In 1964, Switzerland planned a national exhibition (Expo '64) in Lausanne. This raised a unique challenge for the Swiss Federal Railways (the SBB) that had to secure the transport of visitors from all over Switzerland to Lausanne (at the time not so many people owned a car and other modes of transport such as buses were not yet available to such an extent as it is the case today). But all modern locomotives were used in regular service and only old locomotives were available for the necessary extra trains needed to get people to and from the exhibition.
This was far from ideal and it became obvious new vehicles had to be purchased. At first, the SBB looked to buy new locomotives from existing series. The Re 4/4 and Ae 6/6 were available at the time but neither proved to be a viable solution, either for logistic reasons or performance issues. It also soon became apparent that the trains had to operate as commuter trains (very flexible and ready for use in a short timeframe) so, despite the bad experiences with the RFe 4/4, the railcars seemed to be the solution. And the success of the Ce 4/4 railcars of the BLS, offering high performance and thus the desired traction, further comforted the SBB in their choice.
The specifications for the new railcar were based on the Ce 4/4 of the BLS:
- doors over bogies;
- one pantograph (since the introduction of the double abrasive strips, a second pantograph was not considered necessary);
- inclined fronts.
The specifications also required the following:
- the railcars should be used both in regional and express services;
- they should be able to replace the Ae 3/5 and Ae 3/6 locomotives;
- the power should amount to 1988 kW or 2720 hp (higher compared with the BLS Ce 4/4 but also the SBB Re 4/4 locomotives and their 2450 hp);
- top speed of 125 km/h;
- regenerative braking;
- multiple-unit train control.
The units had to be available for testing purposes a reasonable time ahead of the exhibition and also be conceived for the long run, not only for the needs of the exhibition.
The mechanical construction of the vehicles was entrusted with the Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft (SIG) and Schweizerische Wagons- und Aufzügefabrik Schlieren (SWS) while the electrical equipment came from Brown, Boveri & Cie (BBC) and from Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO).
The 6 prototypes numbered 1401 to 1406 were delivered between 1959 and 1960. The first series of 6 railcars cost the SBB over six million francs (one million francs per vehicle), more expensive compared with the price of an electric locomotive.
The technical equipment is installed to a large extent under the passenger compartment, which made the entrances significantly higher compared with standard passenger coaches. Other components together with the toilet were installed in the middle of the vehicle, dividing the passenger compartment in 2.
The technology used caused some vibrations and the vehicle got its nickname "Schüttelbecher" ("shaker").
The original seating configuration: 64 seats available in a 2nd class configuration (32 smoking and 32 no-smoking).
The railcars were fitted only with a simple spring-mounted towing hook that was able to move laterally in order to facilitate coupling of the vehicles in tight bends. Since a screw coupling was dispensed for aesthetic reasons, two railcars could only be connected to one another with an auxiliary coupling. This was therefore present in the vehicle as a piece of equipment. Full couplings were fitted a few years later.
The first prototype RBe 4/4 1401 is delivered and is presented to the press. At the presentation, the delivery delay of one month and the high cost were not mentioned. Rather, they praised the modern railcar and the delivered power.
The first test and setup runs began shortly after. But after only one week, the test runs were canceled and together with the second prototype RBe 4/4 1404, the 2 units enter regular service on the St. Gallen - Zurich - Bern and Biel - Lausanne - Genève (or Brig) routes. The 2 railcars achieved a daily mileage of 1234 km and 1522 km respectively, which was huge compared with the locomotives used at the time.
The railcars were used together with matching passenger coaches, the EW series ("einheitswagen" or "standard coaches"), and control cars with baggage and postal compartment FZt4ü (later DZt). The control cars were built from the standard EW I coaches by adding a drivers cab matching the RBe 4/4.
As expected, the short test runs were not sufficient (the vehicles were untested and the staff untrained). This led to regular problems and the railcars were often replaced with standard locomotives to ensure the service.
Concerns registration number(s): 1401
RBe 4/4 1405 is delivered.
