"We are using Visio to keep 110 construction phases and 26 engineering companies coordinated so that we stay true to our construction schedule—and keep the trains running without interruption."
Christoph Jauslin: Senior Project Manager
Swiss Federal Railways
Fabled Swiss precision and Microsoft Visio match up to make ambitious railway plan crystal clear
Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) is faced with creating and continually updating a complex workplan for a railway improvement and reconstruction project that will span nearly a decade. The plan includes managing 26 engineering companies, organized into four planning teams, each responsible for distinct work units that must be coordinated with quintessential Swiss precision to ensure uninterrupted passenger service. To keep everyone on task, the SBB team sought a way to illustrate the plan that would seamlessly organize its complexity. Multiple information streams are coordinated with Microsoft Visio diagrams, laying the groundwork for a construction phase plan to ensure uninterrupted service when construction begins.
Imagine the task of creating and continually updating a complex workplan for a railway improvement and reconstruction project that extends for nearly a decade and includes multiple tracks in several physical dimensions—underground and overhead—with more than 2 billion Swiss francs at stake. Add the task of managing four planning teams, comprising a total of 26 separate engineering companies, each responsible for distinct work units that must be seamlessly coordinated to ensure uninterrupted service. How might you do that without creating something resembling a tangled ball of string?
When the team at Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) partnered with consulting firm oneAssist to use Microsoft Visio in innovative ways, they were surprised at how easy it was to bring multiple information streams into focus with crystal-clear Visio diagrams that bring representations of tracks together with timelines and other key data.
Sorting out a complex project
The same natural beauty of Switzerland that delights tourists—its majestic mountains and lakes—also creates challenges for transportation planners, even in major urban centers like Zurich. Now that the sprawling network of train tracks crisscrossing the city, much of it in tunnels, has reached a certain age, SBB is launching the extensive "Brüttener" project to expand and refurbish the rail infrastructure between Zurich and Winterthur. The Swiss federal government is investing more than 2 billion Swiss francs (USD2.8 billion) for the upgrade, with planning well underway for work that begins in 2026 and ends in 2035.
An area that has come to depend on rail transport can’t afford extensive service disruptions for the 120,000 travelers who access a system of 670 trains every day. “The Swiss Federal Railway system is part of the Swiss brand. We’re very proud of it,” says Christoph Jauslin, Senior Project Manager at Swiss Federal Railway. “And the Zurich main station is key to the entire system. We are using Visio to keep 110 construction phases and 26 engineering companies coordinated so that we stay true to our construction schedule—and keep the trains running without interruption.”
Keeping all those trains running means coordinating the work of a total of 26 independent engineering companies split into four planning teams, each responsible for a section of track. That translates to synchronizing the activities of each engineering company that will take over a given section of track to be renovated so that alternative tracks are set to bear the traffic for that section while it’s under construction. To keep a train system fabled for Swiss precision running at its usual standard, planning must be accurate to the exact day while also ensuring that the three-minute intervals for each route continue on time.
Achieving complex tasks with an easy-to-use tool
Jauslin and his team engaged with oneAssist, a Microsoft Partner Network Silver status member with ISV competencies, to address the project’s technical challenges of organizing and depicting the data. Given the participating engineering companies’ different levels of experience with diagramming software, easy-to-learn Visio was ideal. oneAssist consultant Jens Kleine and his team brought maximum ease of use to an otherwise complicated scheduling problem. To keep participants up to speed and working smoothly together, oneAssist created a graphical representation of the tracks that married abstract data, such as schedules, responsible parties, and metadata about each section of track.
The project team needed a tool that did not introduce complicated technology. Most engineering companies render detailed drawings of the tracks with sophisticated CAD systems. One of the engineering companies was charged with coordinating the others. It opted for planning the construction with Microsoft Visio. No one else on the team needed persuading. “The coordinating engineering company required a tool that a normal office worker could use effectively without two weeks of training,” says Šenaj Lelić, oneAssist Managing Director. “And a CAD program, while it requires extensive training, is simply a high-end drawing program. We needed Visio to blend metadata and planning data with track schematics.”
The SBB team imports precise track image data from the CAD program into Visio. Lelić’s team created a process to transfer the precise CAD drawing data seamlessly into a Visio template, superimposing data about which track sections are to be offline at which times, and which corresponding sections would stand in as alternates. They can continue to add layers of data as required to give Jauslin’s team a rich, complete picture of the project at any moment in time. According to Lelić, in the CAD world, Jauslin would need 10 or 15 drawings to represent 10 or 15 statuses. “With Visio, we need just one drawing that can evolve to show different statuses or configurations,” he adds. “Visio offers this flexibility while also providing the ease of use of a standard Microsoft Office product.”
Jauslin’s team has the tool it needs to answer the opposing challenges of reconstruction while keeping passengers on the move. “We use Visio to depict more than 100 construction statuses,” he says. “That’s how we know which sections of track to keep open, so passengers enjoy uninterrupted service.”
Together, Lelić, Kleine, and their team worked with Jauslin to create a series of Visio templates to kickstart planning for Jauslin’s team. They also defined Visio shapes representing tracks in all their variations—tracks running through, beneath, and above tunnels, whether the track is accessible from both sides—all data-rich visual building blocks to save time and monitor each type of track.
Tapping a unified platform for seamless collaboration, change management
Jauslin and his team monitor tasks and deliverables with Microsoft Project. He saves time and maximizes project flow by combining data-rich graphics from Visio with planning data in Project. “The key word is change management,” he explains. “When we interface the visuals from Visio with Project, we have a complete picture that makes managing this project much easier.” His team maintains its Visio files and other project data on Microsoft SharePoint. “We use SharePoint to ensure that all of the engineering companies working on this project with our internal team can retrieve the data they need, whenever they need it,” he says.
Ultimately, Lelić finds Visio a simple, cost-effective application. “Even novice users can manipulate complex information,” he says. “We’ve added our own templates and shapes to create a tool that anyone can use.”
Jauslin chimes in. “I tell my colleagues that this is a great tool—it takes transferring data and crafting updates in stride. It goes a long way to helping us manage complexity.”
"We use Visio to depict more than 100 construction statuses. That’s how we know which sections of track we need to keep open during our project to ensure that our passengers enjoy uninterrupted service"
Christoph Jauslin: Senior Project Manager
Swiss Federal Railways
"With Visio, we need just one drawing that can evolve to show different statuses or configurations. Visio can offer this flexibility while also providing the ease of use of a standard Microsoft Office product."
Šenaj Lelić: Managing Director