By Denise Nüssle
Joachim Winter remembers his first train ride like it was yesterday: "It was from Lübeck to Travemünde on the Baltic Sea with a steam locomotive, third class in the passenger car. I was travelling by rail before I could walk." Some 60 years later and this doctor of engineering, globetrotter and family man is still enthralled with locomotives. For almost a decade, he has headed the Next Generation Train project at the To the Institute's website at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in Stuttgart. Known as NGT for short, the project aims to do more than just develop the status quo. Unrestricted by existing blueprints and system boundaries, researchers are conceiving and constructing their version of the high-speed train of the future. At the same time they are developing necessary technologies to make the NGT faster, safer, more comfortable and more environmentally friendly – an ambitious goal for determined scientists.
When Joachim Winter joined DLR in 2008 the project was still in its infancy. An experienced director with a background in the railway sector, he sought to steer the extensive project and hold it together. Winter was familiar with DLR from joint projects during his time at the Canadian aircraft and train manufacturer Bombardier and with the Daimler Group. After completing mechanical engineering studies focusing on aerospace, followed by a doctorate, he was hired and made the leap to the aviation industry as a development engineer at aircraft constructor Dornier, which at that time belonged to Daimler-Benz. "That was exactly where I wanted to be," he says, recalling the start of his career.
To DLR and back to the railway
Further positions in aeronautical engineering and vehicle research with the southern Germany-based global corporation followed. But as fate would happen, he returned to the railway: "My parents, my grandfather, my great grandfather, my uncles and my aunts all worked for the railway industry, either in signal boxes or in management. Many conversations at home revolved around the subject. “But we were no trainspotters," he hastens to add, using the somewhat derogatory term for railway enthusiasts whose passion for the railway is a little excessive.
What excited him about the position at DLR? He was attracted by the interesting field of work, the freedom and the creative possibilities. Numerous technical aspects, from aerodynamics through drive technology, energy flows, passenger movements, air conditioning, lightweight construction and crash safety, wheel/track dynamics and infrastructural issues had to be coordinated, and the people and institutions behind these subject areas also had to be brought together.
Manager, facilitator and relationship builder
The ability to actively contribute new ideas and to view things more broadly are qualities that Winter strives to bring out of his staff again and again, as well as providing them with the necessary freedom to accomplish this. It is precisely the comprehensive approach of the NGT project that distinguishes it from other projects in Europe and the rest of the world, Winter believes. The many positive evaluations and feedback from research and industry support his view. Winter states his objective as project manager with characteristic bluntness: “I do not want to manage Excel tables but rather ensure that what employees research and implement in demonstrators enters into the flow of technology transfer, that is to say, finds its way into companies that develop projects on that basis.”
A key challenge in the beginning was to make the NGT project visible. "First, we had to let industry know that DLR conducts railway research." The first appearance at InnoTrans 2008 in Berlin helped to achieve this goal. Every two years, the railway industry – a large, committed community active the world over – comes together at the trade fair. In subsequent years the project grew bit by bit, accompanied with a certain amount of stress and numerous successes. The thematic focus was extended and the range of vehicles consistently developed – concepts and technologies for an 'NGT Link' feeder train were added to the project, along with ideas and designs for an 'NGT Cargo' freight train. The number of employees grew and has now almost doubled. With an annual internal DLR budget of approximately six million euro, 11 institutes and 38 researchers now work on the questions relating to the NGT and contribute their knowledge, skills and passion to the project.
The close relationship with industry was also an integral part of the project from the outset – third-party assignments enable individual subject areas to be dealt with in greater depth. For example, DLR know-how flowed into the 'iLint' fuel cell train produced by manufacturer Alstom, which was presented at InnoTrans in 2016. A further success story is the 'AeroLiner3000' train concept developed with the Andreas Vogler Studio architects' office, which is supported by the UK railway authority. The double-decker, high-speed multiple unit train is based on the NGT concept and can travel on many existing UK routes due to its reduced height and breadth and increases the line capacity at a fraction of the cost that a route extension would entail. Through innovative lightweight construction and ground-breaking design, it also has the potential to run significantly quieter and with greater energy efficiency than current trains. Winter and his team are proud that their cooperation with companies often involves more than just one-off orders. Follow-up orders are placed and pave the way for long-term cooperation.
The train rolls on at DLR too
In addition, DLR train researchers have succeeded in building a reputation among government officials and associations as pioneers and advisers. "They ask questions and take an interest in our comments on the future of the railway sector. This is something we have all achieved together," says Winter proudly. As 'Mr. NGT' he is a sought-after contact for the project, as well as for railway-related subjects in general. He is therefore often on the road, travelling to trade fairs, speaking engagements and conferences. He is responsible for press enquiries and is available for film shoots, like the one organised recently for a piece by Deutsche Welle focusing on the NGT research project.
Winter also travels by rail privately and holds a rail card. "They are half price for over-sixties," he adds playfully. "When you are on a train, you often look at the technical details and tend to notice what else needs to change in the interests of passenger comfort. We can then make this the focus of a research project."
Setting a course for a promising future
Railway technology has existed in Europe for more than 150 years. In Germany its development began in 1835 with the opening of the Ludwig Railway between Nuremberg and Fürth. With regard to gauges, structure clearances – the cross section that a train needs to drive safely through a tunnel for example – or electrification through overhead lines, there are very many structures in place, which have developed over a long period of time. However, this is not the case everywhere. "Some countries are only just building up their railway network and therefore have totally different opportunities for testing and implementing new technologies and exploring different routes with regards to infrastructure," says Winter.
He therefore finds it quite possible that the age of the railway, particularly in its high-tech version as described by NGT, is only just beginning. For example, China and Russia could be connected to Europe by rail to partially replace ship transport and also enable easier and faster distribution of goods. "With the railway you can think in big dimensions," Winter says, citing as examples of this the extension or new construction of high-speed networks in China and Turkey and on the east coast of Australia.
Addressing the overall situation of rail travel he says, "The railway has always been a very safe and environmentally friendly means of transport. It accounts for only six percent of carbon dioxide emissions in transportation. Our need for mobility will further increase. At the same time we want to and must travel in a more sustainable manner. The potential to increase the attractiveness of rail transport is very great and must be exploited. Above all, we must work consistently with high-speed routes and provide appropriate feeder solutions, as we envisage at NGT."
For the coming years, the NGT team led by Winter has many more ideas, both for entirely new technologies and for the further development of existing approaches. He sees the downward extension of the range of vehicles as being a perfectly feasible option, for example designing the next generation of metro vehicles for local public transport. Also of interest are activities in the area of digitalisation, automation and networking. Winter is already in the process of identifying interfaces in these areas both within and outside DLR. On a personal note, Winter will be eligible for retirement in a few years. But in view of the many ideas and challenges, he prefers not to give a specific answer to the question of whether he will end his professional journey at that point.