Digital Automatic Coupling: a revolution in freight transport

19. 10. 2020

An interview with Clemens Först, CEO of the Rail Cargo Group

The ÖBB Rail Cargo Group is part of a consortium that is driving forward the implementation of Digital Automatic Coupling. Why is RCG part of this project? What are the challenges? Why do we even need DAC? We’ve asked our CEO Clemens Först for some answers.

Why is the Rail Cargo Group part of this project?

Först: We want to be the ones shaping the future of freight transport in Europe. Digital automatic middle buffer coupling is going to revolutionise European rail freight transport. In more ways than one. For one thing, we’re playing catch-up: besides North Korea and Africa, we are the only region in the world that still uses inefficient screw coupling. Once we’ve caught up, we’re going to go one step further and usher in the digitalisation of rail freight transport. We’re not just going to introduce middle buffer coupling; we’re going to integrate power and data supplies into freight trains as well. This lays the cornerstone for future innovations in the field of intelligent freight transport and for autonomous train driving, which will also come at a later stage.

What can Digital Automatic Coupling do?

Först: Unlike screw coupling, DAC couples trains automatically. This makes rail operations much more efficient and much safer. On top of that, modern coupling means you can pull trains that are much longer and heavier, and this boosts productivity and competitiveness vis-à-vis road transport. Thirdly, it also has an impact on infrastructure capacities, because infrastructure operators will be able to reduce the space needed between trains when DAC is being used.

What added value does digitalisation bring?

Först: The added value that digitalisation brings can already be felt. We have already equipped all our freight wagons with sensor technology that provides information about their location, rate of acceleration etc. This helps with maintenance, dispatch and customer information. Today, we are limited in the amount of data we can generate and the number of sensors that we can integrate, because the entire power supply comes from just one battery. Attaching power lines and data cables to the train means we can really extend the scope of sensor technology and automate brake tests, for example, which are still carried out by hand. Our ultimate goal is to have only one person on each train, the same as for trucks and, in the long-term, that trains will be able to drive themselves. This affects single wagon transport as much as block trains and intermodal transport.  

On a European level, the estimated costs to implement DAC amount to around 10 billion Euro. Why is it worth investing so much money?

Först: It’ll be worth it in the long run because this investment represents a productivity gain of about three quarters of a billion Euro per year. That doesn’t even include the potential of longer and heavier trains, intelligent freight wagons thanks to improved power and data supplies, trains driving autonomously and ultimately better infrastructure capacities. 10 billion Euro is a lot of money, but there’s hardly a better way to invest it than in DAC. 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. The investment volume will also be co-financed within the framework of the European Green Deal. We’re in productive talks with the European Commission right now about this.

What is the timeframe for implementing this type of coupling?

Först: Seven consortium members are testing out coupling right now. Four coupling prototypes produced by several different manufacturers are being considered. Once that’s done, we’re going to agree on one design, at that stage independent from the manufacturer, and will complete the necessary test drives before coupling goes into production. Retrofitting should then be completed by the end of the decade at the latest. We’re going to have two subfleets in the transition period. It will make dispatch a challenge, since we can’t combine the two coupling systems. However, this is something that just can’t be avoided and has already been taken into account.

How are you going to make sure all of the players in European freight transport ultimately do their bit?

Först: Rail Freight Forward is the ideal platform for bringing us, the European rail freight transport industry, into alignment. Both testing out and deciding on the DAC standard are coordinated within the framework of Rail Freight Forward and the European Commission. In general, the economic pressure on the entire industry is so big that we are basically “condemned” to successful teamwork. So I don’t see there being any risk of individual companies having any objections.


The European Consortium DAC4EU

The DAC4EU consortium is made up of the consortium leader DB AG, the railway undertakings Rail Cargo Group, DB Cargo und SBB Cargo, as well as the wagon lessors Ermewa, GATX Rail Europe and VTG. They are committed to equipping all of Europe with Digital Automatic Coupling. The consortium began work in June 2020. By 2030, entire trains all across Europe are to be equipped with this new technology and will enable rail freight transport to play a key role in the European mobility system of the future. The German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) is funding the project with around 13 million Euro for the project’s life span of two and a half years.