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Train delays in the winter can be exasperating. Annoyance ranging from long waits in under-heated stations to travels in overcrowded wagons. Not to mention the actual delay. Contrary to the popular belief it is not all due to the risk of derail: in winter switch heaters are the week point of a railway system. A switch is a mechanical installation guiding trains from one track to another. The heater’s function is to keep it from frosting. A few frosted switches in your local railway network and either trains or trams can hardly take you anywhere.

The SWITCH HEATER project, an R&D endeavour involving German and Austrian engineers aimed at fixing the problem of the unreliability of the standard electric system used by default in most European countries. The spin-off company that came out of the project is called Triple S. The three S standing for Sicher, Sauber, Sparsam, for English speakers: Safe, Clean, Economical. Indeed, not only Triple S switch heaters work better than the traditional electric ones but they also does it using less energy and greener energy, for instance geothermal energy.


The energy savings compared to traditional heating systems can reach up to 70%, which largely compensates for the costs of installation, slightly higher than when electric or gas solutions are used. And as Christa Miller, one of the main brains behind Triple S, likes to underline, the costs directly linked to the delays are also reduced, to zero. 


Geothermal energy also bears the advantage of being easy to find: any ground or ground water is a potential heat source. In inner cities or in industrial areas, wastewater, industrial residual heat or building’s air exhausts can also be used. The potential market is considerable.  In Germany only, there are approximately 120.000 heated railway switch points, out of which only a bit more than thirty are using Triple S technology. Equipping only half of the switches with the new system would reduce emissions of CO2 by 3,3 million tons a year, if they were all replaced, 9,6 million tons of CO2 could be avoided each year.

Major firms such as Deutsche Bahn, the main German railway company, are already using the geothermal heating system developed during the SWITCH HEATER project, and the city of Saint Petersburg is also a customer, keeping the whole local main station ice free thanks to an extension of the geothermal effect. The role of the EUREKA network in the project has been key in the development of the start-up, next year the turn-over should reach 3 million euros and Triple S staff should grow by 50%. ‘Participating in a EUREKA project also helped us to tap into new customers group in other countries,’ tells us Miller.

EUREKA is an intergovernmental organisation for market-driven industrial R&D. It is a decentralised network facilitating the coordination of national funding on innovation aiming to boost the productivity & competitiveness of European industries. The network integrates over 40 pan-European economies, but also includes Israel, South Korea, and Canada. Following a bottom-up approach with projects being in any technological area with a civilian purpose, EUREKA has been the driving force of innovation in Europe for over 30 years. Read more