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Constanze Bannholzer: Efficient freight rail transport is the key for an economically competitive Europe

Constanze Bannholzer: Efficient freight rail transport is the key for an economically competitive Europe

An interview with the Project Manager for Digital Automatic Coupling, ÖBB Group

Ms Constanze Bannholzer is the founder of the Shift2Rail project, aimed at removing language barriers in cross-border train operations. Currently, she is working on the European-wide adoption of Digital Automatic Coupling – a system of connecting train cars digitally that will dramatically increase productivity in the sector.

Ms Bannholzer will attend and speak at the European Research and Innovation Days 2021. You can hear her at the workshop “Highlight the European Year of Rail” where she and other speakers will be discussing rail sustainability and expansion in the coming years. The workshop starts at 15:30 on 24 June and you can register here.

Ms Bannholzer, you have had a very focused career in logistics, can you share some of the highlights with us?

I have to call myself a rail enthusiast business economist with a strong belief in sustainable development through the potential of the rail system, which can still be exploited.

I always saw my professional future in the area of sustainable development and environmental activities. After completing my bachelor studies at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, I studied environmental and bioresource management with a focus on transportation and mobility.

After I devoted myself to representing the interests of the public sector at an association, I went on dealing with the rail sector in the intermodal area. Because of my passion for the international environment, I moved to work at UIC (The International Union of Railways) in Paris as Senior Freight Advisor. I was able to recognize once more the enormous opportunities the railway sector offers for improvements and this was not the first time.

At that time, I was working on a Shift2Rail (S2R) funded project related to cross border operations aimed at removing language barriers in international train operations. The idea was to proactively drive a modal shift to implement a "drive-through" philosophy.

The international environment and the holistic view on Europe’s rail freight system encouraged me, even more, to improve the technical and environmental performance of rail transport, increase competitiveness and reduce costs.

I want to re-shape rail transport on a strategic level, and this journey continues with my work on Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC).

I would like to add: A project can be successful if a number of motivated and dedicated experts push and pull collectively, luckily I am actually in this position with my wonderful ÖBB colleagues.  

Can you tell us more about Digital Automatic Coupling? How will it improve freight trains?

Efficient rail freight transport is the key to remain economically competitive, but coupling and uncoupling a train is still done manually in Europe. Employees have to walk the train up and down, which is time-consuming.

Including shunting, brake testing and wagon inspection, train preparation takes several hours. Rail freight is facing a multitude of further challenges such as lack of network capacity and productivity.

Moreover, it does not correspond to customer needs in today’s digital world. Manual processes still entail worker’s safety risks. Full digital operations can enhance rail freight and help us meet expectations leading to a possible solution for Europe’s climate targets. 

DAC is a game-changer for European rail freight and the enabler for further automation components. In addition to automatic coupling, the introduction of power and data lines via DAC also allows the automation of the train preparation processes, such as registration of wagon order, brake testing, and technical wagon inspection.

Complex manual processes are thus completely automated, and a freight train is then ready for scheduled departure in minutes rather than hours. DAC also offers the possibility of forming longer and heavier trains. This is a crucial step towards efficiency and productivity in the sector.

Data communication across the entire train enables electronically controlled braking systems, which allow higher speeds and shorter braking distances. In addition, a long-awaited train integrity function for freight trains can be realised.

With this function, trains can operate more densely on the network using moving block operation under ETCS (European Train Control System) Level 3. This leads to a smart capacity increase, without the need for building new infrastructure.

Thanks to the power and data supply, sensors on the wagon can be used, for example for permanent wagon component monitoring. Performance-based maintenance schemes become possible for wagon keepers.

Digital operations and freight monitoring are the cornerstones for integrating rail freight transport into digital logistics chains. To achieve the climate target set in Europe, it is essential to shift the transport of cargo away from the road and on the rail. Digital automatic coupling is the tool that helps make this possible.

