Automation improves competitiveness in rail freight transport.

To mark the arrival of the Connecting Europe Express in Basel, the Federal Office of Transport (FOT) and representatives of the rail freight sector presented a letter of intent regarding their plan to introduce digital automatic coupling. This will be carried out in close coordination with European partners. The innovation will make rail freight transport more competitive – which will in turn contribute to climate protection. Close cooperation in the industry, coordination with Europe and firm commitment from SBB Cargo are key success factors for the project.

The Connecting Europe Express – a special EU train – stopped at the Wolf freight station in Basel this morning. 2021 is the European Year of Rail – an initiative supported by the European Commission. It is part of the EU strategy in relation to the European Green Deal which aims to make Europe the first CO2-neutral continent by 2050. Rail freight transport will play a key role in achieving this target.

Automation – and digital automatic coupling in particular – will play a vital role in providing rail freight transport that is fit for the future. It enables safe and faster processes in train preparation and formation as well as quicker and less expensive delivery. The Federal Office of Transport (FOT), the Public Transport Union (PTU) and VAP, an association representing the loading and logistics industry, have agreed to work towards equipping all freight wagons and locomotives in Switzerland with digital automatic coupling. FOT Director Peter Füglistaler is delighted with the agreement: “This is a major step. The new coupling technology has the potential to significantly improve the competitiveness of rail freight transport.”

Key factor in attaining climate goals.

In September 2021, the industry and railways also decided to introduce a standard coupler head which is to be used throughout Europe in future. This is an extremely important step towards standardisation which is the only way to improve the competitiveness of rail transport in international freight traffic and increase the modal split. The target is to increase the modal split in favour of rail freight transport in Europe from 18% to 30% by 2030. 

SBB Cargo is playing a pioneering role in automation in Europe, with automatic coupling being used for combined transport on parts of the network since May 2019. In fact, the entire domestic combined transport network was converted last June. Private freight wagon owners were closely involved in this process as key partners. CEO Désirée Baer welcomes the European agreement: “This is a further milestone on the path to achieving competitive rail freight transport, which will be key to meeting government climate goals.” Looking to the future, she says: “SBB Cargo intends to continue driving modernisation forward with its partners to strengthen the position of rail freight transport as the logistical backbone of Switzerland and Europe.”

Automatic coupling represents major progress.

In addition to further automation, such as automated brake testing and digital testing logic, automatic coupling represents major progress, enabling freight wagons and locomotives to be connected automatically. Digital automatic coupling means that the power, data, and compressed air lines of freight wagons will also be connected automatically in future. A lot of this work is still performed manually today; coupling and brake testing are strenuous, time-consuming tasks which involve a long walk around the freight train.

Automatic coupling is a major step towards one-person operation. The improved efficiency will further increase the competitiveness of rail freight transport. Another factor is that the baby boomer generation, many of whom currently work in staff-intensive shunting operations, are reaching retirement age. Automation may help to deal with this wave of retirements to some extent. The new technologies are helping to create attractive career paths in shunting operations, while also improving the safety and well-being of employees.

SBB Cargo AG: The pulse of Swiss economy.

SBB is the leading company in Swiss freight transport with over a quarter of total freight tonne kilometres. SBB Cargo AG accounts for just under 16%, linking major economic hubs as the pulse of Swiss economy. SBB Cargo AG transports around 29.8 million tonnes of freight in net terms each year within Switzerland, in wagonload, block train and combined transport – that is the equivalent of roughly 15,000 lorry journeys a day. 

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