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Pilot project launched to test automatic freight rail coupling

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Dry Bulk,

A consortium headed by Deutsche Bahn (DB) is now trialling the use of digital automatic coupling (DAC) on freight cars. The German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) awarded the contract for this pilot project to the consortium of six companies from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. The project, aimed at demonstrating, testing and obtaining regulatory approval for DAC in rail freight transport, will run from July 2020 to December 2022.

DAC automatically connects freight cars, as well as their lines for power, data and compressed air, without any need for strenuous physical work. Most freight trains are still currently coupled by hand using buffer-and-chain couplers; DAC makes this process much more efficient and relieves strain on rail workers.

The consortium is made up of DB, its subsidiary DB Cargo, and five other companies: the Swiss and Austrian rail freight companies SBB Cargo and Rail Cargo Austria, along with wagon keepers Ermewa, GATX Rail Europe and VTG.

"It wouldn't make sense to manage the EU-wide introduction of DAC from the Member State level alone," said Enak Ferlemann, Parliamentary State Secretary at BMVI. "We need to find solutions at the European level. The financial challenges involved are considerable, and they are not the kind of thing that companies alone can solve; we will need a comprehensive European program with sufficient funding. The German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure will continue to support the introduction of DAC, and we have commissioned the DAC demonstrator project to this end. We will be providing some €13 million in funding for this research project over the coming 2.5 years."

Sabina Jeschke, Member of the Management Board for Digitalisation and Technology. added: "We are delighted that we can implement this project together with our strong partners in the consortium. When the digital automatic coupling is introduced throughout Europe, it will be a revolution for freight transport by rail — and an enormous relief for employees."

In the first phase, 12 freight and tank cars from DB Cargo, VTG and GATX will be equipped with prototype couplers from four different manufacturers. Then the initial technical tests will begin. The results of these tests will determine which type of coupler is ultimately selected. In the second phase, a demonstrator train consisting of 24 freight cars equipped with the selected coupler type will run in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other European countries. This will allow DAC to be tested in daily operations in a variety of areas, including at marshalling yards.

The goal is to prepare the process of selecting one type of coupler to introduce throughout Europe. DAC will open the door to a system of rail freight transport that is fully automated and digitalised. A coordinated approach within Europe will be key to achieving full-scale implementation of the technology.

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