Concerns registration number(s): 1405
RBe 4/4 1404 suffers a fire in Nyon. The prompt intervention of the staff minimised the damage and the railcar was reparable and was temporarily removed from regular service and replaced with the newly delivered RBe 4/4 1405.
Concerns registration number(s): 1404, 1405
By the end of the year, units 1402 and 1406 are also delivered. With 5 railcars the SBB was able to start test runs again in parallel with the regular service.
Concerns registration number(s): 1402
RBe 4/4 number 1405 crashed in Gland. The train safety magnet ripped out a wooden sleeper at a level crossing, causing the entire train to derail at 125 km/h. Fortunately, there were no heavy casualties.
For safety reasons, the train protection system was removed on all railcars and were able to continue regular service by adding a second driver.
Concerns registration number(s): 1405
The last prototype RBe 4/4 1403 is delivered.
Concerns registration number(s): 1403
RBe 4/4 1406 is sent to Germany for further test runs for a couple of weeks. These journeys took place in part on routes without overhead wires, so that the railcar was pulled by steam locomotives. After completion of the trips, the railcar returned back to Switzerland.
At the same time, test drives also continued in Switzerland.
Concerns registration number(s): 1406
RBe 4/4 1401 suffers a fire in Amriswil and suffers extensive damage. It is replaced by RBe 4/4 1406, arrived just in time from the test runs in Germany.
The investigation into the 2 fires showed that overheating was the cause due to the positioning of the ventilation grilles in the roof, on top of the doors (they didn't ensure enough ventilation). This will be modified in the series production.
Concerns registration number(s): 1401, 1406
The prototypes proved themselves and after only 3 years the production series started. 76 units were ordered. The production version had some modifications (mainly changes regarding the ventilation grills moved from the top of the doors in the middle of the railcar) and other structural reinforcements that led to a 4 tonnes heavier vehicle (68 tonnes).
The design of the RBe 4/4 proved that a 20 tonnes axle load was possible and this led to the construction of a new locomotive: Re 4/4 II with a 140 km/h max. speed. The Re 4/4 II was built to be able to be controlled together with the RBe 4/4 (for the first time, two vehicles of different design, speed and power should be able to operate together remotely).
The first series railcars are delivered.
A large number of railcars is delivered just in time for the Expo '64.
Special trains for the exposition were formed, long pendelum trains with up to 15 coaches and capable to carry over 1000 passengers to Lausanne (some also contained a dining car).
The last rail car is delivered (RBe 4/4 1471) bringing the total number of available railcars to 82. Together with the delivery of 20 new DZt control cars (derived from the EW II passenger coaches), regular service trains were scheduled all across Switzerland with urban express trains in Genève, Basel or Zurich. They were even used on international trains to Domodossola, on the Simplon line.
The only route without a RBe 4/4 in regular service was the Gotthard line, covered by Ae 6/6 and Re 4/4 I locomotives.
The railcar number 1426 transported 300 members of the Agricultural Cooperative to Valais. Among them were many farmers with their families. The journey ended tragically near the station of St. Léonard: the special train pulled by the RBe 4/4 collided at full speed with an oncoming freight train.
The RBe 4/4 was heavily damaged and was barely recognisable. The rescuers found in the almost completely destroyed vehicles 13 fatalities and 103 injured. Among the victims were also the two train drivers. Despite the heavy damage and the fact that Re 4/4 II locomotives were already replacing RBe 4/4 railcars for fast intercity trains, the unit is repaired and put back into service.
Due to an error in the positioning of the turnouts, RBe 4/4 1419 crashed into a composition of parked cisterns in St. Triphon. The impact occurred at low speed so the damage was quite limited and there were no serious victims. But some of the cisterns were torn open and the fuel ignited. The fire completely destroyed the railcar and only the bogies could be recovered. The cost of rebuilding the unit were much to high so the RBe 4/4 1419 is the first discarded vehicle.
By 1976, 76 railcars out of the remaining 81 were used in pendulum trains. The other 5 units, due to the lack of control units, were used as locomotives or reserves.
The RBe 4/4 railcars were by now used mainly in regional traffic being replaced on fast intercity trains by the Re 4/4 II locomotives.
