CZ/SK verze

"Europe's Rail Is Not Just Doing Research for the Sake of It, We're Ensuring Success from It," Says Giorgio Travaini, EU-Rail

&quote;Europe's Rail Is Not Just Doing Research for the Sake of It, We're Ensuring Success from It,&quote; Says Giorgio Travaini, EU-Rail
photo: RAILTARGET/Giorgio Travaini
22 / 11 / 2023

In an enlightening interaction with the RAILTARGET team at the TRAKO trade fair in Gdansk, Poland, Giorgio Travaini, the acting Executive Director of Europe's Rail Joint Undertaking (ERJU), delves deep into the intricate web of rail research, innovation, and the future of European rail systems. With a decade of experience in the railway sector and having been a strategic advisor for various prestigious organizations, Travaini expounds on Europe's Rail initiatives, the pivotal Digital Automatic Coupling project, and the nuances of funding in the sector. Throughout the conversation, he underscores the critical importance of innovation, collaborative research, and the seamless integration of technology to elevate the European rail system to newer heights.

Welcome to the TRAKO trade fair in Gdansk, Poland. You are the acting Head of Programme of Europe's Rail Joint Undertaking. You have been with the railways for many years since 2010. You were a Senior Corporate advisor for UNIFE, European Rail Supply, and advising on all strategic topics on the way to digitalization and modernization of the railway. Now you are the Executive Director and interim of Europe's Rail JU, and, for us, the pilot project of Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC) is very important. What can you tell us about Europe's Rail?

Thank you very much for the invitation. Let me start by saying that the work you are doing for the Czech Chamber of Commerce is great because you are linking business with the reality that rail stakeholders need to face. It is also what we want to do in Europe's Rail. We are doing research and innovation first of all, but we are not just doing it for the sake of research. We are ensuring, or at least we want to ensure, that there is a successful take up of the research. Obviously, not every research will be successful, and that is also why we have some risks taken by the European Union. There's funding that we are providing to research and innovation projects, and, de facto, we are financing the risk. We are asking the sector to be riskier so that we can investigate more forward-looking solutions and not just incremental changes to the rail system. Another important matter we are doing at Europe's Rail is the fact that we have a systematic approach to all the solutions. At Europe's Rail, we have a partnership approach where largely all the sector is represented. Working together, we can agree on looking at the specific technological solution developed, maybe, on our railway subsystem, and what the impact on the overall system is. And then, we take one step further and look into how the solutions can be standardized, either to normal standards or to regulations, because you know that the rail sector is very regulative, and for this reason, we are really cooperating with the European Union Agency for Railways that is in charge of the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSI) under the heading of the European Commission which is representing in our partnership, in Europe's Rail, the European Union. In the end, Europe's Rail is a EUR 1.2B program for research and innovation activities that are very much focused and are building upon its predecessor, Shift2Rail.

It is a little bit lively railway exhibition in Gdansk now, but you definitely explained this interconnection between the industry research development and deployment of regulations. As Digital Automatic Coupling is a big step in the future of digitalization, modernization, and effectiveness of rail freight transport, I would like to ask you about the latest progress on it.

Let me tell you something else about our program because I have said that we want to have a systematic approach, but this is also reflected in our program, and DAC is a part of it, but it is not in isolation. What we are doing in terms of research and innovation is working on a new traffic management system consisting of different existing regional and national traffic management systems being able to speak together, which is also important for the DAC. With this system, we would like to be able to provide an enabler for different ways to manage transport in freight and maybe combine it in the way our passenger transport is managed. It also could be going to the new changes in the traffic management system. In order to do this, DAC needs to be able to incorporate the latest advances in automation like, for example, automatic train operations, moving blocks, etc., and this is also another part of our program, the Flagship Project 2. There is also a link because DAC will be an enabler to ensure that freight will be able to have those advantages of possibly increasing the capacity of the network. It is also interconnected with something else in our program, which is advanced maintenance. What we do is look at infrastructure but also at the rolling stock's point of view of using predictive maintenance, intelligent algorithms, and AI so that we can predict the way the components will fail. With this, again, we will also increase the capacity and decrease the cost. This is our Flagship Project 3. And then, it is also linked to plenty of innovations. For example, in Flagship Project 4, we are looking into how to transport dangerous goods, how to use alternatively fueled transport, etc. Finally, we are addressing your specific question about the DAC. It is part of our Flagship Project 5, in which we are really looking into all the ways we can automatize the rail freight operation. DAC is the key enabler, and again, I am stressing the word 'enabler' because it's not the magic single solution, but it is part of the solution and a key part, and without it, it is unrealistic today to see a convergence at European Union level of all the automation systems.

