Efficient rail freight transport and innovation as key for an economically competitive and green Europe  

Constanze Bannholzer on the potential of Digital Automatic and how it corresponds to needs in today’s digital world.


The European Commission has declared 2021 the European Year of Rail. The initiative shall highlight the benefits of rail as a backbone of mobility. Based on this, can Freight Automation and DAC as central topic be a trending topic in railway systems?


Bannholzer: In my opinion, the European Commission has chosen the right way forward declaring 2021 as the European Year of Rail to push rail freight. Accounting for around ¼ of CO2 emissions, transport is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. To cope with the increasing volumes of freight transport and at the same time achieve the climate targets, an increased shift from road transport to rail is inevitable. Digitalization is a key success factor in making rail freight transport more attractive and productive.

Rail freight operators are in intense competition with road carriers – with different starting conditions. Railroads were an essential part of the military system. As a result, each nation-state has built in technical and organizational hurdles to prevent a train carrying military equipment from simply entering or passing through the country. Imagine having to change drivers and truck tractors (transposed to truck transport) at every border crossing on your route from Turkey to Germany! This is hard to imagine, right? But that’s the reality for rail freight at the moment. Besides, the freight sector has limited network capacity, is dominated by manual interventions in operations and cannot offer customers the relevant information they wish. Freight transport must become faster, more modern and make full use of its ecological advantages. The introduction of the Digital Automatic Coupler (DAC) plays a very central role in this. It will revolutionize rail freight transport in Europe.

The DAC is not a stand-alone technology, but the basis for full digital freight train operations, allowing to achieve the ambitious transformation of European rail freight, linked with other areas such as ATO, ERTMS and others. The timing has also never been more appropriate: the DAC will be a major game changer for the modal shift to rail to achieve the aspiring EU Green Deal objectives. I would like to give more insights on this: With DAC we are not just targeting automation of the coupling process. In addition to automatic coupling, with the introduction of power and data lines via DAC, more applications for and on freight trains will be enabled. We could achieve the automation of train preparation processes, such as registration of wagon order, brake testing, technical wagon inspection. Complex manual processes are thus completely automated, and a freight train is then ready for scheduled departure in minutes rather than hours. By eliminating manual tasks, the DAC takes a significant step toward to increase occupational safety. There will be no need anymore to handle the 20-kilogram screw that is required for the current coupling system. DAC also offers the possibility of forming longer and heavier trains. This is a crucial step towards efficiency and productivity in rail freight transport. Data communication across the entire train enables electronically controlled braking systems, which allow higher speeds and shorter braking distances. In addition, a long-awaited train integrity function for freight trains can be realised. With this function, trains can operate more densely on the network using moving block operation under ETCS Level 3. This leads to a smart capacity increase without building new infrastructure. Thanks to the power and data supply, sensors on the wagon can be used, for example for permanent wagon component monitoring. Performance based maintenance schemes become possible for wagon keepers. Digital operations and freight monitoring are the cornerstones for integrating rail freight transport into digital logistics chains. This is the vision that ÖBB has, to which we also contribute in the important European initiative: the European DAC Delivery Programme (EDDP) enabled by Shift2Rail (S2R), building upon findings of important pre-works e.g. DAC4EU, Shift2Rail’s Innovation Programme 5 (IP5), Technical Innovation Circle for Rail Freight Transport (TIS), etc.


 The introduction of the DAC requires a pan-European strategy for migration, but also integration into operational processes. On a European level, how would you define the role of ÖBB within this strategy?


Bannholzer: Before coming to the role of ÖBB I would like to highlight the relevance of this question. Regarding this pan-European strategy, let’s build the bridge to the EDDP, of which Mark Topal, Chief Technical Officer of ÖBB and Jens Engelmann, Founder of railiable, are the programme managers. It is an open cooperation concept, including a wide range of entities from railway undertakings, infrastructure managers and wagon keepers, as well as other key stakeholders. In this programme, the sector is analysing key topics, investigating possible ways forward and taking target oriented key decisions on a fact-oriented basis. Next to the decision on the coupler design, which is to be taken until the end of the year, the EDDP set itself the target to define a migration path to achieve full deployment after which all freight wagons (approx. 450.000) in Europe couple automatically including power and data lines until 2030.

In this vein we are currently deriving and assessing DAC deployment strategies: We need to define on a European scale a retrofit plan of assets, investigate critical operational processes described, examinate the minimum requirements for successful implementation. With this we will be able to elaborate a migration plan for coordinated effort, including best scenario, best point in time for migration in main system, measures needed and minimum requirements/criteria to ensure migration feasibility.

ÖBB has an enormous contribution to this field. I am supporting my colleagues daily and they are supporting me amongst other things on the migration.

Operational experts with competences in production, from infrastructure side, asset and fleet as well as technical experts bring in valuable know-how as well as hypotheses for discussion in the respective EDDP work package. Due to our experience on assets (such as a wagon keeper), infrastructure, production (RCG has its own traction in 12 countries focussed on production that knows no borders) we have the wide-range experience across all forms of rail freight production to contribute best to all milestones and to bring it to the attention of the European stakeholders for the definition of a successful deployment plan.


When it comes to Freight Automation, today we see numerous technical demonstrators. How important are R&D Projects at this stage and when can we expect a large rollout?


