Axel Schuppe: The railway industry in Germany – An innovative producer of green mobility worldwide

Densely-populated Germany would be unthinkable without its railways as a transport carrier, so it makes sense that it is German companies who are taking a leading role in developing sustainable rail technologies.

Germany is a country of railways. The country is home to the world’s leading technological sector for rail technology, whose innovative developments are in use on every continent. Over 50,000 staff are working on technical improvements to trains and the rail infrastructure in Germany alone. Their aim is to make rail transport even safer and more comfortable, economical and kind to resources, with the target of making emission-neutral rail transport a reality by 2050. This clear goal is made all the more important by the European Union and international community’s demands for a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, the European transport sector needs to have reduced its emissions by 20 per cent compared to 2008. By 2050, emissions need to have fallen by 60 per cent compared to the base year, 1990.

The target that the rail sector in Germany has set itself is even more ambitious: rains and engines are to be climate-neutral by 2050. Important steps towards achieving this have already been taken in the last decade, and rail transport can already demonstrate an impressive record when it comes to climate protection. In Germany alone, CO2 emissions have fallen by around 30 per cent in relation to the transportation performance – both in passenger and goods transport. Modern electrical multiple units consume up to 40 per cent less energy than their predecessors. Throughout Germany, innovative local trains with an outstanding environmental record are on the move – as the latest figures from the Heidelberg-based IFEU Institute show. The specific energy consumption of rail passenger transport is only around half that of road transport in relation to the transport performance; the figure for rail goods transport is almost four times lower (Figure 1). Rail transport therefore allows CO2 emissions to be reduced significantly. Travelling the around 1,150 kilometre route from Rotterdam to Genoa, a single goods train carrying 1,000 t of freight saves around 72 t of CO2 emissions compared to lorry transport. The same applies for passenger transport: a person travelling from Frankfurt am Main to Berlin by train puts much less strain on the environment than if he were to make the journey by car, saving around 96 kg of CO2 in per capita emissions.

In order to maintain and expand on this climate and environmental benefit, rail technology manufacturers in Germany are investing around four per cent of their annual turnover in non-order-based research and development – around 450 million euros every year. The results of this research and development work include many technologies to increase energy efficiency and optimise rail transport.

Lightweight construction processes, for example, allow up to 30 per cent savings in the energy consumption of the drive in modern electrical multiple units. This can be achieved by using composite materials, suitable joining techniques and constructive measures that reduce the unproductive mass of the vehicles and therefore lead to lower energy consumption in the drive. Materials, constructive shaping options and connection methods are investigated in detail with regard to possible potential. For example, a more lightweight construction has allowed the weight of the Siemens ICx type intercity train (Figure 1), which will be in service in Germany in the future, to be reduced by around 20 tonnes across the 200-metre train.
Driver assistance systems are creating a more efficient style of driving and generating energy savings of up to ten per cent. The systems calculate the optimum speed in terms of energy consumption at all times based on the timetable, current position and route information and give the driver recommendations for action. They support the driver in arriving at his destination on time despite driving in an environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient way. Further energy savings are also generated by the lower need for maintenance caused by reduced wear.


The “Traxx-DE-ME” multi-engine locomotive can be operated with a choice of up to four diesel engines, depending on the situation. (Figure 3)

Multi-engine locomotives are another technological innovation for significantly lower fuel consumption. This development involves using multiple smaller diesel en­gines. Together, they have a similar performance to that of one large-scale engine, but they can be operated in a more efficient and needs-based way, thus contributing to reduced fuel consumption. Bombardier Transportation is the first train manufacturer to implement multi-engine technology in a mainline locomotive, based on the Traxx locomotive platform. The rail vehicle manufacturer delivered the first Traxx-DE-ME type vehicles (Figure 3) in the first quarter of 2014.

Hybrid drive systems are another technology which, though not new in rail use, is very effective. They are used in shunting locomotives, for example, and display fuel savings of up to 40 per cent here compared to conventional vehicle models. Harmful particle and nitric oxide emissions are also reduced by 60 and 40 per cent respectively. Alongside the purely environmental benefits, these systems also offer significant economic advantages, with life cycle costs up to 30 per cent lower. Hybrid systems are a combination of a diesel engine and electric drive. While in the past, the emphasis was on flexible use, the potential for energy savings is more highly valued today. In modern systems, the locomotive’s accumulators are charged via a braking energy recovery system. The vehicle can then be operated purely electrically on shorter distances, such as when shunting, thus saving fuel.

These and many other environmental rail technologies are undergoing constant development and testing. Another example is the H3 shunting locomotive with hybrid technology from Alstom Transport (Figure 4), which will be subjected to an intensive series of tests in northern Bavaria over the next eight years. The use of these locomotives is intended not only to improve performance and flexibility, but also to halve fuel consumption compared to conventional vehicles. Soundless and exhaust-free zero-emissions operation makes this forward-looking locomotive technology suitable for oper­ation in sensitive areas, too.

This highly innovative type of locomotive can be attrib­uted to one of the latest developments of the sector initiative Eco Rail Innovation, ERI for short – a pioneering cooperation between rail technology manufacturers, rail operators, energy providers and science. The initiative has made it its mission to urgently promote the development of low-emission, energy-efficient technologies for rail transport. At a pre-competitive level, the partners work on sustainable development concepts, identify areas in need of research and initiate research projects. The focus is on considering environmental and economic aspects throughout the entire value chain and beyond the life span of the vehicles. In doing so, ERI concentrates on four core fields of innovation: increasing energy efficiency, improving the effects on the environment, implementing innovative vehicle concepts and optimising railway operation. The initiative is open to new members and is guided by the principle of implementing the joint “Null Emission 2050“ strategy in rolling stock and the rail infrastructure.

Given the great challenges faced by the rail transport sector today and in the future, sustainable concepts are taking up a central role. Modern and efficient rail technologies from Germany decrease energy costs, reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and lower noise pollution. Thanks to German engineering, economic and environmental aspects are coming together to form a pioneering symbiosis on the railways.

The author was born in Berlin in 1963. He studied electrical engineering and information technology at the TU Chemnitz. After various positions among others at Bombardier Transportation, Axel Schuppe has been the Managing Director of the German Railway Industry Association (VDB) since 2005.