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DAC is a project that's transforming the whole sector, says ÖBB CTO Mark Topal-Gökceli

DAC is a project that's transforming the whole sector, says ÖBB CTO Mark Topal-Gökceli
photo: RAILTARGET/DAC is a project that's transforming the whole sector, says ÖBB CTO Mark Topal-Gökceli
02 / 12 / 2022

RAILTARGET presents you with an exclusive interview with Mark Topal-Gökceli, Chief Technical Officer at ÖBB. The topic of the interview is Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC). How does the reaction of market actors vary across European regions, who should finance DAC, and what is the realistic deadline for achieving all the DAC goals?

We are currently located at the DAC seminar in Bratislava. You talked about the need for consensus over the DAC rollout. What do you think is the reaction of market actors to DAC? Do you see any variation in this by region, for example?

Actually, it's been identified so far, and there are numerous events like today, and we are happy and grateful that we have these events. We've identified that some of our partners have concerns. Of course, we also have concerns. It's not only the partners, or maybe, those parties not being that much involved at the moment, that might have concerns. We all share concerns because there are a lot of challenges. The technology is not yet fully developed, we have a lot of questions regarding operational procedures. We are going to solve these. And finally, there will be a migration issue and, last but not least, funding. So, a lot of things are not yet solved, but we want to invite everyone to work together with us in solving these in the upcoming months and years. This is the main message of today, I guess.

You talked about the fact that DAC should be supported by public budgets. Do you think that the introduction of DAC should be subsidized in some way by the European Union? How do you think this could work?

This is exactly something we are working on. We call this 'the funding instrument' and, of course, these need to be different sources. We will see some investments coming from the companies themselves because there is some kind of benefit. We also know that it will not be enough, so we need to have some funding, and the additional funding from public means could come from the member states and the European Union. How can this instrument finally look like? This is something we are working on, but one thing is clear there is a socio-economic benefit in terms of shifting to rail and, finally, decarbonization of the transport sector. So someone needs to invest in these benefits and be interested in investing in the DAC from the public sector as well because otherwise, we will never ever reach the Green Goal Initiatives.

The payback period for DAC, in your words, must be less than ten years. Do you think this is assured? How can this be achieved? 

We have to distinguish between, let's say, once again, the socio-economic analysis, i.e., the impact analysis in terms of economics when it comes to the overall picture. There's, at the moment, the 30-years period, but no company, none of us will invest in a perspective of getting a return of investment in 30 years. So we need to be aware of the fact that this needs to be reduced, so we are saying it will be less than ten years, and in the ten-year perspective, we can assume that the companies will invest in this technology once they have a positive net present value in their business cases. So it's about business, although we really think that it's a project that's transforming the whole sector. In the end, it comes to business cases for the companies, and this will be the basis for the decision-making, so we need additional means and funding in order to get these business cases to a positive level, and then we will see if the deployment starts. But, once again, first, we need to solve a lot of other questions and challenges like technological, operational, etc. But we are working on preparing the deployment as well.

What do you think are the main concrete benefits of the DAC? Through what should the return on investment be achieved? Do you think companies in the market are aware of this?

I think some partners don't see these benefits, and there are different reasons why. Because it's not one benefit, it's not the same in all the different countries for the same type of traffic, or business we are doing, so it's different categories of benefits framework conditions in different countries for different companies. So 'one size fits all' will not work here, so we need to carefully investigate and analyze the respective individual benefit situation. This is something that will be done on the second level right now because, as we have the first draft of the CBA, we did it in a general manner. But, of course, now we need to reach out to the regions, to the companies and we cannot do this without the companies, so we need to better understand why this or that benefit is maybe not as huge as expected in this or that country or region. But in the end, there is a benefit, that's clear. The quantity of that is something that we need to further analyze. Based on that, there will be once again the business cases developed and, hopefully, the final deployment prepared. But I am repeating myself, we have a lot of work to be done in the future before we come to this point.

Your speaker, Libor Lochman, talked about the fact that DAC should be finally developed by 2025. Is this realistic, in your opinion? Can it be done in time? How do you think it should be implemented? If you are a fan of BigBang, or if you have a picture of the hybrid period?

I think what is important that has been discussed today is that we now have a picture of Project-5 within European Rails Joint Undertaking, the so-called Transform Approach Act, where we have a total project volume close to EUR 100M for the next steps of developing this technology. After we have proven this technology, which will take place in this project, we can decide on the next steps. At the moment, we are preparing the deployment plan. At the moment, once again, it was the idea to start with deployment as soon as possible because the window of opportunity for us is a sector, the closing transport sector is also under the heavy influence of innovation and other modes like roads, and we need to be aware of the fact that if we are too late, the rail system will not have this advantage anymore. So we need to be fast, but we, on the other hand, cannot be naive and risk something here. We need to have a solid case. Will it be 2024? Well, that's the plan developed a couple of years ago. Will it be, maybe, 2026 or 2027? We will see. So this is exactly why we need to work on this together. It's a dynamic project. One thing is for sure, we need to be very fast, and the migration period should be as short as possible, so maybe we will start in 2029 and finish in 2030, and then you have, once again, a lot of volume being retrofitted of wagons and locos with this Big Bang Theory. So, regarding the migration, we have a lot of scenarios at the moment. We need to put them together into the right manner and sequence and, based on the moment - I would call it the 'point zero' - once we know that the technology is operational, fulfilling all the requirements, is no risk for us in terms of authorization procedures, that's the point, the D-day when we start deploying. And let's hope this will be very soon.