‘Dutch Betuwe route is ideal for testing ATO on freight trains’
DB Cargo and ProRail are starting new tests with Automatic Train Operation on an important Dutch freight corridor. “The Betuwe route is a very interesting track which is optimised for freight, with ETCS and no level crossings”, says Baseliyos Jacob, senior engineer at DB Cargo at the ATO Live Event in the Netherlands. 72 per cent of freight traffic between Rotterdam and Germany goes via the Betuwe route.
After ATO GoA2 tests with freight trains in Switzerland with SBB infra, DB cargo is starting a project in the Netherlands with infrastructure manager ProRail. ProRail demonstrated in 2018 with a locomotive ride that ATO operation is possible in the Netherlands, and now a follow-up test will show in practice that ATO operation is also possible on freight trains with wagons. The tests will be with Grade of Automation (GoA) 2, meaning that braking and accelerating are automated, but a train driver takes over the train if needed and handles emergencies.
The goal is to have a locomotive ready for testing on the route in 2025 for a full year of testing. After that, the next step is full commercialisation between 2025 and 2030, says Baseliyos Jacob of DB Cargo. How much capacity gain is possible with ATO? Jacob: “This could be between 15 to 20 per cent, but it is dependent on the infrastructure. I would be happy with 15 per cent more capacity.”
The developments in autonomous driving cars go a lot faster than in rail, notes Jacob. “The automotive sector is very good at testing, testing, testing, and proving the technology this way. If you take a whole train and want to make a Tesla out of it, it is a real challenge. A freight train is also very complex, with different wagons and couplers. It’s more complex than passenger trains.”
The European Commission is expected to adopt the TSI (Technical Specification for Interoperability) in 2022, and ATO GoA2 will be part of the specification. However, the maturity of the specification is currently not sufficient for procurement for freight, says Jacob. “Insufficient maturity of automation can lead to high risks for projects, investments and operations. From DB Cargo’s point of view, the current ERTMS interoperability is also not yet optimal, “we are not happy with the European specifications for freight”.
With the previous ATO tests in Switzerland of DB Cargo, ATO GoA2 was tested for three and a half months with four suppliers running four test runs per day and 1,740 kilometres in total. The Gotthard tunnel through the Swiss Alps would also be a good candidate for ATO, as it is also on a major freight corridor in Europe, says Jacob.
“However, the tunnel is also more complex in terms of safety aspects, but it is interesting from an engineering point of view.” What is the biggest barrier to getting to fully automated freight trains, with Grade of Automation 4? “That would be the politics, safety authorities and ministries. Talking about the technicality, I have a lot of confidence that it is feasible”.