Unmanned Switch Engine
December 13, 2015
Engineers in the southern city of Chorzów are designing an unmanned railroad locomotive intended for moving train cars around in rail yards. The project is designed to benefit not only rail carriers but a range of other sectors as well.
A rail yard is a complex of railroad tracks for storing, sorting, loading and unloading railroad cars. Rail yards have many parallel tracks for keeping rolling stock stored off the main line so they do not obstruct traffic. Typically, railroad cars are moved around the rail yard by small, specially designed locomotives called switch engines.
The Polish engineers say the locomotive they have designed will replace humans in handling various dangerous railroad tasks, thus helping reduce accidents. It will also help cut costs for industrial plants heavily reliant on rail transportation such as coking plants and steel mills.
“In the traditional arrangement, the work of a switch engine requires the participation of human operators, who have to hook up railroad cars by hand,” says Piotr Przewo¼ny, head of a team of engineers from the Zarmen Group in Chorzów who are working on the project. Working with human operators sometimes results in serious or even fatal accidents. The unmanned locomotive will perform such tasks automatically without a human driver. Pre-programmed by trained staff, the locomotive will handle the sorting of railroad cars.
Although such locomotives are already in use in some other countries in Europe where work at rail yards is automated, the technology is a first for Poland.
The Polish engineers are still conducting experiments in the city of Rybnik, where they are testing selected solutions. “One of the tested innovations involves an engine with permanent magnets,” says Przewo¼ny. “Such an engine is highly efficient and easily recovers energy when the train brakes. We believe this is the most economical type of powertrain and the best out there when it comes to an engine powered by a set of batteries.”
The technology is environmentally friendly. The engine will be wholly powered with lithium-ion batteries, similar to those used in electric cars on the road.
How long the battery lasts depends on the weight of the cargo that the locomotive will pull and on the layout of the terrain. The battery is heavy duty, so the charging device has a substantial size as well; it resembles a large wardrobe.
“We wouldn’t be able to build it into the locomotive so we have designed a special site where the engine will connect to the charger,” says Przewo¼ny. “Customers should be encouraged to purchase it together with the engine as this ensures optimum performance and compatibility.”
The project is supported by a Technology Transfer Platform established by Poland’s Industrial Development Agency. The Technology Transfer Platform seeks to identify innovative projects pursued by both research institutes and small and medium-sized enterprises. Promising projects have secured around zl.15 million in co-financing from the National Center for Research and Development (NCBR). The Zarmen Group switch engine project is scheduled to run for about three years. The switch engine will be certified by railroad institutions and will meet all Polish requirements. As the research progresses, it may happen that technology in an even more advanced form will reach production. Both the charging device and the battery, next to the locomotive itself, are part of the technological challenges for those carrying out the project. Efforts will be made to ensure patenting and intellectual property protection, Przewo¼ny says. He adds that the technology may be put into commercial practice within five years.
In addition to rail carriers, the engine is expected to attract companies active in heavy industry that use rail transportation—for example, coking plants and steel mills. Zarmen Group initially plans to target customers on the domestic market.
In August, Polish freight rail carrier PKP Cargo signed a cooperation agreement with the National Center for Research and Development under which zl.30 million will be invested in new technology for rail transportation. In September, PKP Cargo signed an agreement with the Industrial Development Agency to work together with start-ups, scientists and small and medium-sized enterprises as part of the Technology Transfer Platform run by the agency. The switch engine project is one of the first results of this cooperation.
“By implementing innovative solutions, PKP Cargo will be able to more effectively compete on international markets,” said Prof. Krzysztof Jan Kurzyd³owski, director of the National Center for Research and Development, at the signing of the cooperation agreement with PKP Cargo.
Research and development is an important element of the development strategy of PKP Cargo, which is the largest freight carrier in Poland and the second-largest in the European Union. The carrier’s cooperation with the NCBR is one of the largest investment projects of this kind in the PKP group.
The joint initiative between the NCBR and PKP Cargo is based on a model of open innovation, which means that proposals for projects that meet the needs of PKP Cargo will be submitted by research institutions, universities and companies from the transportation sector. The biggest Polish rail carrier wants to develop IT tools and systems for the optimization of logistics processes and operations, including fleet and terminal management.
“PKP Cargo has over 2,000 locomotives and 60,000 freight cars,” says Wojciech Derda, a board member for operations at PKP Cargo. He adds that the company has more than 10,000 workers handling its day-to-day operations. “With such a large scale of operations, every solution designed to optimize resource management is worth its weight in gold.”
The team-up with the NCBR is designed to help develop innovative technology for the design and construction of modern rolling stock. This would support the independent production of freight cars planned by PKP Cargo beginning in 2016. The company also wants to secure technology to increase the safety of its trains, cargo and terminals.