Rail is the most environmentally friendly means of transporting freight, and the ambition is for it to carry significantly higher volumes in the future. As one of the largest transport companies in Europe, DB Cargo will continue to pursue strong growth to make logistics chains and delivery routes even greener, because no other mode of transport is better at transporting thousands of tonnes of raw materials, scrap metal and more. Varied companies book block trains for exclusive journeys, single wagons to be combined at marshalling yards, or have containers transported by rail. Some customers rent the wagons from DB Cargo, while others use their own. The high volume of possible travel connections and freight, high-frequency timetables, and mostly international delivery routes make such operations highly complex, from planning and ordering through to invoicing. Some years ago, Chief of DB Cargo, Sigrid Nikutta, famously stated, "Ordering a freight train should be as straightforward as ordering a T-shirt on the internet."
According to Jürgen Bosse, Head of Customer Management at DB Cargo, "We actually had a time in the past when many orders were still placed by fax. And the employees in our customer service department would need to input these incoming faxes into our order processing systems." That time is long gone. Today, customers order services online. link2rail is the digital platform designed to make transport by rail as accessible to these companies as possible.
Requirements and processes vary by industry or depending on the freight to be transported. "We do have some key accounts, but also a large number of small customers. The processes for transporting freight by rail differ for every customer," Bosse explains. Trains or individual wagons are often booked by logistics companies, for example, which then offer the capacity to others. "We work on an order basis, meaning that we only travel when we have an order." These orders come from dispatchers at the customers, who are also the most frequent users of link2rail. The lead time of individual journeys varies greatly. Some journeys are planned a full year in advance while others have a lead time of a few weeks or just days in some cases.
All services on the one portal
In recent years, DB Cargo has worked with DB Systel to modernise access to DB Cargo's products and combine all new and existing digital services within one user-friendly portal. This means that there are no separate IT requirements for customers to be able to use all services. The name link2rail and the first applications date back to 2019, and have been continuously improved ever since. DB Systel was involved from the outset, providing support with the process and requirements analysis, and assembling the necessary technologies, among other things. Using this customer portal, all DB Cargo customers can now plan, commission and track journeys themselves and find out about routes, loading points and other details of the freight network. They can also order empty wagons, view invoices and manage other digital services either directly on the customer portal or using direct interfaces.
The aim of this customer-focused digital service landscape, according to Bosse, is "to make life easier for customers who already travel with us today, strengthen their loyalty to us, and lower the barriers to rail use for new customers". One of the challenges was to use the new services to separate the complex internal freight transport rail processes from customer interactions and facilitate straightforward order placement, instead of requiring the customer to adapt to the rail processes. Summing up the issues faced, Christian Hübner, Product Owner of the Innovative Business Process Implementation unit in the Transport and Logistics cluster at DB Systel, said: "What IT implementation is required to facilitate straightforward order placement? Firstly, standardised products that the customer can simply click on. Secondly, a reliable database. And last but not least, a clear, well organised architecture."
Bringing older systems into the new age
The digitalisation of DB Cargo Sales began many years ago. As Bosse explains: "We have been interacting digitally with customers for a very long time. Initially, via interface contracts and the Rail Service Online platform – admittedly, a very old system." The next step for DB Cargo was to connect additional logistics companies: "We started devising individual solutions, for key accounts in particular, a few years ago," the Head of Customer Management adds. These solutions were all offered as part of myRailportal. While this represented a step forward in terms of function, it was not efficient, as each solution was custom-built and therefore not easily scalable for a larger number of companies. With link2rail, DB Cargo now has a uniform solution for all companies.
DB Systel operates the majority of link2rail applications and supports DB Cargo in implementing new functions. Bringing existing rail systems into the connected modern age is one of DB Systel's strengths. It is an expert in the complex and potentially error-prone process of modernising heterogeneous IT systems running critical core processes or connecting these with new systems. "We started the project back in 2017. We were still very much a traditional IT service provider at the time," Hübner recalls. DB Systel is now working with DB Cargo in a wholly digital partnership.
Ensuring data quality throughout the entire link2rail platform was particularly important. Hübner: "We did not want the customer experience on the portal to be different from the interface". Bosse agrees: "Everyone – our internal customer service colleagues and our customers alike – needs to see the same truth. This is something we've become really good at." A key objective for link2rail was therefore to create a single point of truth in consignment tracking.
Where's my freight wagon?
When a consumer orders a T-shirt online, as mentioned in the original example, they can often track the entire delivery process with the delivery service and know where their package is at any one time. link2rail now offers customers the same service for freight wagons, allowing them to track their consignment in real time. The Track&Trace service gives DB Cargo customers all the advantages of real-time tracking. Jürgen Bosse is proud of the achievement, as he reports: "The significant investment in our assets to equip all freight wagons with GPS was a major step. A really big breakthrough was linking this GPS information with the order data to produce status information."
This was made possible by the establishment of geofences across the entire rail network, which can be compared against order data. Combining this information with the actual location data supplies important context: for example, is the freight arriving, departing or in transit? Value-added services, such as Track&Trace, and special services, such as link2rail Recycling for scrap delivery in the steel industry, offer companies and their customers valuable insights, tools and transparency, which are essential in the logistics industry.
Digital sales of the future
Since link2rail replaced the old Rail Service Online, new elements and improvements have been added continually. With regard to the ongoing iterative development of DB Systel and group partner link2rail, Hübner said: "It's an evolution. We are taking it step by step. We started with the user interface for the DB Cargo customers and then added many new services over time, but we are not finished yet." The teams at DB Systel and DB Cargo are still busy replacing the remaining existing systems while also rolling out new functions.
One of the most recent additions is the new Train Management service, which customers use to plan, order and commission block trains. For the future, the plan is to offer customers more self-service options and a wider range of digital value-added services. This will enable DB Cargo to maximise the potential of the digital customer portal with a view to improving convenience while also generating value added. link2rail has thus brought DB Cargo much closer to its goal of making freight transport as easy as online shopping.