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Follow the LEADER

With the introduction of a new driver assistance system, DB Cargo is breaking new – digital – ground in the rail freight sector. Project Lead Niels Weigelt explains how it works.

Mr Weigelt, what is LEADER?

WEIGELT: LEADER is a driver assistance system that functions in the locomotive as a personal assistant for the engine driver. It makes the driver’s work easier, because it calculates the optimal speed on the basis of the timetable cushion and the topography of the route. This allows the train to adhere to scheduled journey times while travelling in a more energy-efficient way. Our aim is to improve energy efficiency and punctuality at the same time.

At what stage is the project now?

WEIGELT: We introduced LEADER in October 2016. Three hundred e-traction units (Type 145, 152 and 185) are already fitted with the system and all 4,500 of DB Cargo’s engine drivers have passed the relevant training. During the first few months, we carried out a fine-tuning process on the LEADER parameter and eliminated teething problems. We are constantly receiving feedback and improvement suggestions via a dedicated hotline and email address for engine drivers – all these ideas flow into the development of the system.

How important is the system for DB Cargo?

WEIGELT: The introduction of LEADER is an innovation project with which for the first time we are taking a step towards automation support by using driver assistance for the train drivers. LEADER is to help DB Cargo increase the energy efficiency and become even more sustainable as a transport carrier. We have realised that we won’t make much headway in terms of energy efficiency unless we employ technical solutions. And so we are now the first major European rail company to introduce this kind of assistance system in a significant part of the fleet in regular operations.

What kind of data is used to optimise operations?

WEIGELT: LEADER uses digitalised timetable and topography data. The data is uploaded from a server to the LEADER device at the time of departure. Then, during the journey, LEADER is able to locate itself using its own GPS antenna: it knows where the train is on the route profile and what kind of a cushion it has in terms of the timetable. The driver recommendations are continuously optimised and displayed on the LEADER device.

Did the drivers have any reservations about the new system?

WEIGELT: The introduction of any new assistance system involves a significant change in the day-to-day work of engine drivers. All of a sudden there’s a little box in the cabin that seems to know everything best. It takes time to get used to that. We certainly don’t want to patronise engine drivers; on the contrary – we want them to continue to leverage their experience, while also factoring LEADER’s recommendations into their driving decisions. Our engine drivers are still very much in charge of the locomotives. Under the motto “Leading the way with LEADER”, the system was introduced with posters, a film and personal starter kits for every engine driver. In innovation projects, not everything works right from the start. The train drivers’ good level of particpation in proposed improvements also shows us, though, that this system is gaining increasing acceptance.

What’s the next step?

WEIGELT: We are continuing to work with engine drivers to develop LEADER step-by-step. Certain elements like the route profile display have received an enthusiastic reception. As a next step, we will develop the display layout further. Next year, we plan to integrate electronic driving recommendations from DB Netz about trains travelling ahead on the line, and further live data will follow. Later, LEADER will also be implemented on an international scale. 

The idea for this kind of driver assistance system first arose at DB Cargo four years ago. Comparable systems were already available in rail passenger transport at the time, but nothing in the rail freight sector. DB Cargo selected Knorr-Bremse as a partner and has been developing and testing LEADER since 2013. The aim was to find a relatively simple solution for a range of different engine types. The device is installed in the driver’s cabin and has its own GPS unit, but is not connected to the locomotive’s systems