Bannholzer: I agree – in terms of automation and digitalisation in the rail freight sector, a multitude of important achievements have been made so far and are ongoing. In order to transform the European rail freight system and to establish full digital freight train operations further, more components and technology need to be developed. I would like to give an example. At this moment we are talking about DAC. We have already defined the specifications for the mechanical and pneumatical dimension of the DAC, but still need to define the requirements for the backbone data/energy system. Other automation components (e.g. electro-pneumatic brakes, telematics, applications, automatic uncoupling, automatic parking brake system, automation of the technical wagon inspection, automated brake test, distributed power etc.) are partially available today, but as stand-alone solutions and partially not at all yet, without going into more detail. But it’s important that this technology in Europe’s rail freight is functioning in an integrated, seamless interoperable, well tested way – and this can be achieved with DAC as an enabler. The ideal place for finalising these developments and for making them all available for deployment when we need them is the successor programme of S2R, the Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking.

The sector is aware of the benefit of DAC such as increase of productivity, efficiency and service quality, either directly or as an enabler, thereby increasing competitiveness. But the target picture is not the only relevant topic. Even though I would call the rail system in general a resilient ecosystem, one thing is certain: the large roll out will be just possible in case relevant stakeholders on a European level agree on the developed migration plan which needs to be kept short in order to limit the implications for operators. [needs review] There is still a long way to go, but if all relevant stakeholders commit to this promising vision, change will happen.


And where do you see the biggest challenges?


Bannholzer: We are talking about a system change that would bring rail freight to the 21st century as a major transformation project. Therefore, potentially all topics are challenges. Next to the migration plan, I definitely have two more significantly important topics in mind: European joint effort and funding & financing.

All relevant stakeholders need to commit to this promising vision, since the awareness of relevant stakeholders and support is inevitable – it has to be a European initiative since it is a European solution. Freight traffic is international.

In order to transform the European rail freight system, the sector will need to come up with creative innovative financing models, but also DAC needs to be considered in suitable tenders and funding schemes sources including the provision of respective budgets. This needs to be taken into account today by key policy stakeholders on a European, but also national level by member states. Stakeholders need to have certainty about funding possibilities, allowing to prepare the deployment on approximately 450.000 wagons concerned in Europe.

The DAC business case is good, but in a business with small margins as rail freight, the sector will not be able to bear the investments, costs and risks of migration without substantial funding. Therefore, funding opportunities must be developed for the entire sector as well as financing models by the sector. However, the funding will be worthwhile. The timing has also never been more appropriate for this joint effort on DAC for modal shift to rail to achieve the ambitious European Green Deal objectives.

If we do not achieve the climate targets by 2030, Austria alone, for example, faces payments of up to 9 billion euros. That alone is more than enough reason to invest in sustainable freight transport by rail.

Prototypes of different manufacturers are currently subjected to tests in DAC4EU. The results of the tests will be an integral part of the decision as to which DAC type to choose for roll-out in Europe. A decision should be made at European level within the framework of the DAC Delivery Programme (EDDP) enabled by Shift2Rail until the end of 2021. (Copyright: DAC4EU)

The DAC allows for both the energy supply and the secure data communication throughout the entire train. This will allow to identify, simulate, and interpret new patterns in operating parameters. How important is the simulation of new operation schemas in this context and where do you see largest future potentials?


Bannholzer: Indeed, the importance of DAC for the rail freght sector is evident when we take a look on new functionalities offered for a freight train. If we aggregate the automation of the coupling process with the energy supplied to all wagons as well as secure data communication throughout the whole train, we are building the basis for efficient full digital freight train operations. With this new digital connection between the train’s wagons, we will be able to unlock the possibility to integrate further digital solutions, meeting the requests of e.g. customers.

Yes, these functions will allow a complete new insight into the real operation of trains and the data they are generating throughout the journey. The dream of network planners and operators is certainly the “digital real time twin” which mirrors the on-the-ground operations in the computer and makes simulations and options evaluation possible. Without any doubt, the largely extended availability of data from during operations – which also includes better telematics data – will allow to feed better such calculation and analysis models in order to manage the system in the best way possible. The result will be a better understanding of what is really happening outside – which makes it possible to optimise it.


You have had a very focused career in logistics. Could the topic of automated, green freight also lead to strengthening the attractiveness of ÖBB/RCG as an employer – keyword young and next generation of employees?


Bannholzer: Actually, I have to admit I would have never expected to work in the field of railways during my early years. But due to my interest and personal ambitions for sustainable development, the matching with the railways could have been expected. I am grateful for the opportunity to work closely with experienced colleagues on this major transformation project DAC to enhance rail freight in order to contribute to a solution for Europe’s climate targets. The Railways, rail freight as well as ÖBB offers a multitude of possibilities for the next generation and today’s generation. The railway is a determining factor which offers room for improvements regarding automation, digitalisation, safety and much more. Mobility, including the transportation of goods, is a ubiquitous part of everyone’s daily life. My motivation that might sound convincing to someone:  In order to achieve the climate target, set in Europe, it is essential to shift freight transport from road to rail. DAC is the game changer that helps to make this possible.

Constanze Bannholzer comes from Vienna. Since 2021 she has been working in ÖBB Holding as project manager for digital automatic coupling (DAC). After completing her bachelor studies at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, she studied environmental and bioresource management with a focus on transportation and mobility. After she devoted herself to representing the interests of the public sector at an association, she dealt with the rail sector in the intermodal area. Because of her passion for the international environment, she moved to work at UIC in Paris as Senior Freight Advisor. At UIC Constanze was working as project manager for European projects (e.g. Translate4Rail cross-border language) and responsible for the management of working groups dealing with combined transport and quality. Constanze is a rail enthusiast business economist with a strong belief in sustainable development through the potential of the rail system, which can still be exploited.