Infrabel is the infrastructure manager and operator of the Belgian railways and is responsible for building, maintaining and modernising the infrastructure on the country’s network. Also controlling every train that runs on the network, the company’s modus operandi is to meet society's current and future mobility needs through a modern and reliable rail network.
For this week’s 5 Minutes With… SmartRail World’s Dave Songer speaks to Carel Jonckheere, the programme director for the rail company’s Smart Railway division, who explains the complexities of making the switch to a digitised network, the benefits it will bring for both passengers and operators and what’s on his train journey bucket list.
Dave Songer (DS): Thanks for joining us, Carel. In a nutshell, can you begin by telling us about Infrabel’s main responsibilities?
Carel Jonckheere (CJ): Sure, I would say maintaining and renewing the railway infrastructure – such as tracks, overhead lines and signalling systems; expanding and developing the railway infrastructure in response to mobility requirements; directing and coordinating all trains on the Belgian railway network; operating the railway infrastructure and allocating the available capacity to our customers, the railway undertakings.
In summary, Infrabel aims to become the crossroads of Europe thanks to its safe and high-quality rail network. We want to continue developing into a strong link in a sustainable transport system in order to support the economic and social development of Belgium and Europe.
DS: You’ve now worked for the company for 12 years – what do you most enjoy about working in the rail industry?
CJ: Most of all, I enjoy working with the people; I have a lot of respect for my colleagues. They are real experts and they passionate about rail, so it’s a joy to work together to improve our ways of working and the way we manage the enterprise. Also, the complexity and challenges of the business attract me a lot. I have been working on big international projects in the past, but I haven’t encountered one company that had the same level of complexity and variety in terms of technology, people, organisation, dependencies and regulations.
DS: What does your role at Infrabel entail?
CJ: My current role is to lead the digitalisation programme for the asset maintenance department, which is building "The Smart Railway" for Infrabel – probably the largest transformation and digitisation project in Belgium. It focuses on improving the asset management operations by digitising the entire rail infrastructure and maintenance processes, and we do achieve that by placing sensors everywhere on our infrastructure (such as tracks, crossings, signals and overhead lines). These sensors talk to us, they give us information and the resulting data is stored in a central system.
Compare it with the sensors that are in your car. These can indicate when you have to go to the garage for maintenance; the garage technician connects your car to a computer and can read everything and adjust and plan his maintenance accordingly. We are doing something similar for the railways. The sensors track and report abnormal behaviour of our infrastructure and based on this data we can predict the maintenance that is required. Measuring is knowing. The more big data we have about our rail infrastructure, the better we can adjust our maintenance accordingly – it’s tailor-made maintenance that enables us to solve a problem even before comes about. Prevention is better than cure.
The introduction of the fourth industrial digital revolution at Infrabel took place in early 2013 and it was initially implemented in the field in 2015. We began to see the first positive results at the beginning of 2016.
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you've faced?
CJ: The current project I’m working on, actually. In 2000 I began working on one of the biggest international projects ever completed for a multinational in the consumer product sector, and I asked myself the question: ‘what’s next?’ Well I can tell you, digitalisation of the railways that had an image of being old-fashioned, traditional and very rigid is the biggest challenge ever in my professional life.
Digitalisation is not only about technology, it’s as much about people. It’s a huge transformation project for the entire organisation; motivating business people, convincing business people and leading a team is a key aspect of my role. The technology will work sooner or later, it’s a question of having competent resources on board and choosing the right technologies on the market. Changing people and changing an organisation are more difficult. A lot depends how well you get support from the Executive Committee and senior management. I feel, within Infrabel, this executive support has been one of the key factors for our success.
It is not only challenging, it is also a pleasure to realise positive change at the same time.
DS: How has the rail industry evolved since you began working in it?
CJ: A lot! Many paper-based processes have disappeared. Not all, but step by step we are getting closer to being 100% paperless.
Operating in the rail industry as we do, we can’t be too disruptive. We’re working in a highly sensible organisation where safety is number one, so every digital solution and process change needs to be well designed, carefully tested and well implemented. Working in parallel with the digitalisation we’re implementing, it’s amazing to see that a by-product of that is an increase in the maturity and management of the whole organisation. Better reporting and better insights lead to better decisions.
DS: What do you think will be some of the biggest differences between the passenger journey today and in a decade's time?
CJ: I think public transport and mobility in general might change a lot. In 10 years, we’ll still have trains but the way people plan their journeys and travel from A to B is likely to be very different. With digital tools everything could be made much more efficient and convenient. In Belgium we could move to the hub principle: trains connects hubs, while other transports methods should feed the hubs that provide high-frequency connections which would make timetables obsolete.
We could even move to crowd sourcing bus routes like Taiwan has: an app that simplifies the process of taking the bus, and which also relieves congestion on the Taipei metro. Bus passengers can sort through the spaghetti-like bus system map by highlighting their own bus route with the tap of a finger. Commuters can also make a request for a new bus route using the app; once a new route gathers 20 commuters, the bus company will open this route within twenty days. The city government hopes this ‘shared-economy’ service can help tackle traffic problems in the Taipei metropolitan area.
Furthermore, the day autonomous cars become a commodity, everything might change. It might be a game changer, because it will not only be autonomous cars, it will also be autonomous trucks and busses. If that happen a new trade off for governments will appear: how much do we invest in trains, and how much in roads? It will be a very interesting discussion.
DS: What are Infrabel’s key business priorities for the future? Can you give details on a project or target?
CJ: Our priorities are as always safety and punctuality in everything we do. But in terms of business priorities we are facing a shortage in technical people on the market. How can we attract and keep the right skills, and what about the battle of recruiting talented people? In this context, it’s important to have an image of being an efficient and innovative organisation, which means digitalisation is key.
DS: You spoke at SmartRail this year – what did you talk about and what did you enjoy most about the show?
CJ: SmartRail was extremely interesting. First of all we got confirmation that the digitalisation projects we undertake are the right ones and secondly, I got a better overview of what direction mobility in general evolves to and what the new challenges are in the coming years.
I spoke about our digital revolution and explained what our vision is and how we get there step by step. Infrabel’s vision is to go for digital solutions everywhere, at any time and for everyone. No matter if we talk for our customers, suppliers or internal organization, we want to be a digital leader in the rail industry.
DS: What’s your favourite rail journey, wherever that may be in the world, and why?
CJ: If I may, I would like to suggest a rail journey that is on my bucket list. I like travelling, especially by train, and I also like good food – so the legendary Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town, which combines both, would be fantastic. It is a five star hotel on wheels, a service that offers nothing but the best in terms of food, wine, accommodation and scenery.
DS: That does sound like a fantastic journey, I hope I get to ride it one day. Thanks for your time, Carel.
If you enjoyed this, why not check out the last edition of 5 minutes with… John Voppen, chief operating officer at ProRail.
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