The intelligent freight train puts efficiency back on track. The heart of the system: the digital automatic coupling with continuous power and data lines.

Target: The intelligent freight train

The Roadmap to the Intelligent Freight Wagon is complete. Over recent months, TIS and its member companies have created a structure for the process and advanced their projects in all four of the defined fields. The first steps have been taken. But the various stakeholders in the sector face a long journey.

All agree that rapid progress is needed. Operations must be automated as a matter of urgency if the sector is to improve the efficiency of rail freight transportation – and find an answer to the significant shortage of skilled workers.

As a matter of principle – and on this all the companies involved in TIS agree – automation of the rail freight sector cannot be implemented satisfactorily without the introduction of a digital automatic coupling. This is the central challenge facing the sector. Without agreement on a Europe-wide, standardised coupling head for an automatic coupling, there can be no successful migration.

Future energy and data management systems for European freight trains must also be built according to a uniform concept. Otherwise, automation will never emerge from its infancy. Consequently, the intelligent freight train of the future should only use wagons which are coupled using the same still-to-be-defined technical standards, supply power for digital applications, transmit data in the same format, and process it using the same technology.

It is already clear that the innovations yet to be developed for the intelligent freight train are much more complex, and require much greater coordination within the sector, than those for the innovative freight wagon. Considerable efforts are still needed to persuade important national and international stakeholders. In addition, the complexity and cost of the task puts it beyond the financial means of the sector alone. It urgently needs the support of political leaders and organisations.

The various development and testing projects already in progress show that the sector has taken up the challenge and is working hard to develop the intelligent freight train. This is demonstrated, for example, by the pilot testing of various applications for an automatic brake test. Progress is also being made in projects for the introduction of condition-based maintenance for freight wagons. In the digitisation of the technical wagon inspection, the sector still has a great deal of work to do before a roll out of the technology is possible. Here, the infrastructure companies, railway companies, and wagon owners need to communicate much more intensively in order to find a solution that will benefit the entire sector. One problem they need to answer is whether the diagnostic equipment of the future should be “way-side” or “on-board”.

A TIS concept for a future energy and data management system is currently under development. Initially, it may well be advisable to maintain a two-pronged approach here. A power line will continue to be used alongside rechargeable batteries and a data line alongside wireless transmission methods. All stakeholders should keep in mind that the energy and data management concept must be implemented throughout Europe and closely linked to the introduction of a digital automatic coupling.

Individual companies are highly unlikely to enjoy any success in dealing with these complex issues alone – unless they are largely engaged in closed-system rail transports which require little interoperability of freight wagons. In this respect, it is essential that companies beyond those involved in TIS – such as shippers, wagon owners, rail transport and infrastructure companies, as well as railway and supply industries – contribute to the innovation process in order to put the intelligent freight train on the railroad to success.

Manual handling during train preparation
Source: TIS

TIS key themes for intelligent freight trains
Source: TIS

Automation of operations

Automation potential of various types of digital automatic coupling
Source: TIS

TIS topics relating to digital automatic couplings
Source: TIS

Conventional versus electro-pneumatic brake controls
Source: TIS