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"DAC Is a Revolutionary Step, but It Mustn't Jeopardise the Future of Rail," Says Andreas Lipka, DB Cargo, Project Manager for the Transition to DAC, Europe's Rail

&quote;DAC Is a Revolutionary Step, but It Mustn't Jeopardise the Future of Rail,&quote; Says Andreas Lipka, DB Cargo, Project Manager for the Transition to DAC, Europe's Rail
photo: RAILTARGET/"DAC Is a Revolutionary Step, but It Mustn't Jeopardise the Future of Rail," Says Andreas Lipka, DB Cargo, Project Manager for the Transition to DAC, Europe's Rail
05 / 06 / 2023

RAILTARGET's editorial team had the opportunity to talk to Andreas Lipka of DB Cargo, the project leader of the transition to Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC), Europe's Rail, at the transport logistic trade fair in Munich. The project leader commented on the different scenarios for the DAC introduction into operation or the necessary digitisation.

You are the lead designer of the sequence of individual steps for the transition to a major European project for the comprehensive digitisation of rail freight transport, in which the Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC) is a central element. Mr Lipka, would you like to describe this in more detail?

Yes, that's right. There is a European DAC Delivery Programme which includes a migration component (from conventional couplers to DAC). According to the wishes of Deutsche Bahn AG, I have the task of dealing with the transition to DAC in this European programme. However, I continue to work for DB AG and 500,000 railcars in Europe.

Yesterday, at a seminar here, at the fair, you told the audience that this is actually a PPP project – a project between the rail industry, the carriers and the European Commission. The term migration is not exactly identifiable for the Czech audience with a scientific and industrial programme. We are at the heart of the matter: you have different scenarios for the DAC deployment. Can you describe them in more detail?

At the beginning of the project, we were intensely concerned with the fact that the rail transport market serves different segments of transport customers, which have completely different transport needs in terms of the type of goods transported. Their transport depends on the seasons, so more things are transported in autumn than in spring. There are different shipments depending on the shipper – for example, various goods are shipped from the ports than in complete trains, are they in a group of cars, or are they just a single car? And we immediately recognised that we need different migration strategies, where we cannot apply the same principles across the board as when we water the watering can, but we need to tailor migration to specific transport conditions. We first started with nine ways and principles, but then we talked to all the actors in the rail market (carriers, wagon lessors, infrastructure, workshops, institutions, universities, etc.) and asked them for their expertise on whether DAC could be implemented in this way. We put together a range of expertise from all over Europe. And out of these nine principles, we eliminated five as unsuitable, with four going through a further selection process in which all the actors told us this could work. We are now coming out of this with a solution for all 500,000 wagons in Europe to make the transition to DAC. It will look different for complete trains that run as a chain back and forth, and different for groups of wagons or individual carloads.

And now, from the point of view of the rail carriers: in the meantime, some have already started to take stock in terms of the ability to retrofit individual wagons to DAC, but they do not yet know whether this or that type of wagon will be retrofit-able or not and what they have to take into account in their investment outlook in the medium term. Do they know that today?

We do know a lot today. The good news is that all wagons have sufficient space to accommodate an automatic coupling according to UIC standard 530.1, a standard that is about ten years old. At that time, there was no talk of digitalisation, but all wagons that met the technical parameters of that standard at that time are suitable for DAC. Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, after the last attempt to introduce automatic couplers, this standard became obsolete. The authorities in Europe at the time assumed that after two attempts, there would never be an automatic coupling. Now that we have many wagons in Europe (not all) that are newer than this standard, built after 2006, this is a big challenge for us, because the wagons are new, they may be in service for many years, and there is capital tied up in them. They cannot just be taken out of service, so we have to find a solution for them. Because the European fleet is large and very heterogeneous, there is no single solution. We have looked in detail at one type of wagon in high demand on the market and used by carriers and leasing companies. This wagon has a great future ahead of it. It is an intermodal bi-flat wagon that allows for various superstructures but is not suitable for DAC. The forces when the wagon is coupled are applied through the DAC, through the centerline of the wagon, not the bumpers. The forces act differently when the cars are coupled. We were considering what to do. First, we asked the manufacturer, and they said they could do the conversion, but the cost would be about half the price of a new car. So we looked for another solution because nobody in Europe can afford such an expensive conversion. There are no finances, the workshops have no capacity, and the wagons would remain out of service for a long time. We looked at how else the DAC wagon could be carried, and we found a solution. We commissioned a study with a technical test which showed that the wagon could be retrofitted with a small technical modification, namely a cantilever to absorb the coupling pressures. Nevertheless, we do not have a solution for all types of cars. So we need to get a better idea of what kind of wagons we have. We recognise that they all need solutions because they are part of the rail sector. It is not Brussels that has decided that DAC must come. We have concluded that rail transport needs to be automated and digitised, or it will not go any further. So we need information from all wagon owners about their fleet. They should examine their fleet so that we can find a universal answer for them.

