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E-Check - DB's ICE digital maintenance

posted on 14th Dec 2023 00:15

To streamline and accelerate the maintenance of the ever-growing ICE fleet, DB has started to use the latest digital and robotic technologies and artificial intelligence. The first example of their application, collectively called E-Check, is the new ICE depot in Köln-Nippes, initially on one track.

The ICE fleet has been growing steadily in recent years, with an average of three new units (ICE 4 or ICE 3neo) entering service each month. DB is therefore investing in E-Check technology, with the first such ICE depot being Köln-Nippes. It is active since 2018 and there was one track recently fitted with the most modern technology. It was visited on 12 October 2023 by Volker Wissing, Federal Minister for Digital Affairs and Transport, and Michael Peterson, DB Board Member for Long-Distance Passenger Transport. Michael Peterson says: "We are revolutionising ICE maintenance with digital technology. E-Check will reduce the workload on staff while increasing maintenance capacity on site by 25 %. This is absolutely essential given ICE's rapidly growing fleet, while addressing the growing shortage of skilled labour."

The new maintenance method will apply to units of the Classes 401 (ICE 1), 402 (ICE 2), 403 (ICE 3), 408 (ICE 3neo), 411 (ICE-T seven-car), 412 (ICE 4) and 415 (ICE-T five-car). Approximately 15 % of the ICE depot capacity is taken up by activities at the IS 100 and 200 maintenance levels (Instandhaltungsstufe), also known as running checks (Laufwerkskontrolle) and operational inspections (Nachschau). Typical runs for these maintenance levels are between 8 000 and 24 000 km, so these are the shortest intervals and are carried out quite frequently in depots.

The activities of these maintenance stages are repetitive and largely consist of tests and various measurements to ensure that the trains are in a safe operating condition. Approximately 6,700 Type IS 100 and IS 200 inspections are carried out annually on the entire fleet of ICE 3 and ICE 4 units. This figure already takes into account the fact that the IS 100 and 200 inspections are combined and carried out in parallel with the higher maintenance stages.

New maintenance processes

The E-Check consists of several elements. First, each ICE at the depot entrance is checked using cameras supported by artificial intelligence (AI). This system can also detect "defects" such as damaged pictograms or paint or vandalism in the form of graffiti. The camera gate is a steel structure approximately 8 m high, which in the case of the Köln-Nippes depot is equipped with 32 cameras; trains pass through it at a speed of 6 km/h. The gate also includes a device for automatically measuring the profile of the wheelset, which is located in the trackbed.

The camera gate also includes a laser, radar and light barriers. The laser is housed in a shielded enclosure that is inaccessible to unauthorized persons. It shall be ensured that the laser does not shine into the driver's cab or towards the staff. When passing through the camera gate, not only the image is recorded, but also the sound, which is used to identify leaking in compressed air pipes. At the same time, technicians also perform necessary manual tasks that machines can't (yet) do, such as checking of couplings or shaking with dampers.

When the train arrives at the depot, automatic measurement of the wheelset profile is also carried out. This device is approximately 15 m long and the ICEs can run through at a speed of 3 - 15 km/h. Here, a laser scanner records the profile values of the wheelsets as one of the most worn parts of the vehicles, including flat spots and other irregularities.

Previously, a technician had to manually measure wheel profile values on a stationary train, so E-Check significantly increases workshop capacity because the check is carried out outside the maintenance halls and staff can start troubleshooting immediately after reporting faults. At the same time, the frequency of measuring wheelsets is increased, creating a database for forecasting their condition.

The train is then inspected from below in the hall using a mobile MUFIG underfloor device (mobiles Unterflurinspektionsgerät) and the resulting images are again analysed by artificial intelligence, which can detect even the smallest deviations, such as a loose bolt or corrosion. Information about any deviations from the correct condition is passed on to the depot technicians, who evaluate the data and decide whether there is indeed a fault. If so, the necessary instructions are automatically sent to the mechanics' tablets in the workshop. Thanks to this process, employees do not have to perform tedious checks in the inspection pits and can focus on other activities.


The refilling of clean water and the extraction of faecal matter is carried out by so-called Cobots (Collaborative robots). They move independently along the train and are able to automatically detect the position of the filling and draining spouts on different types of ICE. Using their mechanical arms, they open the appropriate caps and connect the corresponding hoses. When filling or draining is complete, the cobot automatically removes the connections, closes the flaps and moves on to the next car.

The whole process takes seven minutes per car. Add to that one minute for the cobot to move on to the next car, so the cycle of refilling clean water and extracting faeces takes eight minutes. For the 13-car ICE 4, for example, this means that the time taken to do this activity is 104 minutes; this is half the time it used to take when people were carrying out this activity.

The cobot for refilling clean water and extracting faecal matter comes from Strama-MPSof Straubing. The latter company was awarded the DB Supplier Innovation Award by on 20 September 2022 at InnoTrans as most innovative supplier of DB for the E-Check system, which Strama-MPS developed together with partners Gestalt Robotics of Berlin (supplier of intelligent industrial automation systems) and Götting KG of Lehrte (supplier of driverless transport systems, Automated Guided Vehicle, AGV).

E-Check application

The E-Check frees workers from routine, monotonous (and boring) manual tasks, such as checking the roofs of trains or the bogies, and allows them to focus on more demanding tasks and repair solutions that still require a human presence. Efficiency is also improved: it takes only about five minutes for a 374 m long 13-car ICE to pass through the camera gate, without human intervention. This is a time that is unmanageable by humans, as it takes several hours to inspect with the human eye, depending on the length and type of train, not to mention the need for some working experience. That is why DB is investing 55 million EUR in the E-Check processes. The Köln-Nippes depot will be followed by the ICE depots Berlin, Dortmund, Hamburg and München equipped in this way by 2025.

For the first time at DB, this technology was applied at DB Regio's München-Steinhausen S-Bahn depot, where it was initially tested from 2019 and then put into regular operation in July 2023. In the coming years, DB Regio will be rolling out digital maintenance tools at five more of its works, initially at S-Bahn depots in Hamburg, Frankfurt/M and Stuttgart. This means that the digitalisation will be focused on the sites with the largest single fleet, so it will quickly have the biggest impact. Approximately 400 units of the same type (Class 423, 424, 425 and 426 EMUs) are maintained in the three S-Bahn depots in München, Stuttgart and Frankfurt alone.

DB is digitising maintenance on a large scale throughout Germany. The company is currently using a total of 14 camera gates at nine locations, and a further nine will be put into operation by the end of 2025 at depots for long-distance and regional services. As for the automated wheelset check systems, there are now ten and by mid-2024 there will be a total of fourteen.

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