The RBe 4/4 1480 crashed into a shunting tractor in Frenkendorf. The shunting tractor was completely destroyed and the railcar suffered extensive damage. Transferred to the main workshop in Zurich, it is repaired and put back into regular service.
Damaged back in 1979, RBe 4/4 1461 is repaired in the Zurich main workshop and put back into service. It receives a new paint coat and the new SBB logo on both sides.
After a tragic collision of 2 railcars on the Martigny - Orsières line, RBe 4/4 1418 is rented from the SBB as a replacement vehicle. Despite the extremely steep sections on this route, they were no challenge for the power of the RBe 4/4. The unit is returned to the SBB after the 2 railcars involved in the collision were repaired.
All 81 remaining RBe 4/4 units are used in regular service. Most run as four-units pendulum trains: one railcar, two intermediate cars and a control car.
In the Zurich area, they were used as six-units commuter trains: one railcar, four intermediate cars and a control car. They were even used on the Zurich S-Bahn: during rush hour, 2 six-units were combined to form 300 meters long trains (this way the trains were able to accelerate faster).
The six prototypes were mainly used on the Seetal line and they were the first to receive a red painted front followed by a special yellow paint applied on top to make them more visible on the line.
The first railcars of the series start to receive red fronts ton ensure better visibility (RBe 4/4 1437 was the first painted this way).
Across Switzerland, most units are replaced by the newer RBDe 4/4 and transferred to Zurich for the S-Bahn. Here they form commuter trains with a control car or a second RBe 4/4 unit.
On the Seetal line, the prototypes are still used and proved themselves quite well. There are some issues though with the passenger coaches: as the speed of the line is relatively low, the axle generators were not always able to reliably charge the batteries of the coach and it was not unusual to see dark compartments in the passenger coaches.
RBe 4/4 1454 between Uster and Aathal caught fire. Until the driver noticed the incident and could stop the train, the fire was so intense that only the local fire department
was able to extinguish it. The unit was permanently damaged and was discarded.
After examination, it seemed the fire was started by a passenger.
Starting in 1991, the 74 remaining units with the exception of the prototypes were modernised to fit the needs of the S-Bahn operations. This included cloth seats instead of the plastic ones and some other interior modifications, NPZ livery, automatic swing doors as well as the installation of an additional thyristor controller, for which a passenger compartment (4 seats) had to be given up. The latter improved running smoothness considerably, especially when using the regenerative brake. At the same time, they were renumbered to the UIC scheme, which led to some inconsistencies due to vehicles already retired from service:
The railcars of the series were named RBe 540 and received the following numbers:
RBe 540 006-4 to 540 017-1: Former units 1407 - 1418
RBe 540 018-9 to 540 051-0: Former units 1420 - 1453
RBe 540 052-8 to 540 079-1: Former units 1455 - 1482
RBe 540 000 to 005 remained reserved for the prototypes but were never used (the prototypes retained their old numbers and continued to be listed as RBe 4/4 number 1401-1406).
Together with their modernisation, the EW I/II and control cars were also modernised to match the new "Hummingbird" ("Colibri") livery.
With the timetable change, the Sihltal - Zurich - Uetliberg (SZU) line urgently required a railcar to be rented at short notice. Thus, the RBe 4/4 1425 was temporarily loaned by the SBB.
RBe 4/4 1439 caught fire. The prompt intervention of the staff limited the damage to the vehicle and it was saved, being sent prematurely for modernisation.
Again, the cause is either deliberate or gross negligence from a passenger. One thing is clear though: the danger of a burning cigarette that can cause serious incidents so the SBB banned smoking in local traffic.
The first RBe 540 in its final colours was presented to the press in the main workshop in Zurich. It was the first unit able for operations without needing a conductor, the outside smooth doors provides suitable. Shortly before the end of the year, the RBe 540'062 was completed and completed its first test drives in the S-Bahn Zurich area.
After a fire, RBe 540 023 is discarded.
