Alain Azzi: public transport, puzzles and praise

“Now you can go almost everywhere by train in Europe,"says Alain Azzi. © DR

“Now you can go almost everywhere by train in Europe,"says Alain Azzi. © DR

Alain Azzi – a recent mechanical engineering graduate from EPFL – has won the 2020 LITRA Award for his Master’s thesis on making Lausanne’s bus system fully electric by 2030. And he’s grateful to EPFL for the experience.

Few EPFL graduates have shaken hands (or, in the time of COVID-19, bumped elbows) with Swiss Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin. Azzi is one of those few. He met Parmelin at the 2020 LITRA Awards ceremony, which was held at the Bellevue Palace hotel in Bern on 16 September. The awards are given out by the Swiss Information Service for Public Transport (LITRA) to recognize talented university students in Switzerland who conduct research on next-generation public transportation systems. Azzi’s work on the best way to make Lausanne’s bus system fully electric by 2030 took home this year’s prize.

Azzi, who specialized in energy management systems at EPFL, conducted his research through the School’s Transport and Mobility Laboratory, in association with the Lausanne public transport operator (tl). Because of the pandemic, the in-company part of his internship with tl lasted for just one month – the rest of the time he worked with the company via Zoom. “That obviously limited our social interaction,” he says. But it didn’t affect his strong working relationship with the tl or the quality of his thesis, since he got the highest grade possible (6/6).

Calculating the best solution

Azzi’s research is timely, as it dovetails with a Lausanne initiative to switch the city’s 25 bus lines still using diesel fuel to electrical power by 2030. He developed a model for calculating the power requirement of every bus line in the greater Lausanne area. By incorporating factors such as bus schedules, route topography, existing infrastructure and weather conditions, his model was able to calculate which of three possible methods would be the best for each line: overnight charging (where buses are charged at the station); opportunity charging (where buses are charged at the line terminus); or in-motion charging (where buses are charged along the route using power lines). It turns out that opportunity charging is the most efficient method for most lines.

Azzi’s interest in energy management for public transportation systems comes from a simple observation: “We are responsible for taking care of our planet, for both ourselves and future generations. That means reducing our environmental footprint, which will require developing public transportation systems that are more attractive and more energy efficient,” says Azzi, who’s stopped travelling by airplane. “Now I go everywhere by train. And I have to admit, I love taking the train. You can work, relax, enjoy the beautiful scenery and even get up and stretch your legs. What’s more, today you can get just about anywhere in Europe on an electric-powered train. And I find the slight rocking movement very relaxing,” he adds.

While Azzi enjoys hiking, he can also give free rein to his mind inside his little student apartment in Renens. Unlike his video-game-loving peers, Azzi is into jigsaw puzzles. His most recent achievement is a 1,500-piece one of a train travelling across the Landwasser Viaduct in the Canton of Graubünden. “What I really like is the satisfaction of putting things in order, where they belong. It’s also good exercise for your brain – an opportunity to use it a little differently,” says Azzi.

Theological discussions

Graduating from EPFL also meant leaving behind five years of friendship, fun times and community activities, and a blur of classes. Azzi is grateful for all of that, and for the “incredibly well-organized school” where “we become good students and grow.” Azzi is not just referring to the skills he has acquired, but to his own humanity more fundamentally. By taking part in bible study groups for university students, which were backed by EPFL’s Spiritual Care Service, Azzi gave more meaning to his studies. “I could discuss theological issues, ask questions that had been bouncing around in my head for a while, examine the ethical challenges related to our work, and look for meaning in my work and in my life more broadly. It’s one of the things I’ll always remember from my time at EPFL,” he says, before concluding with Rabelais’s famous quote: “Science without conscience is but ruin of the soul.”