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A service technician with safety glasses is working below a wagon and taking measurements with a mobile device.

Damaged wagon management reduces downtime

DB Cargo: Data analysis enables more operating time on the tracks.

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Those who work with disposals are not in the health or legal sector. The specialist term “disposal” comes from the rail industry – and it’s not a very popular term at that. In simple terms, disposals mean “someone else needs to take care of this”. This creates increased workloads every day and puts a strain on the operational business. That was reason enough for DB Cargo to overhaul its inefficient disposal system – together with management consultancy of T-Systems’ subsidiary Detecon.

“Goods by rail”

But everything in turn. It is estimated that there are around 600,000 freight wagons in use across Europe, transporting primarily high-volume goods such as ore and coal, as well as chemicals, timber, cars, and much more. In 2019, around 400 million tons of freight were transported by rail in Germany alone. It sounds like a lot, but makes up just a fifth of the overall transport of goods. Over 70 percent is still transported by means of the German motorways.

Given the rising petrol prices and a push for greater sustainability, the call for “goods by rail” is getting louder and louder. The German government wants to increase the proportion of rail freight transport in order to meet the climate targets. The plan is to achieve 25 percent by 2030. 

The numbers clearly speak for rail: no other means of transport has such an environmentally friendly carbon footprint. Moving one tonne of goods generates 16 grams of CO₂ and 0.03 grams of nitrogen oxide (NOx) per kilometre. That’s just one seventh (14%) and one thirteenth (8%) of the gases generated by road transport.

At least two other factors speak in favor of increased transport of goods by rail: the water level of the large German rivers, which regularly sink in summer and impede shipping traffic, and the latest hot topic of securing the energy supply. Dr Sigrid Evelyn Nikutta, Board Member of DB Cargo AG, sees these developments as a great opportunity for her company: “The transport of goods will grow. We now have a chance to bring this growth to the railways.”

DB Cargo – we want wagons that work

A service technician examining the wheels of a railroad engine.

DB Cargo receives numerous damage reports every day.

DB Cargo is Europe’s largest provider in this segment. Around 200,000, or a third of all European freight wagons go through their hands each year in Germany alone. Around 70,000 of these are the company’s own. The availability of these wagons is essential for business. “Only damage-free freight wagons generate sales,” says Christian Kühnast. As Project Manager at DB Cargo, in 2021 he implemented a new solution for intelligent damaged wagon management – in order
to optimize the processes surrounding damaged wagons.

After all, transporting tons of freight is no small matter for the freight fleet. Numerous reports of damage are made each day. The type of damage includes graffiti, typical wear and tear of parts such as brake shoes and wheel sets, and even wagons that can no longer run. 

Damaged wagon management reloaded 

“Due to the great operational significance of the rolling wagons, we have been checking our processes annually for 12 years with all stakeholders involved,” explains Kühnast. “In 2018, we decided to go one step further, with a new process and new software for damaged wagon management.” DB Cargo consulted Detecon for this, which transformed the business requirements into a modern, digital solution. “We were directly involved in the conception stage from the start,” adds Tim Herbstrith, who oversaw the development of the application at Detecon.

“Our aim was to increase the efficiency of the damaged wagon management. To this end, we primarily wanted to improve two key things: We wanted to reduce the downtime of the freight wagons and the number of disposals,” explains the DB Cargo Project Manager. With the established process, defective wagons were simply always sent to the nearest local maintenance plant. But each year, 7,000 cases showed that a wagon couldn’t be repaired there.

Typical reasons included a lack of the right repair equipment in the workshops, or the team already had their hands full. It was rarely due to a lack of spare parts. This resulted in the disposal (and the transport involved) to a suitable workshop taking several days before the wagon could be returned to service. But this situation could have been avoided.

