AUSTRALIA: Pacific National has introduced the Freightmiser route-optimisation software to help its drivers conserve fuel and maintain schedules on its long-haul intermodal services. The tool's developers now believe the concept is ripe for export, as Nick Kingsley explains.

Developed by Sydney-based TMG Rail Technology, now trading as TTG Transportation Technology, in association with the University of South Australia, Freightmiser is one of a number of tools that train operators across the world are deploying to encourage more fuel-efficient driving techniques and make gains through improved pathing and dispatching. However, by providing a second-by-second, metre-by-metre real-time interface, TTG Managing Director Dale Coleman believes Freightmiser 'is a unique product - adaptable, simple and stand-alone'.

While traction efficiency has become a central theme of the global research agenda in recent times, the Freightmiser concept has been 10 years in gestation. 'In the mid-1990s we were looking to move to the next generation of path optimisation tool', says Coleman. But, as the research programme undertaken with the Adelaide-based university evolved, assisted by a three-year grant from the federal government, it became clear that the Freightmiser concept could deliver environmental benefits, fuel savings and on-time running in the same product.

Simple interface

At the heart of the technology is an in-cab display that scrolls as the train makes its way between two defined timing points. Once supplied with the train performance parameters, Freightmiser helps the driver to exploit the train's potential and kinetic energy whilst conserving fuel. It computes the optimal driving strategy from the current location to the next target, and uses 'adaptive control' to deliver the train at the target with minimal energy use.

Communication using GPS provides the driver with a display screen that is split into three parts (p713). The upper part of the interface shows the train's actual speed and line speed limits, but also provides an optimised speed profile to advise the driver how best to bring the train to the next timing point on schedule.

The middle section gives an elevation profile of the route, showing the linear position of the train and any significant lineside features such as level crossings. The lower part represents line curvature and the location of passing loops.

The driver's objective is to maximise fuel savings by maintaining the train's speed as closely as possible to the optimised profile. 'We can get two hits with Freightmiser, energy efficiency and on-time running, in a single product,' says operations specialist Alex Wardrop.

At the top of the display, touch-screen buttons permit the parameters of the journey to be amended as circumstances change. Coleman explains that, whilst data on temporary speed restrictions and other operational amendments are downloaded to Freightmiser on a daily basis, other unscheduled changes, perhaps involving signalling (which is not part of the lineside furniture downloaded to the interface), may require the driver to amend the arrival time during the journey.

The target speed profile is automatically adjusted to permit more accelerating and braking, for example, if an earlier arrival is required, or more coasting for a later arrival. If for some reason it is not appropriate to follow the ideal profile, the driver can choose to ignore it until normal operating conditions are resumed.

Driver take-up

The key to exploiting the savings fully lies in isolating the points at which the driver makes his or her train control decisions, Coleman explains. 'It could be a matter of adjusting the braking point by 30 or 40 m to make the most efficient use of a gradient - but such precision is essential, even over a journey of 500 km or more'.

Reaction among Pacific National drivers and managers using the equipment on long-distance intermodal trains has been positive. As Siemens and its partner, UK passenger operator TransPennine Express, found when implementing the Eco Mode fuel efficiency programme (p715), introducing new technology and changing often long-standing practice is as much a cultural and educational challenge as an engineering one.

Often, drivers can be wary of a system that that could be seen as reducing their control. Freightmiser is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible - it is strictly an advisory tool.

Export potential

As the company aims to export Freightmiser beyond Australia, Coleman believes that emerging markets such as China and India could prove highly receptive. 'There are a lot of locomotives out there that did not come supplied with engine-management systems and data-loggers as modern units have', he says, suggesting that Freightmiser could be among the first weapons in the armoury of railways looking to reduce fuel costs and mitigate their impact on the environment.

Even in mature markets such as the UK and USA, the driver training potential of Freightmiser would make it a valuable asset as traction technology evolves to offer cleaner and more efficient power plants. 'Freightmiser complements manufacturers' efforts to optimise their prime-movers - you see driver efficiency improve alongside traction efficiency,' Wardrop explains. He also notes that there is scope for Freightmiser to be deployed on electric traction too as railways look to measure power use more closely, 'although the results of its use on diesel traction are more immediately apparent'.

But TTG cautions against over- estimating the benefits that these technologies can bring. 'You have to be realistic - the heavier and longer the train, and the longer the distance travelled, the greater the gains will prove', Coleman explains. He suggests a general saving of 8% in fuel costs 80% of the time for a large operator with a broad portfolio of services, 'but a heavy haul mineral line could achieve 15%'.

Looking further to the future, 'intelligent dispatching' could provide further economies. If dispatch and control staff learn how best to manage the pathing of an entire network of trains which are all equipped with Freightmiser, then energy could be saved through more detailed timetabling and route management to avoid bringing heavy trains to a halt at a junction or in a loop.

TTG admits that gaining access to dispatchers and signallers and educating them about their role in saving traction energy is yet another human issue. Coleman adds that the task would be easier if there were greater co-operation between national railways on a research level - 'I wish people would look harder at the research being undertaken elsewhere in the world…everybody is trying to re-invent the wheel out there'.