It is a key element between freight transport logistics and all data information collected for future systems.

Exactly, and so where are we with Digital Automatic Coupling? Today, in Europe's Rail, we are developing the technology. The first thing that needs to happen is that the technology is validated. We need to have a safe, secure, reliable, and maintainable technology, and it concerns both the mechanical part (the coupling and uncoupling), the pneumatic part, and the electronical part because, with DAC, we are bringing the electricity into the wagons enabling plenty of services and communication activities. The important part is about standardization and finding a common agreed solution with all the sector.

You have mentioned standardization. Testing will be an important part of the DAC implementation. The prototypes are already being tested. But what about testing in rail freight transport? Will railway carriers, for example, from the Czech Republic, be able to participate in it?

The answer is yes. First of all, already now, even without the pilot testing, I encourage everyone to participate. We have created a structure called the European DAC Delivery Programme (EDDP), open to all stakeholders, even those with less means for research and innovation. We have Sounding Boards as well as Work Packages open for everyone to participate. One just needs to visit our website, click an application form, and participate. But then, the pilots are the key. As you have said, today, in Europe's Rail, we are going to develop prototypes, some of which already exist, and validate the initial technologies on those prototypes. This is not enough, though. We need to have many more trains that go into operation in different conditions to be able to say, "Yes, we can confirm that all of this is alright." Only after that will we enter into the TSI and standard. Our plan is to do this pilot testing in 2026-2027, provided that in 2025, we have the technical solution. It is a plan, and it is important to have one.

Funding is a vital issue. We have some experience in co-financing, for example, the southern part of Italy and Spain many years ago. We are able to co-finance technological progress, but the DAC is a rather pan-European project. Do you have any ideas about the financing responsibilities? Will it be decentralized, and will the member states be responsible for the support of rail freight deployment, or you are more for the centralized deployment management from Brussels as central European funding?

Today, nothing is set in stone, and it will not be until we reach the final point. We are discussing it and encourage everyone to come on board the discussion. We see that the rail freight sector contains many actors and may have companies of a size, that is not big enough to be able to sustain all the administration linked behind accessing funding and financing. Even if you are looking into the European Investment Bank for some financing, the Bank is only financing for certain volumes. For those reasons, what we are looking for is finding a single-purpose vehicle, where we can group all those funding and financing instruments so whoever wants to benefit from it will have a single door to knock at and possibly an easy procedure to follow without administrative burdens. But we need to build this vehicle and we need to build cases for funding because today, the only secured funding is the one of Europe's Rail for research and innovations. We need to find funding for the pilots we were discussing before, and then, if the pilots are successful, if everybody agrees they can see the benefit and business case, and many other things we need to check, we will need the deployment budget.

For retrofitting, and, especially, the transition process.

Yes, and this deployment budget will be very substantial. So, we need to see how to finance it, including funding. The rail sector must be united as one. We need to tackle many technical challenges and double-check that everybody finds their benefits. As a railway sector, we must say together, "We need support for the rail freight sector," because otherwise, not only will the DAC not happen, but other investments will falter, too. Unfortunately, looking at it from my bubble in Brussels, I can see that other transport modes work very much united and can get funding out of the Council for example in an easier way.