“With the new processes and the new iSWM (intelligent damaged wagon management) application, we wanted to draw a line under this practice,” says Kühnast. The cloud-native application had to naturally obtain the existing functions of the solution, which had been in existence since 1986, as well as acquire a good amount of additional intelligence. At the same time, the application was supposed to interact with a whole host of partner systems. Not only was the damaged wagon management system intended to benefit from this, but the operational business was too.

“Today, almost every operational colleague, around 15,000 employees, benefits from iSWM. Most of them without even knowing it. The application pulls the strings in the background and automates many processes.”

iSWM uses various current data, such as the location of the defective wagon, the type of damage, and the distance to the workshop, to calculate the so-called “intake score”. This score is used to assign the wagons to the most suitable maintenance plant. The parameters are stored in a data lake. This allows the iSWM’s decision to assign the repair to be assessed again at a later point in time. This is important in order to check the weighting of the individual factors in the model – were they correct or do they need further fine-tuning?

It all starts with the wagon technician

As before, the wagon technician is there at the start of the process. They check the wagons in use before the freight train departs. If they notice any damage, they document this using a damage code, which is uniform across Europe, in the DB Cargo production system. If foreign freight wagons are used, the uniform damage codes are already transferred to the freight wagons by means of advance reports. This allows iSWM to process findings by wagon technicians in Poland or Italy too.

From the damage code, the application can identify what damage there is, and where it is on the wagon. It matches the damage to the skills of the plants and sends the wagon to a suitable location, if it has been returned to Germany. On average,7 over 80 percent of the wagons can still complete their transport before being sent to a workshop.

Repair skills and capacity utilization outrun the shortest route

A map of Germany, where different locations are connected by lines.

Initial and optimized models in comparison.

However, the staff capacities and current capacity status in each workshop are important too, as are the overall workload and the location of the damaged wagon. In order to avoid waves where the workshops alternate between having too few and too many jobs, Detecon developed a simulation algorithm. “This has freight wagons break down in different regions based on real data,” explains Herbstrith. The defective freight wagons are then assigned to a workshop – once following
the old principle of the shortest distance (left image) and once following the new iSWM scoring tool (right image).

A workshop with free capacity (yellow) then draws freight wagons from a larger area. Full workshops (orange) are avoided. Damaged wagons from their area are sent to the nearest workshop with free capacity. The jobs originally assigned to Munich (left image) are sent to Nuremberg or Magdeburg (right image). Over time, this levels out capacity (more workshops become green).

The application also takes account of any planned maintenance, such as inspections (regular checks which are generally carried out every six months), as well as the prioritised repairs. If wagons are urgently required, the repair can be brought forward. Conversely, repairs of tolerable defects such as graffiti can be pushed back. Those in charge at the central disposal site in Duisburg decide this. Once a repair has been made, the application reports the availability of the wagon to the partner systems, and the wagon can be used again.

Tangible benefits

“The project has made a key contribution to increasing efficiency in our damaged wagon management,” sums up the Project Manager from DB Cargo. The number of disposals has been reduced by 14 percent, and the capacity utilisation of the maintenance plants has balanced out. Thanks to the use of the application, the workloads of the plants can be managed in line with the available staff. Overall, the number of workshop visits fell, and the downtime reduced significantly. The wagons thereby have more productive use time on the rails, meaning more goods can be transported, and sales can increase.

The sustainability benefit for the company is a welcome side effect: “As we are covering fewer unnecessary kilometres for transport, we are of course also reducing our carbon footprint,” shares Kühnast.

What’s next?

“We can use the data lake to expand our big data analytics. After all, every wagon is different,” says Kühnast. The level of wear and tear is not just dependent on the wagon’s age, but also where it operates and what it transports. For example, the level of wear and tear is higher on hilly routes than flat routes. By capturing this data, as well as images of components, artificial intelligence can automatically identify and categorise types of damage.

“If we identify anomalies during operation, we are then able to immediately assess whether and when a repair is necessary, and how urgent it is. iSWM might therefore become key to shaping our decisions,” says Kühnast.

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