posted on 26th Jun 2020 14:55
A Brief History
In 2016, BLS and SOB (Schweizerische Südostbahn) submitted to BAV their bids for long-distance rail passenger services on the SBB network, due to the fact that SBB's last long-distance concession was valid until December 2017. It should be noted that BLS operated long-distance passenger trains on „its“ line via Lötschberg before it agreed with SBB in 2001 that BLS would hand over these services to SBB in 2004 in exchange for SBB transferring its then services on S-Bahn Bern and on the three lines of the S-Bahn Luzern network.
In April 2018, BAV issued a decision which meant for BLS not to award a concession for IC trains Basel - Bern - Brig/Interlaken Ost and to transfer the existing RegioExpress (RE) BLS on the route Bern - Neuchâtel - La Chaux-de-Fonds to a new long-distance concession SBB. It is valid from 15 December 2019 to 8 December 2029, which corresponds to another decision of the BAV that the new concessions for the operation of long-distance passenger rail transport in Switzerland will be granted for 10 years, thus becoming more attractive for alternative operators than before. BLS only obtained a concession for two new RE lines: Bern - Biel and Bern - Burgdorf - Olten.
Neither SBB, which saw the award of the BLS concession as a risk of disrupting the existing system with various consequences, was satisfied with this result, nor BLS because the volumes were too small and because the BAV issued only a non-binding recommendation that the BLS could agree to cooperate with the SBB on the Bern to La Chaux-de-Fonds route. In addition, the SBB complained to court to the BAV's decision.
As a result of the disputes, but also in general due to lack of time, the BAV extended the SBB concession for the entire long-distance passenger services on the SBB network for two years, i. e. until December 2019. Nevertheless, negotiations between all three participants continued. In May 2019 BLS announced that it did not envisage to start long-distance passenger service for the 2020 timetable, as the SBB's complaint was still pending.
However, a breakthrough came in the summer of 2019 when Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga (now President of the Swiss Confederation for 2020 in frame of the standard annual circulation of persons in this position) entered into negotiations between the two parties and forced them to reach an agreement, which resulted in the BLS withdrawing its own concession and agreed on cooperation with SBB, which was confirmed on 21 August 2019 by signing the relevant agreement.
This includes ensuring the operation of trains by BLS on the basis of a subcontract from SBB (which holds the concession) for 10 years, but BLS on the operated lines will have full responsibility for the quality, cost and revenue of operation. The trains on the concerned lines will bear the BLS logos. In addition, BLS will receive an annual contribution of around 10 million CHF from SBB for operations on the loss-making Bern - La Chaux-de-Fonds route.
The BLS 2020 Timetable
As the above-mentioned agreement between BLS and SBB was concluded in August 2019, i. e. barely four months before the entry into force of the timetable for 2020, a gradual takeover of services from SBB was agreed. From 15 December 2019, the BLS took over the Bern - Biel route (33 km long). The trains on this line were transferred from the RegioExpress to the Interregio category. Now designated IR65 line, BLS trains run at half-hour interval and the travel time is 26 minutes. There are used Class RABe 515 MUTZ double-deck EMUs, which has been in service since 2012. Additionally there are also diagrammed the new MUTZ EMUs of a batch of eight ordered in June 2018 (see below).
From 13 December 2020, the Bern - Burgdorf - Olten line will also pass under the BLS umbrella. In this case the present RE line will change its designation to Interregio (IR17), the journey time on this 65 km long line is 47 minutes; these trains run at hourly interval and at this moment the SBB vehicles are diagrammed there.
And finally, from December 2020, the existing RE Bern - La Chaux-de-Fonds line (around 80 km) will be transferred from the present BLS regional transport concession to the SBB long-distance transport concession, but it will still be provided by BLS (under a subcontract from SBB) and will be newly designated IR66. The trains run here via Neuchâtel in an hourly tact with a travel time of 1 h 4 min from Bern, resp. 1 h 5 min to Bern. At present, BLS uses here the locomotive-hauled push-pull trains with Type EW III cars, but from 2021 onwards, the operatro will use there its new FLIRT on order from Stadler.
New BLS EMUs
For the replacement of obsolete EMUs and push-pull trains, as well as for existing or new BLS services in suburban and (inter)regional transport, BLS ordered 58 FLIRTs. Of these, 28 EMUs, designated RABe 528 201 - 228, will be used in regional and suburban services in the canton of Bern, where a 15-minute interval is planned in the S-Bahn network.
The remaining 30 FLIRT EMUs, designated RABe 528 101 - 130, are destined for the new IR services, mainly on the Bern - La Chaux-de-Fonds and Bern - Spiez - Brig - Domodossola/Zweisimmen routes, but also on other RE lines.
Deliveries are planned for the period 2021 - 25. In the future, again with the intention of further unification of the BLS fleet, but also in readiness for a possible increase of services, BLS plans to use the option for up to 82 FLIRTs.
On the Bern - Biel and Bern - Burgdorf - Olten lines, BLS will use the KISS RABe 515 double-deck EMUs, of which eight more were ordered in June 2018. These will be added to the fleet of 31 four-car EMUs, the history of which dates back to March 2010, when BLS ordered 28 KISSes and then in 2016 three more. These trains are operating on the S-Bahn Bern network, but under the name MUTZ. The MUTZ acronym stands for Moderner Universeller TriebZug (modern universal self-powered train). But emblematic of Bern are the famous bear pits, the city has numerous bear monuments and sculptures, shops offer chocolates and patisserie shaped like bears are sold. The Bernese bear is called „Mutz“ in Swiss German.
However, the new MUTZ batch will also include, for the first time, five six-car trains, which - together with the three four-car Class RABe 515 EMUs - are intended for the BLS new long-distance Bern - Biel and Bern - Olten services.
Nevertheless, the new MUTZ EMUs will first be delivered as four-car trains with a length of 100 m and with 335 seats. The first unit from the new batch, the four-car RABe 515 032, left the Stadler works in Altenrhein in September 2019 and was put into operation in December 2019. By the end of June 2020, seven of these new units were in service. The eighth one, RABe 515 039, is scheduled for delivery in late 2020.
By this autumn, five of these new MUTZes will be fitted with two more intermediate trailers, bringing the units to a length of 150 m and a capacity of 546 seats. The first six-car MUTZ, RABe 515 038, made its first test run on the SBB network on 3 April 2020 near Stadler's IBS Erlen centre. Operation of these six-car units on the Bern - Biel and Bern - Olten lines is due to start in December 2020.
The result of all the described orders is that in the future BLS will focus in passenger transport on only three types of EMUs: FLIRT and MUTZ from Stadler, together with NINA Class RABe 525 and Lötschberger Class RABe 535 from Bombardier (or its predecessors). RABe 525 EMUs were delivered in 1998 - 2005 and RABe 535 EMUs in 2008 - 12. The older ones (23 three-car unit and 13 four-car units) have already been modernised by BLS in its Bönigen works between 2015 and 2019. At the newer ones (25 four-car units) their passenger information system was modernised between 2017 and 2019. Both Classes RABe 525 and RABe 535 got their passenger information system modernised between 2016 and 2019.