INTRO: Roland Heinisch, Director for Research & Technology at German Railway, is renowned for the number of innovative ideas he has introduced there. In this discussion with Murray Hughes he suggests that tomorrow’s railways will make far more effective use of IT to manage operations, safety and maintenance

THERE was perhaps no more appropriate place to interview Roland Heinisch than Tokyo, where he was Chairman of the 1999 World Congress on Railway Research. Technology was the issue of the moment, and Heinisch saw the Tokyo event as critical in getting railways to embrace new technologies in a bid to secure their own future.

Time for change, both technical and strategic, was running out. Real advances would be needed to secure rail’s survival in the short term, and beyond that deep-rooted change had to follow. If that was so, how different in technical terms, I asked Heinisch, would railways be by 2030?

He saw three main differences. Information Technology came first: ’operating systems will be more fully based on IT. And here I do not just mean automation, as I believe IT will form the very basis of operations.’ Heinisch felt that IT applications would extend to secondary and minor routes too - ’very small intelligent devices, mainly installed on board, will control the trains, hopefully without requiring major investment.’

Second, ’monitoring and fault detection systems will be in widespread use on high speed trains and high performance lines.’ Such equipment is already in use on heavy haul lines, and Heinisch suggests that its application will become routine. ’There will be detection systems on track and train; track devices will check the status of all axles and other train-borne equipment, and monitors on ordinary trains will provide reports every evening about the state of the track run over during the day.’

He believed the equipment would be overlaid on existing systems and it would be needed in any case for maintenance purposes, not just for safety reasons. It would work by continuous checking of tolerances, reporting in advance when or if the specified limit would be exceeded. ’Of course’, he added, ’such equipment must not be expensive.’

Third, Heinisch had a view on the future of the freight business. ’There is more uncertainty about the future of freight. Society wants more freight to move by rail, but, with the exception of unit trains, it is hard to make it economic, so there is a dichotomy here that society must resolve. While rail’s traditional markets have been stagnating now for some time, there has been an explosion in the high-value markets with lower volumes on each route, which are much more dynamic, and we can only get a bigger share of this if we have new systems technology.’ Pressed for an example, he said there should be ’smaller, more flexible trains’, combining into longer trains for trunk hauls over high performance lines.

’Personally, I believe we must do this, but I am not sure if it is realistic as the business people in freight are too focused on the old system and are bogged down in competition and pricing issues.’

Innovation to boost freight

On a more positive note, Heinisch felt that the decision to work with French National Railways on development of EP braking in Europe was of major significance. ’If we have this in five to ten years, plus the use of autocouplers, it will be a lot easier to implement other ideas. What we don’t know is if other countries will follow - who pays if you cannot see a cashflow coming in?’ But he warns that some business managers see no future for the autocoupler, nor for single wagonloads, and declining money for investment. ’We must change this direction’, he insists.

So the future freight train would carry high volumes over the trunk haul, splitting en route without remarshalling, to serve several destinations. The feeder trains would perhaps run automatically, or with one person on board handling everything, including loading and unloading.

Asked about DB’s pilot driverless freight train project (RG 9.96 p563), he says the programme has concluded with completion of an interim report confirming that the technology is satisfactory. But the Federal Railway Office (EBA) has not given its consent to operations because doubts remain about safety at level crossings and other locations where there is contact with people outside the railway. There may also have to be an obstacle detection system fitted if no human is on board.

Of major importance in Heinisch’s view is the need to integrate operating and production functions with logistics so that storage and fleet management become part of the business. At present there is what he calls a ’religious discussion’ going on in Europe with some railways advocating this and others strongly opposed. His own view is that large customers such as Volkswagen must be offered a complete service, and that to achieve this there must be much more co-operation with freight forwarders.

Asked if customers would really notice a difference on tomorrow’s railway, Heinisch quickly agreed: ’the customer must have a much better impression of the railway’ - adding that ’if we live another 10 years, we will be a quite different railway.’

Moving deftly from technology to strategy, he viewed the reform process across Europe, in all its different forms, as meaning ’fundamentally railways have to change the way they do things or they are finished. We have to earn the money for investment using the capital market ourselves. If we do not, we are finished.’

Train control strategy

Of all the technologies offering potential for cost savings, transmission-based signalling comes near the top. Why was it taking so long to implement?

Heinisch responded by admitting that there had been difficulties with the technology and ’big troubles’ with industry. Part of the problem was the need to move away from ’old thinking’ of national railway companies with each using national standards to try and secure a better position. ’Finding a common solution is a big job - we need to be open to the needs of other railways, but this means there are many more loops for discussion to incorporate their ideas.’

’With ETCS we are at the stage of finalising the specification, and this means we are a little too late to install it on the K