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The new code of DB Cargo

The rail freight operator plans to invest up to 500 million euros in digital transformation. An overview of the ambitious plan.

Digitisation is transforming the entire economy. Disruptive business models and the platform economy are enabling new models of interaction with customers. This is also placing logistics operators under pressure. DB Cargo is responding to these developments, so as to in future be able to continue to combine traditional block trains from Europe’s coal and ore ports with state-of-the-art supply chains for the automotive industry and to off er innovative, tailored solutions to its customers.

The rail freight operator plans to invest up to 500 million euros in digital transformation in the medium term, in order to achieve more transparency and controllability, better quality and optimised production structures. Digitisation at DB Cargo extends through the whole company – from customer interfaces to internal processes, monitoring of locomotives and wagons or the search for ideas for new business models and value-added services in the sea of historical journey and transport data.


An appointment in Duisburg: the bright April sun breaks through the low cloud. The contours of the DB Cargo Customer Service Centre on Masurenallee stand out sharply against the unsettled sky. These are turbulent times. Inside this spacious building there is a specially designed room. Red carpets radiate tastefulness. Displays on the wall are evidence of modern equipment. There are desks, chairs and a couch in this place, where customers and DB Cargo employees are holding discussions in an industrious atmosphere.

Costumerlab DB Cargo

This is the room known as the CustomerLab. Just now, they are talking about the management of feeder traffic. The customers, two logistics executives from a coal and steel company, want to organise their feeder traffic by rail more flexibly and to improve their own structures at the same time – by digital means. Together with two DB Cargo employees, the customers are discussing possible solutions, being shown various options for implementation – and talking about what they themselves need to do to get connected to the digital future.

This is a place for workshops, project discussions and refinement of existing solutions. “Here, at the CustomerLab in Duisburg, we – together with our customers – are laying the foundations for the future,” says Jürgen Bosse, Head of myRailportal at DB Cargo. “In an intensive dialogue with our customers, we are working together on concrete solutions.” Rather than make exaggerated demands on technology, DB Cargo is focusing on what is doable in order to develop, with customers, the opportunities that digitisation holds.

Customer Lab Exchange myRailportal

Our employees are also benefiting from the fact that, as well as the rail freight operator, many other companies are embracing the digitisation trend. Major customers from the automotive or chemical industries, which are operating and have developed worldwide supply networks, are far advanced technologically. They have drawn up and implemented their own digitisation strategies, are analysing their own data and are using this to develop projects and plans for the years ahead. The rail freight operator is working with these customers to develop interfaces for integrating data systems and exploiting the benefits of the flow of data in terms of transparency.

DB Cargo is also taking small and medium- sized companies along on the journey to the digital future. Thanks to simple access to DB Cargo’s digital platform, they can access smart services and gradually obtain new opportunities for digital exchanges.

Access via myRailportal

One of DB Cargo’s most important instruments is myRailportal. Instead of the present large number of channels and interfaces, the myRailportal customer portal will in future pull all processes together and cover all rail freight transport processes under one roof, ranging from the order to monitoring of transport operations and reporting and factoring.


As a web-based interface, myRailportal is intended to cover all basic customer service functions: order placement, commissioning of empty wagons, tracking of consignments and payment data. The vision here is that the various pieces of information should be connected with each other, thus offering customers a simple, quick overview of their entire contact with DB Cargo.

When placing orders, customers will in future be able to order empty wagons or cancel such orders, and bookings will be quick and easy to make. By comparison with the present interfaces, this will offer clear added value to customers.

Another basic function, which is already possible, is the tracking of consignments. Customers have an overview of their transport operations and can configure specific functions or alerts. Since data about consignments can be uploaded to the portal and linked to geographical data about trains, customers have the ability to identify where which goods are at a particular time. This is very important in the automotive industry, for example, when it is necessary to ensure the flexible and reliable management of the inflow of consignments to plants.

The true platform nature of myRailportal is revealed in what is known as the event file. This pulls together the events that belong together from a customer’s perspective: information on wagon, train and empty-wagon orders and on order placements. A central workflow makes it easy to assign pieces of information that extend across several business processes. Special apps for industry-wide solutions make the portal a helpful tool for transport programme planning for whole industrial sectors. This approach to providing comprehensive information is new and unique. On the way to that goal, the functions described will be developed and launched live gradually, in small steps.

