THE last few years have been challenging for global rail suppliers, including Knorr-Bremse. The war in Ukraine prompted the company to cease activities in the Russian market in 2022 while the effects of the Covid pandemic endure. China has witnessed a new wave of infections since Covid-19 restrictions were removed and Dr Jürgen Wilder, member of the executive board responsible for the Rail Vehicle Systems division, says around three quarters of Knorr-Bremse’s staff in China caught Covid within four weeks of restrictions lifting.

China accounts for €1.3bn of the annual turnover of KB Group, Knorr Bremse’s parent company, and even as the country turns to localised, Chinese owned production, Wilder expects the company to maintain its market presence. “I don’t expect a very fast recovery,” Wilder says “But of course, we will expect a recovery in the mid-term.”

Both of these situations are triggering a greater focus on other existing and emerging markets, according to Wilder. He expects the need to replace and modernise existing components to stimulate growth in Europe. The Indian market is also growing, with Knorr-Bremse investing in an extended modern local plant that will offer most of its rail portfolio.

“There’s other emerging markets that are growing from a very small base, for example Africa, and we are looking at that,” Wilder says.

For now, the war and Covid are continuing to impact supply chains while inflation is also driving up costs.

“We are having big discussions with our customers about price increases,” Wilder says. “We and our customers have long term contracts, so that is something that needs to be fixed over time. Operators need to be aware that trains and everything else will become more expensive, there’s no way around it.”

While Wilder says the long-term outlook for rail is positive due to its role in reducing transport’s share of greenhouse gas emissions along with the rising need for transport logistics, he is concerned about progress in achieving objectives for rail freight in Europe.

Wilder argues that the lack of a clear separation between commercial operators, which should be managed by the market, and infrastructure, which should be supported by the government, continues to hold rail back. He says that governments across Europe should treat the rail network as government supported infrastructure, emphasising that this will help to speed up automation and digitalisation of the network.

“Operators need to be aware that trains and everything else will become more expensive, there’s no way around it.”

“There needs to be a clear strategy, a clear allocation of what goes into that kind of infrastructure versus road, how attractive that infrastructure is to use, and how expensive is it to use in terms of other means of transport,” Wilder says.

“We have this big discussion about automation and digitalisation of the rail freight sector, which is still operated according to the rules of 120 years ago, it’s totally outdated,” Wilder says. “We need to have major investments in Digital Automatic Couplers, for example, that comes with other digital benefits for freight trains like automatic brake tests. This is absolutely necessary to improve speed and efficiency of operations.

“If you’re looking at freight wagons that run for 50 or 60 years, that needs to be considered as a part of the infrastructure, and there needs to be a conscious decision about what is part of the government supported infrastructure. The transition to DAC is clearly one [that should be supported], because otherwise it makes rail freight even more expensive and more disadvantageous compared with other modes of transport.”

Around 500,000 wagons require retrofitting with DAC, which is expected to cost €10bn. Wilder says prototypes have been developed and tested and the aim is to begin the rollout in 2025, but the sector is still waiting for operators and governments to agree on funding.

“The main question is, who is going to order those couplers?” Wilder says. “Without those very clear answers, I’m afraid this is not going to happen, and if this is not going to happen, the rail sector loses further competitiveness. Governments need to get their act together and find a way to finance this.”

Evolution not revolution

Wilder describes rail’s general digitalisation journey as one of continuous development rather than revolution and highlights several areas in which Knorr-Bremse is contributing. Among them is the development of a digital infrastructure together with Nexxiot, geared towards making individual products and subsystems “smart,” as well as collecting data in the cloud, and introducing services such as condition-based and predictive maintenance.

“We have millions of assets out there that we can connect,” Wilder says. “We are constantly working on different possibilities of data collection infrastructure and using our domain know-how to generate customer benefit.”

Wilder also points to an internal digitalisation business unit, the work of which will now start to be implemented. He adds that the company’s involvement in the European rail data space, which allows the sector to openly exchange data, will help to further realise the overall benefits of digitalisation. Among the new technologies that are ready for the market is a reproducible braking distance system, which uses a Deceleration Control (DCC) function, wheel slide protection and sanding systems to guarantee stopping distances regardless of weather conditions and vehicle operating conditions and tolerances. Knorr-Bremse says this system alone could increase capacity by 10%, or even up to 40% at bottlenecks when combined with ETCS and ATO technology. The technology can also reduce delays during wet weather.

Other new systems include the linear motor drive for doors on metro cars developed by Knorr-Bremse subsidiary IFE, which require very little space within the car body while also offering higher resilience. Work is also taking place to reduce the energy consumption of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Wilder believes this wider process of digitalisation is setting Knorr-Bremse up well to meet the needs of its customers in 2023. However, it is the wider discussions around the direction of the rail sector in the coming years where he hopes to see tangible progress.