February 6, 2020
The Netherlands is a small, but bustling, country — humming with activity. It’s home to more than 17 million residents—as well as employees of corporate giants, including ING, Unilever and Royal Dutch Shell. Public transportation is thus integral to urban life in the region of Randstad — which includes Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht — and is one of the most densely populated in Europe.
The Dutch railway is the busiest in the European Union, enabling 1.1 million train journeys every day. But railways can be hobbled by aging infrastructure.
With ridership forecast to grow by a further 40% over the next decade, that puts a strain on ProRail to keep up without retooling infrastructure. Compound increased demand with aging infrastructure, and it’s a substantial challenge.
Just building additional train tracks won’t address the problem in full.
“Of course, you can build more tracks and there are places in the Netherlands where it would be easy to do this, but in areas like the Randstad conurbation, where extra capacity is needed most, it’s going to be difficult,” said Pier Eringa, CEO of ProRail in an article on the railway’s efforts to boost capacity and speed.
Internet of Things (IoT) sensor-generated data is another key piece of improving railway efficiency and operations. Accordingly, the number of IoT transport units is expected to increase, according to Statista data, from 2.6 million in 2017 to 3.7 million by 2025.
Optimizing Railway Operations with Data
For industry participants, data analysis presents an opportunity to optimize railway operations without adding costly infrastructure.
“We have to invest in infrastructure,” Eringa said. “Not only more infrastructure but also using the existing system better.”
Data generated by IoT sensors enables ProRail to understand conditions it couldn’t previously, with human analysis alone. “What really helps is using data to create different estimates and insights that they didn’t have before, or correlations that they didn’t see earlier, or maybe calculate options that are beyond human possibilities because we have a computer that can do a million type of calculations,” said Thymo van den Brug, manager of development, asset management Information at ProRail, in a recent article on the use of data in the rail system.
As a result, IoT sensor data enables ProRail to optimize train schedules and maintain equipment—two serious challenges for railway efficiency. To conduct preventative maintenance, ProRail uses a railway track monitoring system that collects data and monitors the state of the track infrastructure on various routes.
“Data eventually helps more trains run or it can prevent a train from not driving,” said van den Brug.
Making Data One’s Own
Data can secure the physical environs as well. ProRail uses algorithms to determine when and where a trespasser might decide to walk on the track, for example.
Today, ProRail contracts with various companies to garner salient information—data from drone companies, data from helicopters, weather data and so on—to capture train operations. But in the future, it hopes to collect its own data and generate its own algorithms.
“The goal is to get the data ourselves, and then we put it all in our own data lake. We’re really driving to have our own data sets,” said van den Brug.
That’s part of ProRail’s overall vision to elevate train transport in the region
“My ideal is that the train becomes more important at a European level,” Eringa said.
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