The timetable change in the spring and the introduction of no-conductor operations on the entire network ment the use of the prototypes on the Seetal line was no longer possible as they were not modernised. 5 prototypes were sent in the Basel area at the RBL where they replaced the previously used Be 4/6 old-style railcars to transport personnel. One unit is sent to Rorschach.
Since the personnel transport was repealed or replaced by buses, the prototypes lost their main job and were employed for special tasks like driving measuring carriages or as a shunting locomotive for the washing system for passenger coaches in the depot.
Prototype RBe 4/4 1401 was transfered to Zurich at the G depot and was mainly used as a "Heizlok" ("Heating locomotive").
By April of 2004, 13 defective units needed urgent repairs (mainly repairs after cracks were discovered in the wheel set) and were waiting in Limmattal.
Modern Thurbo GTW start replacing RBDe 560 units that are now used for the S-Bahn in the Zurich area. The RBe 540 are again more and more used for long-distance traffic and for the first time are even used on the Gotthard line to Ticino.
It also happens during wintertime that RBe 540 have to replace the newer RBDe 560 multiple units, often due to issues with the doors; then one can see RBe 540 multiple units together with NPZ control cars, living up to the joke about the name NPZ (NPZ = Nichts Passt Zusammen = "nothing fits together").
RBe 540 019 was sold together with an intermediate car and a control car to the Oensingen - Balsthal (OeBB) line, as well as the 540 074.
During the summer, RBe 540 are used for a seasonal intercity between Zurich and Chur. After 46 years, the railcars are again used for the same services they were used for at the beginning. Despite this, the low decline is unavoidable: the delivery of new RABe 521 and 523 (FLIRT) units and RABe 520 (GTW) units released more and more RBDe 560 units. These in turn invaded RBe 540 services and replaced more and more the old and heavy railcar. Although they were still considered modern and very powerful (two RBDe 560 units were needed to replace one RBe 540), the old technology and the intense maintenance needed sealed the faith of the RBe 540.
56 railcars are still in regular service and used among other routes on the Gotthard line to Chiasso and Ticino. But most of them are still used on the S-Bahn in Zurich. Here more and more trains use 2 RBe 540 units (one at each end) to release control cars for use with the Re 4/4 II locomotives.
RBe 540 041 and 049 collided in Zurich Vorbahnhof. The 2 railcars were only slightly damaged but again the decision is taken to discard the 2 units.
RBe 4/4 1405 is handed over to Verein Depot und Schienenfahrzeuge in Koblenz to be restored to its original state (it has since received the TSI number 94 85 7540 005-6). There is only one prototype in Basel used for shunting services.
More and more RBe 540 units are removed from regional traffic and are used on longer routes in the Zurich area or even the Lausanne area (here 4 railcars RBe 540 006, 007, 009 and 011 are used for 2 pendulum trains in an eight units configuration).
There were still 18 services with double RBe 540 and two services with only one RBe 540 on the S-Bahn in Zurich.
By the and of the year, the last prototype (RBe 4/4 1404) was finally retired and transferred to Kaiseraugst and aborted. The damage caused by the aggressive detergents had significantly damaged the railcar. Thus, only the converted railcars remained in the stock of SBB. Here, the RBe 540'044-5 was also remixed.
More and more RBe 540 railcars are replaced on the S-Bahn in Zurich but they are used elsewhere on the SBB network. 49 RBe 540 units are still in use due to their flexibility as there is no real replacement.
RBe 540 069 is transferred to the SBB Historic Foundation for preservation. Later on 2 more railcars are taken over by the foundation (RBe 540 020 and 052). From the total, 2 are used as driving historic vehicles and the third is intended as a spare parts donor.
The OeBB RBe 4/4 railcars are removed from service by the end of the year. RBe 540 074 is taken over by the DSF and is intended as a working railcar.
RBe 540 033 suffers a fire in Hendschiken resulting in 50.000 francs of damages. Despite the low amount, it was clear there so no long term futur for the RBe 540 units so the unit was discarded.
The last SBB units are officially discarded.
Latest update on the 8th of January 2019 at 22:38
Contributor(s): Tudor C.