Innovation is one of the levers for doubling the market share of rail freight in France by 2030. Autonomous trains, automatic couplings, Internet of Things, hybrid motorisations, etc. are presented as the key to meeting this challenge, according to customers and rail operators.
For the first time in France, a locomotive ran in partial autonomy on the national rail network on 29 October. Between Longwy and Longuyon in eastern France, this test took place on a line equipped with the European signalling system ERTMS under the supervision of a driver.
The locomotive, a Prima BB 27000, was equipped with 100% automatic acceleration and braking functions.
"The first 100% autonomous train is expected on the national railway network by 2023".
This test was conducted by the consortium composed of Alstom, Altran, Apsys, Hitachi Rail, Railenium and SNCF. This consortium, created in 2018, aims to design autonomous passenger and freight trains.
The next stages of this project will involve running a locomotive on a line equipped with "conventional" signalling and perfecting its on-board control systems. The circulation of the first 100% autonomous train on the national network is announced for 2023.
The promises of the connected train
Recently, the OFP Objective Day and the colloquium of the French Rail Association (Afra) detailed the conditions for a revival of rail freight. Innovation was presented there as "essential" to double the share of the mode in the transport of goods in France and bring it to 18% by 2030.
For example, the autonomous train used for freight will "optimise the frequency, regularity and fluidity of traffic on the network", said Bertrand Minary, Director of Innovation & Digital at the SNCF's Rail and Multimodal Freight Transport (TFMM) division.
The development of automatic coupling systems (DAC) is also encouraged by the operators grouped together within the French Rail Freight of the Future alliance (4F).
Used in the United States and Russia for decades, the DAC has been tested by German, Austrian, Swiss and Swedish railways. In particular, it enables trains to be made up more quickly and improves the safety of staff while automatically controlling the braking systems on all convoys.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is also cited as a means of optimising the upkeep and maintenance of rolling stock, and of offering new services to shippers (tracking goods, alerts, temperature and shock updates, etc.).
Towards hybrid engines
Innovation in the railway sector extends to motorisation. Alstom and Nestlé Waters, for example, are collaborating on a hydrogen locomotive project for heavy freight trains.
Their work aims to create a hybrid traction unit that can run on catenaries and with hydrogen or batteries on the non-electrified rail network.
Welcoming this initiative, the rail operators who are members of Objectif CO2, like RDT 13, are calling on locomotive manufacturers to expand their range of hybrid diesel and electric traction units and to have them approved in France.