In order to achieve the Paris climate targets and curb global warming, at least 25% of freight transports have to be shifted from road to rail by 2030, EU politicians demand. Today, the proportion in most European countries is between 15% and 20%, so there is still a long way to go. However, after years of stagnation, change is on track.
As demonstrated by the coupling of rail cars. For over 100 years this was done by hand. At least until last week, when Deutsche Bahn subsidiary, DB Cargo introduced an automatic clutch, making manual coupling redundant. It is a start; not more, since it will take years until all railcars, either owned by DB Cargo or leased from well-known providers such as Ermewa, GATX, VTG, and others are equipped with this mechanism.
Eco-diesel to replace fossil fuels
Next, Deutsche Bahn announced abandoning traditional diesel on selected secondary tracks in favor of climate-friendly eco-diesel to power their diesel locomotives. This will enable them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, measured on today’s pollution. Starting in October, the alternative train fuel will be tested in a shuttle train running in Northern Germany. Sabina Jeschke, DB Board Member Digitalization and Technology emphasized that the entire railroad system will only become climate-neutral if the diesel era ends and DB brings down the burn of fossil fuels to nearly zero. “With an annual consumption of more than 250 million liters of diesel, this is a challenge we are tackling. To use alternative fuels and propulsion systems in rail, road and air, the transport sector and the entire industry must make massive efforts in research and development," she urged.
Freight trains are becoming green
The eco-diesel that is currently being tested, is produced entirely or partially from processed organic residual and waste materials, DB Cargo states. First findings show that the test trains’ diesel engines have been running trouble-free to this point. Preparations are currently underway to use eco-diesel on a larger scale on regional lines in Southern Germany. In addition to this, DB is currently testing alternative fuels and drive systems. The first hybrid vehicles are already in use. There will also be battery-operated freight trains, capable of recharging themselves. Trains with hydrogen propulsion are also planned.
Last week, DB Cargo announced the purchase of up to 400 new freight locomotives from Siemens at costs exceeding 1 bn euros. These are so-called dual-fuel locomotives that can either be propelled electrically or by diesel engines burning eco-fuel. The locomotives will be used on the so-called last mile between the main train lines and the delivery point of the goods, and vice versa. These “last mile” track sections are generally not electrified yet and can only be operated by combustion engines. Conventional diesel locomotives currently account for 50% of DB Cargo's fleet. By 2030, the company wants to reduce this share to 10% to 15%, bringing it down to nil by 2050 – latest.
New m² railcars introduced
To round the series of innovations off, DB Cargo and its Hamburg-headquartered rival VTG AG, the largest European provider of rolling stock (95,000 units), joined forces by launching an m2 called convertible railcar.
The m2-formula concisely summarizes the key features of the railcars: they are modular and multifunctional. This allows different configurations of the wagons depending on the products transported, adapting the rail cars to individual customer requirements. “Their design is based on a modular system, which guarantees a greater operational flexibility compared to conventional railcars,” Jessica Raguž, Head of External Communications at VTG, explained. They are increasingly equipped with a telematics module, which allows track and trace through electronic data transmission. “5 years ago, railroad companies did not even know exactly where their wagons were parked when not in use which complicated availability and resource planning of rolling stock,” she said.
Last century rules hamper progress
However, despite recent progress in European rail freight transport, much remains to be done to achieve an integrated European system.
For example, French train drivers are only allowed to drive freight trains within their own home state. When crossing borders, they have to hand over control to colleagues from Belgium, Italy, or Spain, and vice versa, depending which border the freight train is passing. Locomotive drivers are only allowed to operate within their own country and only on tracks they are acquainted with. A clear disadvantage compared to trucking permitting drivers and their vehicles to cross national EU borders as required by the transport order.
Origin vs. ability
Also, locomotive drivers must have a type rating for the specific locomotive models they operate. Polish drivers of cargo trains are not allowed to take over responsibility for a German freight train on domestic German tracks. German drivers are banned from operating a Spanish freight train if they do not speak Spanish almost fluently. The same goes for Irish, Swedish, or Hungarian nationals, to name but a few.
This list of persisting hurdles, peculiarities, and shortcomings in European cargo rail traffic could easily be continued.
VW ups share of eco-friendly rail transports
At least the Volkswagen Group remains determined to shift further transports of vehicles and materials from road to rail to supply their multiple German production sites, despite the above-mentioned deficits. The proportion should be increased from currently 53 to 60 percent by 2022, announces the carmaker. "With this green electricity offensive, we are making an important contribution to the decarbonization of the Group," says Thomas Zernechel, Head of Volkswagen Group Logistics.
Deutsche Bahn and DB Cargo are feeding electricity from wind farms and hydroelectric power plants into their systems.
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