Train Talk

The Digital Track

The Information Superhighway. Source: DPA
The Information Superhighway.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Deutsche Bahn does not manage to upgrade its IT, it will lose ground to other more competitive transport systems.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Deutsche Bank is testing a new diagnostics system on a dozen electric locomotives Europe.
    • The trains sent operation data to the railway monitoring center in Frankfurt.
    • The diagnostics systems could slash maintenance costs by 20 to 30 percent and extend locomotive life by a full 10 years.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Electric locomotive No. 189 038 rolls along at a speed of 61 mph (98 k/mh) toward Rotterdam, where an overseas shipment waits for the Deutsche Bahn’s ore train. The locomotive’s wheel bearings register 147 degrees Fahrenheit (64 degrees Celsius) and the traction motor in the second truck is performing without problems. Information emanating from engine room assures the engineer the return trip to Germany also will be smooth.

Locomotive No. 189 038 is part of the “Bahn 4.0” project recently announced by Rüdiger Grube, the chairman of the railway company, who seeks to equip all 2,000 freight locomotives with comprehensive diagnostic systems by 2020, a move designed to save considerable amounts of money.

Deutsche Bahn desperately needs the savings.

Freight traffic in 2013 brought in an operating profit of only €57 million ($68.65 million) before interest and taxes despite generating an impressive €4.8 billion in revenues. 2014 was little better.

Bahn 4.0 is to be the sector’s salvation. The executive board is investing some €200 million on IT and diagnostic upgrades between last year and 2020, but the rail company has not revealed what the 4.0 upgrades alone will cost.

Hopes are high for the upgrades. The Bahn envisions maintenance costs tumbling by 20 to 30 percent. Additionally, rail executives hope to extend the lifespan of an electric locomotive to 40 years from the current 30 years. Parts of the project already can be seen through the train journey to and from Rotterdam, where the locomotive’s path registers 450 kilometers away from the Dutch city in real time on monitors in DB Schenker Rail’s European Operations Center near the Frankfurt Airport. Dispatchers are interested not only in the precise location of engine No. 189 038, but also how it is doing mechanically as information gleaned from 20 diagnostic data streams converges on their monitors.

The “tech-loks,” or technical locomotives, have been running for about a year now. A dozen freight train engines are traveling throughout Germany and Europe stuffed with sensors and transmitter technology. The goal of the project is to avoid costly downtime, failures and even accidents. “We earn money with locomotives that are running, not with locomotives that are standing still,” says Markus Hunkel, a member of the DB Schenker Rail management board.

The industrial engineer is responsible for advancing the digitalization of rail operations. “In the future,” Mr. Hunkel says, “The engine is supposed to tell us who it is, where it is, what it is, and, most importantly, how it feels.”

It’s a revolution in how railway rolling stock is maintained. Until now, engines and freight cars were brought into maintenance facilities for routine inspections at precisely set intervals. Soon, they will be brought in only when they develop actual problems.

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