Will striking locomotive drivers, as recently happened repeatedly in Germany, soon be a thing of the past? That is not inconceivable provided a project, kicked off ten days ago, proves to be a success and is rolled out Europe-wide: remote-controlled cargo trains are being tested on the Betuweroute that connects Rotterdam in the Netherlands with the German inland port of Duisburg. It is one of Europe’s most frequented railroad tracks. The project, largely unnoticed by the media and the wider public, is the joint effort of DB Cargo AG, Digital Rail Germany (DSD), the German Aerospace Center e.V. (DLR), as well as the Dutch infrastructure operator, ProRail B.V.
The scheme called "Testing Automatic Train Operation Technologies for Cargo", was launched on 01OCT21. Since then, driverless freight trains run from Rottterdam to the German border, where drivers take over the job, navigating the trains to their final destination in the Rhine/Ruhr region.
First long-term field trial
The aim of this worldwide premiere is to test the control and workability of remotely monitored automated trains in rail freight traffic. The project which lasts until the end of 2025, includes a one-year trial operation for automated freight trains on open tracks on the Dutch section of the Betuweroute. On the German side of the border, drivers are still needed due to security reasons since - unlike in the Netherlands - the tracks are not yet fenced in. “It is the first long-term field trial of this kind in Europe in rail freight transport on a regular rail network,” a speaker of Deutsche Bahn Cargo confirms. He added that, during the test phase, a driver will also be aboard each cargo train on the Dutch side of the border – to minimize any potential risks.
Deploying automated trains will result in a higher utilization of track capacity, along with improved transport quality. Also, one key objective is to determine the optimum speed by evaluating the data of each individual run, the organizers emphasize. They expect that the competitiveness of rail freight transport compared to road transport can thus be significantly improved. Simultaneously, the two participating railway companies emphasize that the technology could be an important lever for shifting larger transport volumes from road to environmentally friendlier rail carriage.
Funded with €18.9 million
Viewed from a broader perspective, the scheme implements an important component of the German-Dutch "Joint Declaration of Intent on the cooperation in promoting rail freight operations." It was drawn up in 2019, with the participation of representatives of the rail sector in both countries, between the German and Dutch ministries of transport.
Because of its importance for upping the attractiveness of cargo rail transports and its positive environmental contribution (compared to trucking), 18.9 million euros of taxpayers’ money are being channeled into the project.
A reaction from locomotive drivers' unions to the test has not yet been submitted.
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