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Testing is extended until 2024, and, in the meantime, funding needs to be addressed, says the Vice-Chairman of the Transport Section of the Chamber of Commerce Sechter

Testing is extended until 2024, and, in the meantime, funding needs to be addressed, says the Vice-Chairman of the Transport Section of the Chamber of Commerce Sechter
photo: Archive/Testing is extended until 2024, and, in the meantime, funding needs to be addressed, says the Vice-Chairman of the Transport Section of the Chamber of Commerce Sechter
08 / 12 / 2022

There are economic and technical arguments from advocates, who have been forming around the biggest carriers at the European level since about 2016. The aim is to use a standardised Digital Automatic Coupling system for freight wagons and freight locomotives in Europe that would fulfil the following functions: transmit mechanical forces, pneumatically transfer braking energy, electrical energy (sensors, batteries) and digital communication (train composition, train integrity, brake tests). Overall, the project was to contribute to the Green Deal objectives and the transfer of a substantial proportion of transport from road to rail. It opens up a new economic perspective, especially for individual carload shipments. But on the other hand, it remains open to what extent the project will bring real benefits and, thus, economic returns for individual carriers. Read more in an exclusive interview with Jan Sechter, Vice-Chairman of the Czech Chamber of Commerce's Transport Section.

On behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, you participate in various events of the EU-Rail/EDDP (European DAC Delivery Programme) project team, most recently in Slovakia. What is your impression of these seminars and conferences?

With the announced end of the Digital Coupling (DAC) testing approaching, major issues are starting to emerge in terms of funding. The testing itself will extend to 2024, but there is rough clarity regarding technology and coupling features. This time must be used to convince the European Union of the need for special funding. It is impossible to rely on subsidy programmes in the individual Member States – they vary, and their funding is primarily related to the internal cohesion of the economies of the Member States and the Union as a whole.

DAC is an innovative element and must not disrupt the interoperability of the rail market in Europe. Therefore, discussions must begin in Europe on a financing scheme that must involve all European carriers. The discussion on the analysis of the benefits and costs of DAC, which the EU Rail team presented in Bratislava, must involve individual companies. Each carrier has to analyze it according to its fleet. The sooner the financial scheme is cleared, the more predictable investment in new rolling stock will be. It has been repeatedly saying in Slovakia that everyone must agree on the DAC, but I do not have the impression of agreement. There is no clear itinerary for the DAC or its financing. The topic needs to be addressed as the existing valid European Commission Decision (EU) 2017/1474 mandates the amendment of the TSI technical standards on DAC.

Is it clear how digital coupling will actually be implemented in Europe?

There are two different models and their combinations. The first model is very ambitious and consists in setting a date for the introduction of DAC by a "big bang", preceded by the setting of technical standards for new wagons. In one to two weeks, the wagon fleet across the EU would be re-equipped and running. I have heard the term 'DACcination Centres' where digital couplers would be installed directly on the tracks in tents. This model would be expensive for the entire transport sector, risky to coordinate and would see the transport customers abandon the rail market if there was a local or widespread failure. This model would be advantageous to the technology manufacturers and the few financially stable carriers who would have re-tooled to DAC well in advance. A second model is a phased-in approach, based on each company's thorough operational and economic analysis of which cars to retire, when and which ones to retrofit with DAC, and which cars to order from manufacturers in the future. The burden on the transport sector would be spread over time, and individual railway undertakings would not lose competitiveness against other transport modes or the strongest players.

What do you see as the perspective of the Czech Republic?

With the experience of the introduction of ETCS, I see the interest of carriers based on a cool economic balance sheet based on a thorough analysis of wagon data and the gradual introduction of DAC. Perhaps hybrid products can be used, which will allow locomotives in particular, but also in complete sets between wagons, to spread the financial burden over time. Rail freight would also deserve special funding for this project so that DAC does not compete with infrastructure and high-speed rail funding.

I consider it very important that domestic manufacturers participate in all elements of the DAC. The re-equipment of wagons and locomotives is a great opportunity for the rail industry, and, in this respect, I would like to set up a working group of companies at the Chamber of Commerce that could participate in the DAC and its further development.

DAC is a pan-European project. How important is cooperation with foreign countries?

It is important to find like-minded partners in Europe. In this respect, the Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Transport can support our rail carriers. I consider a clear position at home and then an understanding in the V4 and with other neighbouring countries to be the basis. The carriers' cooperation in the individual member states should also lead us to push for an optimal financing model. Of course, it is necessary to act consistently towards the EU and with the support of Czech carriers and industry. It is, therefore, very useful that the Ministry of Transport has prepared a basic Czech position on the DAC with rail carriers.