Locomotives: The Brain and Power of the Railroad World

Locomotives The Brain and Power of the Railroad World
Locomotives The Brain and Power of the Railroad World

The locomotives that pull freight trains or move passengers are the smart powerhouses of the rail network. Frank Schleier, Head of Locomotive Platform at Alstom, has been working with heavy locomotives for two decades and explains how these “railway construction equipment” are getting greener through ongoing innovation.

Frank Schleier is head of product platform for locomotives at Alstom. He started his career in 1992 as an electrical engineer, working in international projects in different sectors in the fields of tender management, sales and project management. Twenty years ago he joined the rail industry and matched with locomotives. Thanks to his leading positions in project management, product management and engineering, he found the way to where he is today. Frank Schleier has been leading the electric railways segment in the ZVEI trade association since 2020. Because she travels a lot, she tries to save her time on weekends to do leisure activities such as riding an e-bike, playing cards with family and friends, and hiking in the woods or vineyards near her house.

The locomotive is the brain of the train, which has the power to pull all the wagons that make up the train. A locomotive has to be really heavy in order to get the required traction force applied to the tracks and usually in front of the train. In contrast, other types of trains, such as high-speed trains, subways or monorails, are produced as electric multiple units (EMUs) where each carriage has its own power source. Most of our locomotives are electric and 80% are used for freight. A standard European 4-axle electric freight locomotive has 300 kilonewtons of traction and can potentially pull 60 or 70 wagons depending on the load of each wagon, but with heavy-duty locomotives we can easily go up to 120-150 wagons with a tonnage.

What types of locomotives does Alstom have?

Alstom's new portfolio covers more or less all types of locomotives: small shunting locomotives, mainline operating locomotives, passenger locomotives and heavy duty locomotives. Different uses mean different technologies. Freight trains only need a coupling and a brake pipe to connect to other passenger cars. By comparison, a passenger train locomotive needs much more functionality, such as passenger information systems, door opening systems, as well as the supply of heating and air conditioning from the locomotive.

For specific customers, we have developed a universal locomotive that can be used for passenger operation during the day and freight operation at night, offering a faster return on investment.

We've also improved last mile functionality for mainline trains and added a small diesel engine to maneuver without the need for a shunting locomotive. The next step we're currently working on is the last mile battery pack to replace the diesel engine.

Also in Europe, Alstom is a leader in providing Atlas signaling equipment for the European Train Control System (ETCS) and we are currently offering it to the European Train Control System (ETCS).

The next step is automatic train operation. The first operations have already been carried out successfully. Netherlands in the last six months. We now look at how to put this system into a real-life operation: it has to be a simple line with no interconnections.

Another innovation we are introducing is the digital auto coupler. Currently splicing is a manual process, but from 2025/26 we will conduct the first test run for a digital auto coupler on a load line in Europe.

The biggest successes of Alstom's locomotives are in Europe, India and Kazakhstan, can you explain how we achieved market leadership in these areas?

Often we respond best to the customer's specifications because our products are competitive in some cases. We are also very good at localization. Take India: We built a locomotive factory in Bihar, one of India's poorest districts, and boosted the local economy with shops, schools, health care and an education centre, as well as providing electricity to nearby villages. . Alstom can make a difference here and it really does a pretty good job.

Another factor is all the different rail sizes and standards. All these countries have different track widths and different norms and we can adapt to all markets.

And then, we have service networks all over the world. If a locomotive has a lifespan of 30 years, computer systems will change over time. Our service teams will create solutions to serve the customer throughout the life of the locomotive. Again, not everyone can provide this.

What are the main projects you will undertake and what is interesting about them?

Starting in Europe, we continue to deliver the Traxx fleet and gradually install Atlas signaling equipment.

The second is the WAG-12 locomotive that we supply. The Minister of Transport of India said that this is the best locomotive on the market. We are very successful in terms of contract performance and the program includes building 110 locomotives per year and will continue for another six years. As the Indian market grows exponentially, there will be an additional demand for around 6 locomotives over the next 3.000 years.

In South Africa, the locomotive we supply is a heavy beast – a 4.000-axle locomotive on a meter of track, the same size as a tram, pulling 6 tons of coal. We have 90% domestic production and we were mentioned in the Assembly as the only contractor among the four contractors who achieved this and fulfilled the contract. This gives us opportunities to do business with private clients that have emerged as a result of the liberalization of the market.

What are the plans for locomotives in the near future?

In Europe, we work to improve performance and reduce electricity use. We have a long list of ideas that can reduce electricity use by 7 to 8%, such as helping drivers with optimal braking.

We are also working on fuel cell technology for locomotives that do not use green electricity. For example, electrification will be very costly in the North American market as the network is very large. In the next 2-3 years, we will test the first prototypes on the track. We are also working on a solution to replace diesel engines with batteries. Such hybrid solutions provide an efficiency increase of 35% to 40%. The second step is always to integrate these innovations into existing or new products.