Four benefits of digital automatic coupling for European railways

2022/01/25 at 12:32 PM

The European rail freight sector is on the way to one of the most remarkable transformations in its history, the implementation of digital automatic coupling (DAC). The transformation could cost 10 billion euros or even more. However, the development of rail freight in Europe and its successful competition with other modes of transport will be not possible without this innovation. What benefits does the DAC provide to the sector?

By 2030, most of the freight trains in Europe will be formed by using digital automatic coupling (DAC). To achieve this ambitious goal, six European railway undertakings such as DB Cargo, SBB Cargo, Rail Cargo Austria, Ermewa, GATX Rail Europe and VTG established the DAC4EU consortium in June 2020. After a series of technical tests of various types of couplers, 24 freight wagons were equipped with the innovative solution.

In January 2022, the consortium moved to the second phase of the tests that will last until the year’s end. Since the project is funded by the Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport (BMVI) with 13 million euros, Germany plays a key role in the initiative. It is here that the first European freight train was set with the help of the digital automatic coupling. Last week, on 19 January 2022, it departed from the Westhafen station in Berlin. The DAC-equipped wagonset is running towards Austria and then to Switzerland. According to preliminary estimations, the implementation of the DAC technology into everyday practice could cost around 10 billion euros. Meanwhile, the DAC4U consortium believes that it is worth it. The key reason is the expected benefits from the innovation. Which ones?

First freight train equipped with digital automatic coupling (DAC) departs from Berlin, source: Deutsche Bahn AG / Oliver Lang

Reduced human factor

As the European railways are still using screw coupling, the dedicated operations when coupling or uncoupling freight trains are very dependent on humans. “Around 70,000 times a day, our employees in shunting operations have to balance the coupling brackets, which can weigh up to 20 kilogrammes, to shoulder height in order to couple trains,” said Sigrid Nikutta, CEO of DB Cargo. This makes coupling a very risky operation. The DAC will tackle this issue by making this kind of operation unmanned. “DAC is a clear move towards a much better Health and Safety environment for freight handling reducing the human exposure to risks in the coupling operation,” stated the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking, the EU-wide organisation that initiated the DAC project.

Way to digital rail

The DAC is one of the cornerstones of railway digitalisation. It stands with other digital solutions to be implemented in rail, including ERTMS and ATO. “It enables Digitalisation, Intelligent maintenance of wagons based on data on which to apply IA strategies and Big Data analysis and eases the deployment of ERTMS and ATO functions addressing the train integrity. It could also be used as an instrument for integration with supply chain Forwarders, Manufacturers, etc. with the availability of real-time data regarding position and related information, which also open the door for a realistic estimated time of arrival and status of the load. It is also an instrument for the control and management of key safety aspects of the freight rail transport like age, mileage and maintenance condition of each wagon,” the Shift2Rail JU explained the significance of the project.

Digital automatic coupling (DAC), source: Deutsche Bahn AG / Oliver Lang

Smart and fast freight

The DAC technology will also result in more intensified freight traffic on rails. To be more precise, the innovation will allow speeding up shunting operations. As a result, longer and heavier freight trains can be coupled much faster. “The DAC makes freight wagons smart and fast: when coupling, but also when driving. With this technology, not only can more freight cars run on the rails; it also enables rail traffic to be densified, which benefits everyone,” said Daniela Gerd tom Markotten, DB’s board member for digitalisation and technology.

One more reason for shift to rail

Another DAC’s benefit is its contribution to the shift-to-rail policy. Since the technology will make rail transport more efficient, it will be able to more freight. “Our major goal is to shift freight volumes from road to rail. Until hydrogen trucks and e-trucks with sustainable power supplies are used across-the-board, rail is the only way we can unite economic growth, and that also means transport growth, with our climate targets over the next ten to fifteen years,” said Clemens Först, CEO of the Rail Cargo Group, in an interview to the company’s corporate blog. According to him, the railway undertakings expect that the implementation of the DAC technology will be co-financed by the European Commission within the European Green Deal.

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