What’s next for Europe’s intelligent freight train project

Almost five years into a wide-ranging experiment and testing phase, there are still questions to be answered by a consortium of stakeholders. They do so under the banner of the Technical Innovation Circle for Rail Freight Transport (TIS). With a raft of solutions and improvements coming online, are we any nearer to implementing an agreed standard?

In some respects, the freight railways of Europe are stuck in the nineteenth century, while the rest of the world rolls away into the twenty-first. It’s an opinion shared by many of the biggest names in rolling stock manufacture and technical development within the industry, collectively known as the Technical Innovation Circle for Rail Freight Transport (TIS).

Technical advances

Membership of TIS reads like a directory of industry giants. Partner operators include DB cargo and SBB Cargo, manufacturers like Knorr-Bremse and Wabtec, and fleet specialists like VTG and Ermewa. The overall goal of an intelligent freight train is something that has united the industry in what they call their roadmap for competitive rail freight.

Peter Reinshagen, managing director at leasing company Ermewa, and a board member at TIS, says European operations need to skip a century to leap into the twenty-first.

There are technical advances that TIS say should be adopted, and they can help overcome many of the administrative and logistic challenges faced by the industry. “Across Europe the rail freight advantage is on long distance, but in fact rail is not used for long distance”, says Peter Reinshagen, the managing director of Ermewa, the Paris headquartered rolling stock leasing company and TIS member.

Road journeys eliminated

Reinshagen explains that the rules that govern international trade in Europe are acting against rail. “There are useless rules that make trains stop at borders, in the same way as they have since the nineteenth century. They simply stop the railway from developing its advantages. They make it more attractive for long-distance trucking, when there really should not be 2000km journeys made by truck. With a moderate application of technology, a freight train does not need to stop at a border. Tracking systems can monitor cargo, drivers can use translation tools, and the advantages of speed, load and efficiency all become apparent.”

It is not just up in the cab and down in the customs office that there are challenges to overcome. The technical steps to an intelligent freight train include working towards making rolling stock as advanced as motive power, and integrating them together into the intelligent freight train concept. Testing and commercial viability are the next steps, ahead of political acceptance and support for a viable and competitive framework for rail freight.

Logistics, lightweight, low-noise, long-life, long-running

TIS has put forward what they call a “5L” technical standard, that combines qualities they say technical innovation will solve, and make rail freight more commercially attractive. Logistics-enabled is a top priority, and an issue that is being addressed all over the world, to make monitoring rolling stock a real-time routine task. Lightweight design goes hand in hand with Low-noise, as two ways of improving capacity and environmental acceptance.

High tech rolling stock, like this rake supplied to GBRf on lease from Ermewa, will be the basis of the intelligent freight train of the near future (Ermewa).

Low noise braking has been highlighted as an environmental issue recently, particularly where operations interface with residential areas. Life-cycle costing and Long-running are the investment factors, that reduce capital cost and maintenance – both are critical financial criteria, given the long-life of rail assets.

Joined up approach

“We need a different way of thinking about the railways. The way in which the railway operates is still very old fashioned and reluctant to change”, says Reinshagen at Ermewa. He points to the arcane practice of manual shunting, which has been abandoned in most of the rest of the world, in favour of automation. Digital automatic coupling (DAC) is a key part of TIS innovation trials, and has been widely reported recently as a vital step forward. The challenge here, as is readily admitted, it to find an agreed standard, so that different systems integrate successfully.

Reinshagen says in general European rail transportation needs to become more integrated into global supply chains and much more agile and competitive. “The customer and their cargo is not yet at the centre of the whole operation. We need transparency in transportation, so you know where your cargo is, when it arrive and if it’s on time, and the ability to predict any delay. We should reinvent the railway to integrate more, and then the advantages of rail freight becomes much more apparent.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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