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Tackling the DAC Controversy: A Crucial Task for the New European Parliament

Tackling the DAC Controversy: A Crucial Task for the New European Parliament
photo: DAC4EU/Tackling the DAC Controversy: A Crucial Task for the New European Parliament
17 / 08 / 2023

In recent years, Europe's Rail's European DAC Delivery Programme has developed a technical solution for the coupling. The decision to continue the development of the Scharfenberg and Latsch DACs has focused on testing in various operations under a wide range of climatic conditions and simulated operating situations. However, it has not yet been tested in real railway operations.

Amid this testing, there were high expectations that the development was nearing completion. It led to reflections on ensuring the transition from conventional couplers to DAC. There have been extensive attempts to accelerate the project by arguing that it is in itself an economic benefit for individual carriers, that it is part of or a necessity for the Green Deal, and that it will be a major asset for an efficient, fully capacity utilizing, and competitive railway.

Efforts to accelerate the project politically have provoked resistance, especially from carriers in Central and Eastern Europe. The most criticized was the method of total and mandatory introduction of DAC in a very short period - the so-called Big Bang. The benefits of DAC at the company level, for example, for carriers or in logistics, have also proved to be unsubstantiated. The discussion opened last year by the Central and Eastern European carriers has resulted in several significant achievements: Europe's Rail project teams have abandoned the Big Bang implementation, the project has been postponed in time by several years, and the communication between all rail stakeholders, i.e., not only DAC manufacturers, interested companies and large carriers, has improved significantly.

Benefit-cost analyses for individual companies and countries are currently being reworked, and, most importantly, the discussion on all financial aspects of DAC implementation has been opened. It has gradually become apparent that DAC and its deployment cannot be financed in the same way as other innovative investments directly in rail transport companies. Eventually, even the management of the most important Western European rail carriers came around to this view. One of the successes of the Czech Republic and the Czech Chamber of Commerce is the enforcement of the condition to test DAC for a sufficiently long time in actual railway operation and to clearly determine in advance which railway carriages will be retrofitted and which ones will have to be scrapped. As a result, there is now more talk of a programmatic framework, although until now, the belief was that it was sufficient to complete the testing of the prototype and then proceed immediately to the development of TSI standards.

Not waiting for the DAC to be tested as a prototype has also been supported by major European logistics companies, who expect various benefits in efficiency and optimization of logistics operations from the introduction of the DAC. They have taken a keen interest in how the DAC can be used to manage real-life operations in train yards and sidings. On the other hand, the industry has also opened up the debate on the further possible digitalization of DAC for rail freight efficiency. The creation of digital coupling components and their integration into freight cars is proving to be highly problematic. Work is proceeding very slowly, and several previously unsuspected problems are emerging.

All of this has contributed to a shift in time that also has its political dimension: in a year, the new European Commission will be formed after the European Parliament elections, and from 2025, Europe's Rail, as the project promoter, has no funding secured for the finalization of the DAC development. Therefore, some major European carriers have initiated a joint letter asking the still incumbent European Commission to start addressing the funding of the coupling before the end of its mandate. The carriers also propose that, as a joint European project, the DAC should be funded from one central source. This would prevent different priorities in different countries and the disparate possibilities and capacities to co-finance the project from national sources.

It is widely estimated in Brussels that the outgoing European Commission will no longer make this decision. It is thought to be due to the volume of DAC funding for the whole of Europe and associated countries, the proposed funding scheme outside existing EU support programs, and the time taken beyond the European Commission's mandate. On the other hand, it can be assumed that European co-funding of the development and the start of real-life testing of the coupling, which could optimistically start in 2025, will continue. In an interview with RAILTARGET, Jens Engelmann, co-leader of the DAC Delivery Program, said that it is not worth testing a product that is not ready at this time. The pitfalls presented by the electrical and digital parts of the DAC are proving crucial. He also developed the interesting consideration that DAC would be introduced first for only part of the rail network, on corridors, and the TEN-T network.

DAC will, therefore, not avoid a political decision, which is now too early for these reasons. The discussion between Member States and the European Commission will start as soon as the new European Parliament confirms the European Commission next year. It is clear from the partial successes of the Czech carriers so far that it is necessary to be on the subject and not stand on the sidelines.