The Digital Automatic Coupling (DAK) is intended to revolutionize European rail freight transport. Because it eliminates the need for the laborious and sometimes dangerous coupling of freight wagons by hand, trains can be put together more quickly. This should make transport more efficient and cheaper. A two-year test phase by several European railway companies is now over.

“The first customers in rail freight transport should now benefit from the new technology,” said Sigrid Nikutta, head of the rail freight transport subsidiary DB Cargo, to the dpa. But from the perspective of the company and the federal government, important questions remain unresolved, especially when it comes to financing.

Wissing: We need a signal from Brussels

“We are currently coupling thousands of wagons by hand all over Europe,” said Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) to the dpa. “That finally has to change.” The DAK is the right technology for this. But a signal is needed from Brussels. “The industry and the member states cannot manage the conversion of hundreds of thousands of freight wagons and locomotives alone.”

Around two years ago, the first test train was equipped with the new coupling and sent across Europe with a special approval. Nikutta emphasized that the train had successfully completed the tests. Further test phases are now to follow, including in real operation. The steel industry, among others, is already showing great interest.

500,000 freight wagons would have to be converted

If the DAK comes as a new system standard, around half a million freight wagons in Europe will have to be converted accordingly. The EU Commission estimates the costs for this alone to be around 13 billion euros, as a spokesman said upon request. In addition, there will be around 230 million euros for the operation of test vehicles for customer use and for the establishment of a management unit that monitors operations.

According to the Commission, the DAK also benefits society, for example due to lower environmental costs because the coupling promotes the shifting of freight transport to rail. “However, it is very difficult to provide new EU funding for DAK within the current multiannual financial framework,” the Commission said, referring to the sector and the countries. “Given the scale of support required, a significant contribution from individual Member States and the sector, where possible, will certainly be required.”

DB Cargo and Wissing are promoting EU participation

The railways and the federal government, on the other hand, see Brussels as having a duty. Cargo boss Nikutta is expected this Tuesday together with Federal Transport Minister Wissing at a Commission event in the Belgian capital to promote EU participation. According to rail circles, the group would also make advance payments to further develop the project in order to boost sales. It was said that a single-digit million amount has been planned for this so far.

In addition to financing, the question of EU-wide approval for the technology is also unclear. According to the EU Commission, the technical requirements for a standardized DAC have been largely defined. “However, work still needs to be done to complete the electrical and communications interfaces and to develop harmonized operating procedures for the use of DAK,” it said. What is still open is the approval of around 100 planned test trains for real use as well as the technical retrofitting of the existing freight wagon fleet. The commission estimates that the approval process will last until the end of 2025.