“By developing myRailportal as a basis portal with basic functions, we are driving the reconstruction of existing functionalities in the Internet. As a first step, we have created an entry portal for our customers through which customers can access all of DB Cargo’s online tools and services with a single login,” Bosse explains. “As a second step, we will then refine these tools and services to make them even more useful to our customers.”

Intelligent vehicles

However, digitisation means not just customer orientation in communication but also improvements to our own processes, more efficient planning or better availability of locomotives and wagons. Considering that the company has a fleet of 90,000 wagons and 3,400 locomotives in operation across Europe, this is a substantial task.

DB Cargo employees from freight cars - intelligent sensors

One lever for achieving better availability is what is known as asset intelligence – and, as a result, the technical upgrading of rolling stock. Here, the digital transformation in asset management and maintenance means that intelligent wagons and locomotives are able to provide detailed information on their own condition and, thus, to be monitored better in respect of maintenance and repair. Condition monitoring for wagons and locomotives contributes to reducing material costs and, at the same time, to increasing the availability of vehicles.

The company is making rapid advances here. For example, tank containers have been equipped with a variety of telemetric devices and sensors. The entire coil and motor vehicle transport fleet is due to be similarly equipped by 2018 – and even today, whole wagon fleets at DB Cargo already have the relevant devices and sensors enabling them to measure physical impacts, temperatures or air humidity levels and to either communicate them directly or record them for documentation. The information obtained here can be processed 10 and made available to customers via myRailportal, thus providing additional benefit. It is not just wagon sequences and inflows to customers that can be planned better. Transparent information also enables drastic reductions to be made to the “unproductive” phases of freight wagons through the monitoring of wagon downtimes at home and abroad. In addition, DB Cargo will soon convert its 1,000th locomotive into a “TechLOK” – and it aims by 2019 to equip all its locomotives to enable them to cope with the transition to condition-based maintenance. For some of these, DB Cargo is being supported here by suppliers including GE Transportation. DB Cargo agreed a contract with that group in January 2017 for 250 locomotives to be equipped in Germany, Britain, France and Poland. “Our pilot project with GE Transportation has improved the availability of the fleet considerably and reduced vehicle downtimes in our operations,” says Steffen Bobsien, Senior Vice President European Assets & Technology at DB Cargo. “These factors are hugely important to our customers in ensuring smooth deliveries throughout their global value chains.”

A compelling digital strategy

This is because the individual phases of digitization become intertwined through data about locomotives and wagons. Electronic reporting enables damage to locomotives to be communicated digitally to the Asset Intelligence Centre, the central data and analysis platform. Sensors and automatic camera systems document damage to – and the condition of – wagons and their loads. This data is then pulled together and analysed. Next, the findings obtained from the data enable digital fleet management, meaning the optimised planning, allocation and commissioning of maintenance measures.

Here, life cycle analyses can uncover the technical potential for improvement over a wagon’s whole life cycle. In view of the fact that freight wagons are normally in use for several decades, intelligent maintenance planning leads, at a stroke, to more wagons in the system.

VR glasses DB Cargo Digitization

Something similar applies to locomotives. By means of condition-based, predictive maintenance, the condition of individual locomotive components is measured and assessed so as to achieve optimum maintenance intervals, and the vehicle is then sent to the workshop when it is not in use and is located close to a workshop. However, the data flowing from the vehicles to the centre also influences processes at the workshops. It forms the basis of workshop management systems, through which the handling of jobs in the workshops is managed digitally. Instead of processing mountains of paper, workshop employees work with mobile applications.

Rules and regulations 4.0

At the same time, DB Cargo is facing the task of systematically pulling together and digitising its various rules and regulations. This means the whole range of regulations that make sure that rail transport, though highly complex, provides a safe and high-quality rail freight transport service that can rightly be regarded as the backbone of European industry. “This is about digitising the whole world of rules and regulations. For every vehicle there is a collection – guidance to maintenance, including safety and use,” says Fabian Stöffler, Vice President Asset Digitisation at DB Cargo. “Rules and regulations are arranged differently from country to country, and this naturally has a big impact on requirements for the whole value chain in the case of a European logistics operator like DB Cargo. Everybody involved in this has to be familiar with many sets of rules and regulations. Digitisation helps here, because we can at last consolidate the relevant regulations and use digital tools such as tablets to pull them together,” Stöffler says. The regulations will also enable improvements to the digitised processes to be made in the future.