The target deadline for implementing DAC is 2030. Considering ÖBB is a leader in the sector, how far along are you?

Shift2Rail enabled the foundation of the European DAC Delivery Programme (EDDP) in September of 2020. It offers a unique platform dedicated to the successful implementation of DAC as a means to revolutionise rail freight systems in Europe.

Mark Topal, Chief Technical Officer of ÖBB was appointed as EDDP Programme Manager together with Jens Engelmann, Founder of the company railiable, who are pushing DAC on a European scale to boost rail freight transport in the Union.

As ÖBB we are steering and supporting this open cooperation concept, that includes a wide range of entities from railway companies, infrastructure managers and wagon keepers, as well other key stakeholders.

Furthermore, the EDDP has several other initiatives under the umbrella of DAC, for example, the DAC4EU consortium. ÖBB Rail Cargo Group is a member of DAC4EU next to the consortium leaders DB AG and others such as DB Cargo, SBB Cargo, and the wagon keepers Ermewa, GATX Rail Europe and VTG.

We are testing several prototypes on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) of digital automatic coupling types from various manufacturers.

The test results of the consortium are to feed into the selection decision to be made by the EDDP for a uniform coupling type in Europe. To summarise, ÖBB is a strong supporter and driver for a fast, technically and economically feasible European‐wide roll‐out of DAC.

What will your presentation at the Research and Innovation Days event be about? Can you share some details?

DAC is a key enabler for rail freight and we can talk about it for hours, unfortunately during the Research and Innovation Days, time is limited. Therefore, the message needs to be short and easily “digestible”.

I want to create awareness, that DAC is not a stand-alone technology but the basis for “full digital rail freight operations”  that will allow Europe to achieve an ambitious transformation in the sector.

It is a big project - until 2030 approximately 450,000-500,000 freight wagons will be coupling automatically and this includes power and data lines. There is still a long way to go (defining the migration path, respective funding/finance, awareness and acceptance), but if all relevant stakeholders commit to this promising vision, change will happen.

The timing has also never been more appropriate: DAC will be a major help for the modal shift to rail and the ambitious goals of the European Green Deal.

How do you integrate innovations and research from the public and private sector into your work?

Since I deal with DAC daily on a national, as well as a European scale, innovations and research are an integral part of my work. In the context of the EDDP and with the strong support of ÖBB, we are working closely with manufacturers and wagon keepers.

Manufacturers being members of the EDDP, develop and test DAC prototypes in the context of DAC4EU. The target is to select a uniform coupling type for Europe, delivering a final open design with interoperability, meeting safety requirements. Then it will be incorporated in TSI, European Green Deal & Digitalization Package 2022.

To achieve a European-wide system incorporating broad sector agreements and the alignment of all ongoing and planned DAC initiatives, we needed the involvement of the public sector. This is why S2R helped the EDDP to integrate various external organisations and relevant research outputs of the Shift2Rail R&I Programme.

ÖBB claims that 100% of the trains are powered by renewable sources. What do you think research and innovation in the field of rail transportation can bring to the overall quality of life experience in Europe?

This is completely right. Since 2018, ÖBB obtains its traction power from 100% renewable energy sources thanks to hydropower plants - all electrified routes are operated exclusively with renewable energy. Even though ÖBB in Austria might be ahead in terms of renewable resources, there is a lot of work that can be done for society.

Since I am working in the area of rail freight, I would also like to build the bridge to DAC. DAC will increase productivity, efficiency and service quality, either directly or as an enabler, thereby increasing competitiveness.

Together with smart capacity increases, DAC will be a game-changer in shifting more freight traffic to the European rail system, facilitating the European Green Deal, improving workers’ safety and creating value for Europe.

DAC and full digital rail freight operations is the unique proposition coming from the rail sector aimed at policymakers and it can achieve sustainable freight transport in an affordable way. A joint effort for a European-wide deployment will lead to a benefit increasing the quality of life in Europe.

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