"I’ve seen a lot of positive developments during the last decades, I think we’re on the right track, however we can’t sit back and be complacent about this success."
With its chief remit of ensuring that The Netherlands’ rail network is properly maintained and capable of handling the expected rise in capacity, ProRail has a huge responsibility to ensure that one of Europe’s busiest networks is as safe and efficient as possible. The company is a division of NS Railinfratrust and it looks after the network that is used by operators including Nederlandse Spoorwegen, Arriva and Veolia.
John Voppen, ProRail’s chief operating officer, generously gave his time for SmartRail World's latest 5 Minutes With…, speaking to Dave Songer about the responsibility and pride he has in his job, the big challenges ahead for ProRail and its involvement with the international agreement that was set up to combat climate change.
Dave Songer (DS): Thanks for your time today. You’ve been with ProRail for around 13 years now – what do you most enjoy about working in the rail industry?
John Voppen (JV): A lot of people depend on the train to get to work, or to friends and family. Working in an industry with almost 200 years of history, which plays such an important role for so many people, is a privilege.
(DS): How has the industry changed in that time?
(JV): I’ve seen two major changes. The different approach with how we look at railway stations and also the digital transformation that the industry is undergoing. Stations were for a long time mainly places where commuters just got on and off trains. They were for the start and end of a journey, but not a place where you like to stay longer than strictly necessary. Nowadays, the railway station is a place to meet, eat, drink and shop. Look at the transformation of Utrecht, for example: It’s buzzing and full of energy.
As for the digital railway transformation, we are just at the beginning of that. I’m excited to see the new possibilities. Two years ago, together with telecom provider KPN, we started testing with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that measure the temperature of switches near Utrecht Centraal. The tests were successful and the game changer with the sensors is that they are small, cheap and completely wireless, meaning they can be clicked on the rail with magnets within a day, at almost no cost.
Using a dashboard on a tablet, the track manager is now able to monitor if the switch heater is functioning properly. We have extended the test to the opening times of doors in fences along the track, the temperature of the catenary lines and also track vibrations. And more recently, IoT sensors are being used to monitor switch movements and axle passages, in order to track and trace the movements of individual freight wagons on shunting yards that have no track detection. The possibilities are endless and we have a lot of data – the biggest challenges are how to interpret, use and share all the data and information with all our customers and stakeholders.
(DS): How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
(JV): Tracks in the Netherlands are one of the busiest in the world and, with more trains coming in the near future, we need to focus on lowering failures and moving from repairing to preventing and predicting of failure of switches, track detection, rail defects and track geometry. For long-term degradation, predictive algorithms are being developed by @ProRail, using artificial intelligence. Because short-term maintenance is outsourced to contractors with performance-based contracts, predicting and preventing failures is a joint effort. ProRail’s focus is on finding and combining useful data from monitoring systems and providing this data to maintenance contractors. The contractors can combine this data with their own business information to develop and test their predictive models. We’ve seen technical failures descending over the last five years. There’s a lot to do but it's important to note we are moving in the right direction.
(DS): What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
(JV): Accidents with trains, on the track or at level crossings; they don’t happen that often but if they do it has a huge impact. Coping with the aftermath of an accident is something I never get used to and improving safety is an important part of my job.
(DS): What are ProRail’s key business priorities for the next few years? Are you able to give specific details on a project or target?
(JV): I’ve seen a lot of positive developments during the last decades, primarily more trains and more passengers. We made some major adjustments to cope with these challenges and I think we’re on the right track, however we can’t sit back and be complacent about this success. Firstly, because demand for railway transport is expected to grow by 27-45% towards 2030, and secondly because the Paris climate agreement calls for urgent action from businesses to reduce their carbon footprint. Given the nature of the Dutch economy, the transport sector in general and railway transport will have to contribute to this goal.
And, last but not least, because public budgets for rail are limited. In short, we need to run more trains, in a more sustainable way, at lower cost. If we don’t succeed in doing this, railway transport risks being overtaken in the long run by innovation in other transport modes: autonomous electric cars, electric bikes, hyperloops and flying taxis!
(DS): You spent five years as the director of the traffic division, how do you think that area of business will change in the future?
(JV): First we need to focus on how to run more trains at lower cost. That’s our main focus. And we need to transform tracks and switches like we did at Utrecht CS, but this isn’t enough. We also need a digital transformation and we have to move from a sector focused on concrete, steel and cables, to a sector focused on bits and bytes. We need to move our core business of train control and asset management from a ‘find and fix’ mindset to a ‘predict and prevent’ one. In other words, we need an ‘extreme makeover’ for rail in order to make it attractive for future generations.
We also need to get ready for new techniques, such as autonomous train operation (ATO). This year ProRail will start testing ATO on our main freight line, the Betuweroute, together with Alstom and RRF. We will also test ATO on passenger trains in Groningen, in the north of The Netherlands. Our goal with automated driving is to increase the capacity of our network and optimise punctuality and energy efficiency.
(DS): Thanks so much for speaking at this year’s SmartRail. Can you give a rundown about what you spoke about and what you got out of the show?
(JV): It was a pleasure to speak at SmartRail and to talk with so many rail colleagues. In my talk I spoke about moving intelligence from track to train. Our rail infrastructure can be made significantly smarter and cheaper by moving intelligence from tracks to trains and instead of maintaining tens of thousands of elements along 7.000 kilometres of track (such as signals, track detection, train protection and cables), it is much more efficient to let trains report their own position and speed and to control and regulate speed through wireless communication with the central control system.
(DS): What’s your favourite rail journey and why?
I’ve done some idyllic travelling and took the train in a lot of countries like ,China, India and parts of Europe but my favourite is the train I take every day, from my hometown Amersfoort to Utrecht. A beautiful journey along typical Dutch scenery.
(DS:) Thanks again, John. We hope to see you at SmartRail next year!
If you enjoyed this, why not check out the last edition of 5 minutes with… Natasha Maksymowski, rail cyber security advisor at the Department for Transport.
Would you like to get involved in 5 minutes with…? This fun, informative feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them and where they see the industry heading. Get in touch with Dave Songer: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.