So there has to be some sort of inventory in each company of what has to be done for DAC and what, if anything, has to be sold or scrapped. And once this is done and there is approval for each type by the railway authorities of the EU Member States, what are the different steps in the implementation of DAC that carriers and other market players, e.g. logistics, have to take into account?

The first step is to find a solution for locomotives. If we do not have locomotives for DAC coupling, we do not need to retrofit wagons. So the first step is to equip the locomotives. It is a big challenge for the transition period, which we are thinking of as six years. So we need locomotives that can do both: pull cars with conventional couplers and with DAC. There are examples in SBB Cargo in Switzerland, which uses a hybrid Scharfenberg coupler with the possibility of connecting an automatic, not yet digital, coupler. It is the direction we are considering. But we have locomotives that operate at the limit of the permissible axle load. It would be a problem to fit a DAC to these locomotives, but the solution is to fit a hybrid coupling to the locomotives. It is not yet clear whether this solution will work for all locomotives, even those that today perhaps just run on marshalling yards and do not run on the tracks. At the Munich fair, we are showing a coupling that serves shunting locomotives that do not leave the yard but can operate both types of coupling. It is a lightweight superstructure that can be integrated with little effort and can be used on locomotives that are forty years old. DAC for broad gauge locomotives is under development. The next step will be to start retrofitting coaches. We could begin with complete trains that we can put into the shops in slower traffic times, do an entire retrofit, and put them back in service the next day. 

But this is already a phase that needs an inventory because how many such cars exist will determine the need for capacity in the workshops. Have you explored this within the team? What about the capacity shortage? Will the migration need to be staggered?

Basically, complete trains account for half of all wagons in Europe. We call retrofitting these cars direct retrofit. If you ask me how many hours will be needed for the retrofit, I will only be able to answer this question when it is clear how many additional components the DAC will contain. For example, there is the automatic brake test equipment. If it is to be installed, it will cost time. A reasonable time contingent will be needed for the DAC starter package, i.e. the equipment, cabling, data box and more. However, we cannot quantify this at this time.

So, to summarise, it is in the interest of the carriers to quickly inventory their wagon fleet so that they can calculate the times needed to convert to DAC and create their own cost-benefit analyses. 

Yes, by all means. And at the same time, it's essential for a railway company that wants to digitise and automate that I will have a train with electricity and data that I can use and offer to the customer as an additional service. The sooner carriers and workshops realise the advantages of digitalisation, the sooner we can include it in our European DAC programme. 

Good of you to say that. Many carriers say our core business is transport from point A to point B. Give us a ready-made, tested DAC solution and then we will discuss it further. You take the view that we need to be involved at an earlier stage. That's a good message for our readers. What else would you recommend? The DAC prototype has done demonstration runs in Europe. Some companies are already interested in testing it in practical operation, in different conditions. To test the physical parameters of the retrofit, the rebuild times and how the DAC will actually work when a fault occurs in an emergency. Are you in favour of such testing?

Yes, absolutely. We've done it before. Another strategy is the so-called DAC-ready strategy. We will prepare the wagons for the DAC in advance, but we will do the final installation at a specific time in a special workshop, the so-called Pup-up Workshop. We tested this in October 2022 in a tent right on the track to realistically test the idea of introducing DAC in this way. See if the workers get in the way, we have space for a forklift on the tracks where it's tight. But we want to test further, and I would be very happy if we could get new partners involved in the DAC project, to test the workshop processes so that we can test other ideas in practice.

A consortium of several Czech and Slovak companies want to participate in the testing. They would like to become a partner in Europe's Rail DAC project so that they can get to know how DAC actually works at the carrier or yard level as soon as possible.

We can only welcome that. I have respect for those who say they do not have the time and want to buy the finished product. But there is an opportunity to work together as a rail industry to completely rebuild a system that is almost 200 years old and equip it for the needs of the next century. I would urge everyone to play their part in shaping a shared railway future. Everyone is welcome, especially critics who see problems and doubts. It is crucial to openly discuss and address the error. We will be happy if there are more active participants from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The interview was conducted by Jan Sechter, Chairman of the Transport Section of the Chamber of Commerce as part of the partnership with the RAILTARGET interview studio at the transport logistic trade fair in Munich.