Europe-wide innovation in freight services: SBB Cargo is introducing automatic coupling.(SBB)

Since the beginning of May 2019, SBB Cargo trains have been operating with autocouplers. Around 100 freight wagons and 25 locomotives for combined domestic transport have been converted for this purpose over the past year. This is a first and important step in the direction of part automation covering the last mile of rail operations, and one which makes SBB Cargo a Europe-wide pioneer. The federal government is supporting the pilot project with an investment contribution in the hope that this will provide the momentum for the necessary modernisation of rail freight traffic.

Autocouplers are an initial and important element for making railway freight traffic more efficient, more punctual and thus more competitive. The new couplers ensure the shunting operation is faster and safer. Wagons are joined to one other and to locomotives automatically – with no risk of injury for the shunting staff. Only one hand movement is needed to separate the wagons. Many operations are still performed manually today, which is expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive.

Streamlining measures are urgently needed for railway freight traffic. There is a lot of catching up to do in terms of technical innovations. On top of this, the logistics market is currently undergoing fundamental change. The trend towards smaller consignments and the technological advances in road traffic are placing heavy demands on railway freight traffic. Conversely, the market changes and new technological possibilities are presenting many opportunities: SBB Cargo wants to play a pioneering role in actively shaping the modernisation that is so urgently required, in order to increase its competitiveness against road traffic and to be a reliable partner for customers.

The federal government is supporting the automation driven by SBB Cargo. On the basis of the Goods Carriage Act, it can financially support innovations in railway freight traffic to allow for efficient and sustainable development. The costs of converting the rolling stock amount to around CHF 15 million in total, with around CHF 9 million of this being contributed by the federal government. Peter Füglistaler, Director of the Federal Office of Transport (FOT) praised SBB Cargo’s pioneering spirit at today’s media conference. However, he also pointed out that the innovation drive can only achieve its full effect if other stakeholders, such as private wagon keepers, also participate and invest in their wagons. This is the only way that technological innovations can be implemented across the country and production processes can be coordinated.

Füglistaler says:

«This is essential if rail freight traffic is to be able to meet the increasing requirements of the freight industry and logistics.”

SBB Cargo seeking solutions with European partner railways

Nicolas Perrin, CEO of SBB Cargo, is keen to emphasise that the company is not striving for a Swiss solo effort, but rather for solutions for European standards.

«Taking joint action allows us to further develop the freight service sector together and equally benefit from the advantages.»

SBB Cargo is working together with European partners on many projects, such as the development of automatic coupling and the automatic brake test. These partners include companies such as Voith, PJM and VTG and the rail freight companies Rail Cargo Austria and Mercitalia.

Since summer 2018, SBB Cargo has fitted autocouplers to around 100 wagons and 25 locomotives; regular operation commenced on 6 May. From that point onwards, freight in combined traffic services, in other words container shipments, have been transported between the hub in Dottikon and the terminals in Dietikon, Oensingen, Renens, Cadenazzo and Lugano Vedeggio as well as to Biasca and Mendrisio. «Around 200 employees received extensive training in advance for the project,» explains Jasmin Bigdon, Head of Asset Management at SBB Cargo, adding: «Operations have been stable since the introduction of automatic coupling.»

Last-mile delivery with one employee instead of two

A considerable shortage of skilled shunting staff is very much on the cards. Vacancies are already very hard to fill. In view of forthcoming retirements, the situation is set to become more difficult still over the next few years. Automatic coupling is a first and important step in the direction of part automation covering the last mile of rail operations. As well as automatic coupling, this involves the automatic brake test and a collision warning system. Together, these three elements enable one-person operation, i.e. delivery with just one employee instead of at least two employees as before.

One-person operation: the three important components

The system for the automatic brake test (component 2) was also installed on all wagons fitted with autocouplers (component 1). This is undergoing intensive testing in 2019 and is expected to be put into operation with all safety functions in the spring of 2020. The manual brake test takes a 500-metre-long train up to 40 minutes today, while the automated test takes just 10 minutes.

The collision warning system (component 3) on the shunting locomotive is a radio remote control system further developed with visual and acoustic signals. The first tests are already underway.

These are the steps in automated train preparation, which hugely reduces total train preparation times. The use of these three new techniques changes the shunting occupation, making it overall more efficient, more varied and safer. SBB Cargo is also using automation to be able to compensate for upcoming retirements.