THE CHALLENGE: Increasing capacity on the tracks
THE SOLUTION: Making smarter and more effective use of the available data
“Only IT will enable us to increase rail capacity”
Passenger traffic of all kinds is on the rise in the densely populated Netherlands. Millions of people get on their bike, in their car or take the train every day to travel from home to work and back again. Freight transport also claims its share of the road and railway networks. Railway capacity is already being pushed to its limit, but railway operator ProRail expects passenger transport to increase by at least another 30 to 40 per cent in the next few years. For freight transport, the numbers are even higher. In order to achieve and manage this capacity while at the same time maintaining railway safety, ProRail needs to keep improving its systems – a process in which IT will play an increasingly important role.
“Expanding infrastructure in the Netherlands even further is not an option – our tiny country is already bursting at the seams. The space simply isn’t there. It’s better to invest in IT and accommodate the growth that way instead,” says ProRail IT Director Henk Bothof. The first step is to migrate from VMS to Linux. InTraffic, which became a wholly-owned subsidiary of ICT Group in early 2018, has been managing ProRail’s vital systems for the past 15 years and is the main contractor for the migration process. “While very solid and reliable, VMS is a somewhat dated operating system. InTraffic has turned a younger generation onto VMS. Our strategy was to take a proven technology as our starting point in order to then move towards new technologies. This has resulted in a number of smart new innovations, including a system that can be used to manage service interruptions across the entire supply chain and a system that predicts switch point failures.” Bert van Elburg, Managing Director at InTraffic: “We accomplished this by aggregating data from our own systems with data held in other systems.” Despite these innovative IT applications and the reliability of VMS, the vast majority of systems are Linux-based. Bothof: “We’re now phasing out VMS because we want to make some real technological advances in the future.”
Switching to Linux is a first step towards that future. Another technology set to transform the railway industry is ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System). ERTMS is the new international standard for railway safety. It consists of systems that will be installed onboard and along the tracks, and which can communicate both with each other and with traffic control. Bothof: “This improves railway safety while at the same time increasing capacity. ERTMS brings smart technology to the railway industry. As is already the case for cars, trains will have less distance between them, which means more capacity on the tracks in order to transport more people.”
But before we get to that stage, the current systems will need to be adapted. “ERTMS provides options to collect data from trains about location and speed, as well as give instructions to individual trains regarding the recommended speed. You get access to a lot more information, and we want to make that information available to a much wider group of users – in real time and at every level. This means we need to adapt the existing systems, and InTraffic is helping us to make that happen.”
Until recently, railway systems had always been specific to each country. It was common, for example, for locomotives which were going to be used abroad to have to be converted because voltages vary internationally. Each country also has its own train control system. But rail travel is on the rise worldwide – it is increasingly regarded as a viable alternative to flying. This means that trains need to be able to cross borders without a hitch, without any incompatibilities getting in the way.
With the implementation of ERTMS, which in virtually all of Europe is considered the standard for railway traffic control and safety, this may soon become a reality. Bothof: “The Swiss are strong on the development end – we often marvel at the sheer ingenuity of the functionalities they come up with. And they, in turn, are envious of the features we have developed together with InTraffic. We are now looking to integrate the Swiss modules with our own and see if we can create systems which are more in sync technologically at the international level.”
As exciting as all these innovations may be, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Bothof continues: “Just look at recent developments in the automotive industry. If railway travel is to remain the most sustainable mode of transport, we need to not just get people to swap their car for the train, but also make a proactive effort to improve sustainability.”
One way to do this is to figure out how trains can be brought to a halt on time. The effectiveness of steel-on-steel technology provides opportunities in that regard. “Steel-on-steel can enable us to save a lot of energy. We developed the Routelint application for ProRail, which tells the train driver when the next red signal is coming up and whether the train gets the all-clear. You can save massively on diesel that way, particularly when it comes to freight trains, which take a bit longer to get going due to their heavy weight. Train drivers were never able to anticipate these things in the past; Routelint is the first tool that allows them to see if there’s a train ahead of them. This has really made their job a lot easier. With the app, it’s easy for them to anticipate signals or approaching trains. This is a perfect example of how systems can be linked together in order to make smarter and more effective use of the available data,” Van Elburg says.
InTraffic is not only a partner in the design, development and delivery of software solutions – they are responsible for maintenance as well. “The admin teams are available to ProRail 24/7. Round the clock, our people do everything they can to get the system up and running again,” Van Elburg explains. “The added value of our people is that they don’t just look at their own systems – they are familiar with the entire application landscape.” Bothof, nodding: “InTraffic never tells us they can’t solve a problem because it’s not in their own systems.”
ProRail has a solid IT system in place, thanks in no small measure to InTraffic. The system is extremely reliable, and the company is focused on the future. But the systems currently running could also do with a few upgrades. “Our job is to ensure that the system works, pure and simple.” Bothof and the InTraffic team are currently redesigning the system so as to minimise the impact of breakdowns. “Our goal is to make it more compartmentalised, so that, for example, a breakdown remains limited to one location and everything else continues to operate as normal. We plan to incorporate this into the next release of the process control software, which has a direct impact on how trains are operated.”
The industry is already making smarter and more effective use of the available data, a trend that looks set to continue into the future. “The potential is boundless. No, I don’t imagine that, down the line, there will be much time to sit back and relax…”