The target picture: full digital rail freight operations in Europe
The deployment of the DAC would already constitute a game-changing transformation of Europe’s rail freight system. Manual processes in coupling/uncoupling would become uncompetitive as trains equipped with DAC can be longer and heavier and run slightly faster, due to improved longitudinal train forces. New vehicle designs enabled by a central coupler can offer higher payloads.
But the further automation of the other operational procedures during shunting, train preparation and train run is key for boosting the competitiveness of the rail freight sector, offering the replacement of all manual steps and visual inspections – and not just to simplify or to shorten these individual operations.
The further reaching value of a DAC becomes evident when we look at these new functionalities offered for the freight train as a whole. DAC, with energy supplied to all wagons and secure data communication throughout the train, would become the basis for Europe-wide, interoperable, efficient, full digital freight operations, and contribute to a substantial capacity increase on the rail network. This new digital connection between the train’s wagons unlocks the possibility to build-in further digital solutions, and to realise the additional required functionalities and benefits.
The time-consuming manual test of every train’s brakes prior to departure to ensure they are functioning correctly, is usually performed by the driver or vehicle inspector. An automatic braking test device could perform this test and the calculation of the braking capacity, and display the result in the driver’s cab, significantly increasing efficiency. This goes along with an automated wagon registration, delivering a “train setup” (train composition) prior to departure, and actively notifying the operator if it were to deviate from the planned order2.
A digital connection throughout the train especially allows a train integrity function on freight trains. The train integrity test regularly checks whether all freight wagons are still in the train and that no part of the train has become separated. It is therefore the key prerequisite for ETCS Level 3 (moving block) operation in the infrastructure. Accelerated process times, higher train productivity and ETCS Level 3 increase the capacity of the network, which makes the shifting of substantially more transport to rail possible; a matter of highest importance to provide the zero-carbon transport Europe needs to reach its climate objectives. In addition, ETCS Level 3 eliminates the need for expensive axle counters and clear track signalling systems in railway infrastructure.
Electro-pneumatic brakes simultaneously control all vehicles in the train regardless of its length, hence generating lower longitudinal compressive forces in the train, which is not possible with a standard air brake system. Freight trains therefore can benefit from better train dynamics and increased speed, operate in mixed traffic with passenger services and hence achieve shorter transport times. Such a system is also a precondition for running longer trains (up to 1500m train length), a train communication system making the use of distributed power/loco control under all environmental conditions easy. Telematics applications enabled by sufficient energy supply offer multiple options for automating manual tasks with freight wagons/trains and for significantly improved customer information, for example, on the condition of the goods transported.
Automatic uncoupling, controlled by the locomotive and/or remotely from a control centre, generates additional efficiency in shunting processes and especially in marshalling yards. Depending on the final use case definition, this functionality might require an automatic parking brake system on the wagon and a safe remote control technology.
A major benefit for railway undertakings, infrastructure managers and wagon keepers will be achieved by the automation of the technical wagon inspection. On wagon side, sensor-based recording and evaluation technology combined with the aforementioned components, such as automated brake tests, are one element. The information transmitted from the freight wagon then needs to be linked to information from trackside systems, such as video-based feature recognition. It offers a wide range of new options, not only for optimising train preparation but also for condition monitoring, predictive maintenance and in-depth data analysis of components. All this will lead to a reorganisation of maintenance procedures as a whole, and ultimately to higher freight wagon availability and reduced costs.