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"Rail Freight Is an International Business: We Need to Speak in One Voice," Says Dr. Sigrid Nikutta of DB

&quote;Rail Freight Is an International Business: We Need to Speak in One Voice,&quote; Says Dr. Sigrid Nikutta of DB
photo: RAILTARGET/Dr. Sigrid Nikutta, DB; Clemens Först, ÖBB
22 / 12 / 2023

At the bustling hub of innovation and commerce that was the Transport Logistic 2023 fair back in June in Munich, RAILTARGET had the privilege of engaging in an enlightening conversation with Dr. Sigrid Nikutta, Board Member of Deutsche Bahn (DB), and Clemens Först, CEO of ÖBB Rail Cargo Group. In this exclusive interview, they discuss a range of topics from the evolution of logistics and rail transport to the strategic collaborations and innovations driving the sector forward. They share their perspectives on the importance of capacity enhancement in railway systems, the impact of digitalization and automation, and the critical role of international cooperation, especially in the context of EU policies and initiatives.

We are meeting at the Munich trade fair, transport logistic. How do you evaluate the opportunities here?

Dr. Sigrid Nikutta: It's a great fair. After four years, it's the first personal meeting, and you really feel this. Everyone is happy to do business on a personal basis, and that's why so many people are here, and you really meet everyone – your customers, suppliers, and colleagues on a national and international level. So it's a really great feeling.

And what is your point of view regarding transport logistic and the possibilities it brings?

Clemens Först: I can only confirm what she's been saying. Logistics, and especially rail, is a people's business because all the boundaries and conditions are very difficult, so people need to work together even more. Just to give an example, Sigrid has been in the role for more than three years/, and it's the first time we've met in person. We've met many times digitally, but the first time in person is something different, to look in the eyes and shake hands and discuss transport policy or business.

A short while ago, you were awarded an honorary position within Rail Freight Forward. What will you focus on in this role?

Dr. Sigrid Nikutta: The most crucial issue is, of course, the capacity of the railway systems, and it means the capacity of the infrastructure. It will be our main focus, and there are a lot of elements that count for this capacity, like digitalization and automatization, for example, ERTMS and, of course, the Digital Automatic Coupling. Digital capacity management and timetable – all these elements are crucial to increase the capacity of the infrastructure.

Which steps is Rail Freight Forward doing, in this case, to make the capacities more open to the railway?

Clemens Först: Sigrid has mentioned the key technologies we are driving and supporting. We are competing against trucks that are on open highways, and to have good customer service, we do need this capacity, especially now, in times of heavy construction activities and when passenger services are expanding. So what we are doing next to support technological development is, as organizations are getting smarter in working in this extremely congested environment, working together cross-functionally, investing in communication towards customers with each other, and so on. The component we are investing heavily in is alternative routes. For example, going to China by Russia became very difficult, so we are now focusing on opening the middle routes going from Central Europe to Turkey by Romania. It's a mixture. Working on technology, which is the midterm solution, working on getting better at the organization and then opening up alternatives and becoming more resilient.

The cooperation between the railway companies and the European Union is also very important. What's your stance on it?

Dr Sigrid Nikutta: Many decisions relevant to the railway are made in Brussels. That's why it's so important that we, as a sector, speak together in one voice concerning Brussels and, of course, our politicians. As Clemens has already mentioned, rail freight is an international business. Fifty per cent of our trains cross at least one border. That means that nobody can act on their own, and no nation can act on its own. So we need the European Commission, and that's very important. We must convince them that there is a developed, economically-friendly solution for the switch from road to rail.

Would you like to give us your own comment on this case? 

Clemens Först: Hundred per cent spot-on. Fifty per cent for the largest countries in Europe is eighty per cent for us as a small country. Just to underline, rail freight is international. The key challenge is to get sort of an alignment with Brussels, and then I think we've done a really good job if we achieve that. The second step to knowing Europe, Brussels and the sector are aligned is to align Brussels with the member states. That is proven to be critical in many projects because, again, local political considerations might then deviate from the ones on the European level. So, it is a whole value chain from uniting as a sector and then breaking it down to consistent national initiatives. That's the way to do it.