Automation of operations

Last but not least, digital data from everyday activities enable operational processes to be improved. Applications and processes along the entire value chain are capable of being automated.

This, ultimately, is one of the great aims of digitisation – to transfer onerous routine tasks to machines and programmes that can complete the same activity, even for the thousandth time, reliably and always with the same quality.

Automation is a major topic for the rail freight operator. This is not so much a matter of autonomous locomotives that can independently find their way through the countryside and follow far-flung routes to reach customers. Rather, as with road transport, it is mainly about assistance systems that are intended to help engine drivers to concentrate on their core tasks and, at the same time, to drive more efficiently with digital aid.

Sophisticated algorithms can help to make transport operations safer and more efficient.

For example, DB Cargo is the first European rail freight operator to have introduced an assistance system in regular operations in a large sub-fleet to help engine drivers. The LEADER system uses the current speed, the timetable and the route profile to give continuous driving recommendations that help the engine driver to proceed in an energy-efficient manner and within the planned journey time. “The LEADER assistance system is very clearly an important digitisation project, because we are, for the first time, pulling timetable and topographical data together digitally and using this to calculate driving recommendations live,” explains LEADER project head Niels Weigelt. He says that the company had recognised, on the basis of ist extensive activities in recent years, that it could not make any further progress in energy efficiency without technical assistance and that it therefore collaborated with a partner, Knorr-Bremse, to develop and introduce this system. “With the introduction of LEADER, DB Cargo is improving its efficiency and thus becoming more effective and sustainable,” Weigelt says.

Employees' Digital Mindset

The tasks that a company such as DB Cargo has to accomplish in its digital transformation are immense. After all, it is not just a matter of technical achievements that have to be attained and put into practice. It is also about employees, who operate in line with strict processes and procedures and communicate with each other according to clearly defined guidelines to keep this complex system going. Consequently, digitisation would be doomed to failure without a digital mindset, i.e. the ability to acquire digital experience and to identify how further improvements can be made possible.

Driving assistance system Leader DB Cargo

DB is trying all the harder to take its employees with it on its journey to the future. DB Cargo has, for example, been providing its engine drivers with tablets for some years: these mobile devices have enabled engine drivers to have important documents with them in digital form in the driver’s cabin. This means they no longer have to cover long distances to pick up a lot of paper and regulations and take them with them to the locomotive. Instead, the tablet increasingly gives them access to all the necessary paperwork. This saves time that the engine driver can now use to carry out a job or make his way to a customer.

The LEADER assistance system, too, is about the company taking its employees with it, making the benefits of the system clear but without patronising them. Specific points of contact are widely available, and a specially established hotline and dedicated email address enable engine drivers to submit feedback.

Labs of the future

For those who are also interested in seeing how rail freight transport will look in the future – meaning, in 10 or 15 years – and what services the railways will then offer their customers without abandoning the traditional transport business, Frankfurt/ Main is the place to come to. In the Gateway Gardens district near Frankfurt Airport the HOLM, the House of Logistics and Mobility, is located – and at HOLM you will find the Deutsche Bahn Asset & Maintenance Digital Lab. Up to 50 rail experts, data scientists and technicians are working on concepts for the rail freight company of the future. The lab’s present focus is on rail freight transport. Further projects dealing with passenger transport and vehicle maintenance are to follow before the end of this year. “A year ago, I would have said that we’re inviting our colleagues to the lab on a rotational basis so that they can learn all about the latest developments and digitisation projects,” Bobsien says. “Now, though, the topic has gone mainstream. Many staff members proactively come to us and ask with great interest about what’s currently happening in the lab, and they often bring in their own ideas, too.”

In addition to all the digitisation projects that are already up and running in practice, the lab is analysing data from past and present transport operations and examining whole industries, the climate and other transport modes. Data is being brought together in highly complex programmes, and new business models are being developed on that foundation – new services to help customers now and in the future. This is where the code of the new DB Cargo is being written.