularly conducts training courses. His main job has been as an engine driver for six years. As a result, it makes sense that he is also responsible for training for the new rescue vehicles to be used in the Furka Base Tunnel. The two firefighting and rescue trains stationed at the tunnel exits do not operate with classic locomotives, but each with two Arocs 2642, which are designed as road-rail vehicles and move an ambulance that can be found between them. The trucks always drive into the tunnel backwards, with the first Arocs designed as a firefighting vehicle, followed by an ambulance and finally the second Arocs, which acts as a passenger transporter for up to 30 passengers. In the event of a tunnel fire, the first Arocs can stay at the scene and fight the flames, while the second one pulls the ambulance and the evacuated people into the open.

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Two jobs: Roland Guntern – engine driver and commander of the volunteer fire brigade.

“Tunnel fires at these heights are particular. The faster you can get crews to the scene, the better.”

Roland Guntern, train driver on the Matterhorn Gotthard railway
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Hard-hitting trio: the front Arocs has a pressurised container on board for evacuating people from the tunnel, in the middle is an ambulance for treating injured people, and at the very back is the fire engine.

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The new fire engine has more capacity and still fits into the existing shed.

Both Arocs are prototypes developed by the German road-rail producer Hilton in cooperation with Custom Tailored Trucks, Mercedes Benz Trucks’ conversion specialist. “When the time came to renew of our rescue trains, several variants were considered,” says Andreas Schmid. He has been project manager at the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn for 13 years and is responsible for procurement, modernisation and maintenance. “The new firefighting and rescue trains should fit into the existing sheds and have a higher transport capacity than the existing emergency vehicle.” 

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“Mercedes-Benz is able to implement the special conversion requests to create high-quality road-rail trucks which offer great reliability – a crucial aspect for us.”

Andreas Schmid, Project Head at the Matterhorn Gotthard railway
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Project Manager Andreas Schmid.

In the end, the favourite was the combination that is as flexible as it is low in price, relying on two Arocs as drive vehicles. Another important reason is that the existing ambulances could continue to be used after a few modifications. 

All in all, the Arocs fire engine does have an impressive price tag. But all in all the rail-only alternative would have cost almost twice as much. Another argument in favour of the Hilton and Mercedes-Benz solution was that the specialist has been active in railway technology for almost 100 years and has already put numerous custom vehicles on the tracks. “Mercedes-Benz, in turn, is able to respond to the special conversion requests of the road-rail manufacturer and provide reliable, high-quality trucks, which was particularly important to us,” explains Andreas Schmid. In the course of the conversion, the three-axle Arocs had to be lengthened and equipped with a auxiliary frame and a fourth axle. In addition, various units were relocated on the main frames to make room for the hydraulically retractable rail-bound travelling mechanism.

The trains themselves also run with hydraulic motors located on each axle of the rail-bound travelling mechanism. The so-called firefighting and tunnel rescue set-up can reach up to 50 kilometres per hour. The hydraulic motors draw their energy from the auxiliary drives of the two Arocs. Per train, two times 310 kW are available for acceleration – or with a hydraulic brake to slow it down. The fire pump of the front Arocs, which has 5,000 litres of firefighting water on board, also works with the power provided by the Arocs engine via the auxiliary drive.

The entire fire and rescue train can be operated by a single driver using a joystick – from each cab and each of the three additional steering compartments. Next to the first steering compartment, there is a ramp that makes it easier for firefighters to climb out of the vehicle, fight the fire and rescue people. 

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Two rooms: an airlock with breathing apparatus is located in front of the container for the emergency personnel.

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Fully equipped: the combined firefighting and rescue train has lots of firefighting equipment on board.

5000

litres of water are carried on-board the rescue train.

The body of each Arocs can be set down. Among other things, it consists of a special pressurised container equipped with oxygen tanks to so that no toxic smoke can enter – a specially secured area for up to ten emergency personnel, separated by an airlock that also has enough space for the fire brigade’s equipment. 

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The train has five steering compartments and can also be moved from the cab.

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Customised: the rail-bound travelling mechanism is integrated into the truck frame, meaning that units had to be relocated.

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Because the modified Arocs do not exceed 12.50 metres and 32 tonnes, they are also officially approved for road use. “However, when being operated on the road, the 5,000 litres of firefighting water of the first Arocs has to be drained,” says Commander Roland Guntern, who has already tried out the Arocs on the road. “Otherwise we are too heavy!”

Generally, the Arocs are rarely taken out of the shed. From time to time, they perform training trips and are used in the two compulsory annual fire drills. Roland Guntern thinks it should always stay that way: “Tunnel fires are unusual. The faster you get in there, the better. The main challenge in the Furka Base Tunnel would be the passenger cars. Every vehicle in these car-carrying trains has fuel on board. If that ignites, then we have a huge problem.”

And so he and all of his colleagues hope that they only have to train with the two firefighting and tunnel rescue set-ups and that they will never have to prove their mettle in a real emergency. “But,” the commander emphasises, “they could!”

Photos & Video: Matthias Aletsee