Robotic Brakemen (Updated)

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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For one reason or another, European railroads have never universally adopted semi-automatic knuckle couplers, a technology that revolutionized operations and improved safety on North America railroads generations ago. We take them for granted. But if you think about it, our system is still labor-intensive, as air brake hoses must be manually connected, and uncoupling is lever-activated, manually. Now it seems as though our European counterparts may leapfrog us, with a technology called DAC, for “Digital Automatic Coupling.”

As International Railway Journal News and Features Writer David Burroughs recently reported, a consortium known as DAC4EU led by Deutsche Bahn AG (DB, or German Rail) has embarked on a pilot DAC program for freight trains, with DB Systems Engineering installing versions from four suppliers of this new technology on several freight cars at its facility in Minden, Westphalia. “DAC removes the high level of manual labor that coupling usually involves,” Burroughs notes.  “It is designed to accelerate the coupling and uncoupling of freight trains, which currently involves a high level of manual labor, using screw couplings. It is hoped the technology will also increase the capacity and quality of freight services.”

UIC standard European screw/chain coupler. If it looks 19th century, that’s because it was first used in 1830 on Britain’s Liverpool & Manchester Railway!

With DAC, freight cars and their power, data and air brake lines are coupled together automatically, eliminating the need for heavy physical work, and by extension improving safety. The objectives are

The consortium entrusted with DAC includes DB Cargo, SBB Cargo (Switzerland), ÖBB (Rail Cargo Group Austria) and freight car lessors Ermewa Group, GATX Rail Europe and VTG AG. The pilot project, awarded by Das Bundesministerium für Verkehr und Digitale Infrastruktur (BMVI, or German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure), began in July and will run through December 2022. BMVI is providing US$15.34 million in funding. The consortium, which is working alongside another DAC project led by Shift2Rail, “is aiming to identify a DAC suitable for implementation across Europe.”

The DAC program’s objectives include assessing available technologies, testing and demonstration, defining migration plans, assessing interfaces with other programs, developing business cases, and communication and dissemination. The expected outcomes include:

  • Selection of an open-specification, functional, operationally tested, safe and sustainable European DAC model, which is ready for industrialization and deployment.
  • Delivery of a final open-specification design of the selected technology, based on use-case considerations, by the end of 2021, along with the interoperability and safety requirements that could be incorporated into the TSI (Technischer Innovationskreis Schienengüterverkehr), Green Deal & Digitalization Package in 2022.
  • Subject to the results of the ongoing business case analysis, the identification of migration and business plans compatible across Europe as well as the necessary resources.
Installation of a Wabtec Faiveley Transport DAC in a Zags tank car.

Over the next few months, 12 freight cars will be equipped with DACs from four suppliers—CAF, Dellner, Wabtec (Faiveley Transport) and Voith—to undergo a testing period. One system will then be selected for installation on a 24-car test train that will spend several months operating throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland as well as other European countries. Testing will occur in different operating scenarios, including classification yards.

The Europeans recognize that if they want to grow rail freight traffic beyond the meager market share it presently commands, they need to be innovative, and aggressive with modern technology. That’s going to involve things like automation and artificial intelligence. “DAC opens the door to comprehensive automation and digitization of rail freight transport,” says DB Board Member for Digitization and Technology Dr. Sabina Jeschke. “Classification yards and transloading station capacity can be significantly increased. The introduction of DAC represents a digital revolution for rail freight transport.”

Dr. Sabina Jeschke

“We want to grow and shift more freight onto the railways,” says DB Board Member for Freight Transport Sigrid Nikutta. “To achieve this, we need attractive offers for our customers. Technical innovations such as DAC will help us do this. It makes rail freight transport faster and easier. This particularly strengthens single-carload traffic as a green alternative to trucks. Transporting freight by rail is the easiest way to protect the climate.”

Sigrid Nikutta

Frankly, I’m not surprised that such statements are coming from women DB board members. We could use a whole lot more of this type of thinking in our traditionally male-dominated industry.

Maybe the answer to rail freight growth isn’t three-mile-long trains. Maybe it’s technology—specifically, how we go about adopting it, and how we as human beings manage to adapt to it, without going down the Deus Ex Machina* path, ending up as part of a bizzare Matrix.

The DAC program and its objectives sound a lot to me like the ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic) braking initiative the U.S. freight rail industry undertook more than 20 years ago, but subsequently abandoned as too expensive, too complicated and unnecessary. Was that the right decision, long-term? You tell me.

U.S. railroads, I strongly suggest you aufpassen** to what the Germans are doing. Otherwise, Sie verlieren möglicherweise noch mehr Marktanteile und fallen weiter hinter die LKW-Branche zurück als jetzt.** *

Further Insight: TIS White Paper On The Intelligent Freight Train:

*God From the Machine (it’s Latin)

**pay attention

***you might find yourselves losing even more market share, falling further behind the trucking industry than you are now.

Categories: Class I, Freight, Freight Cars, Freight Forecasting, Mechanical, News, Short Lines & Regionals, Switching & Terminal Tags: , , ,