"I’m part of the generation that expects the latest information at their fingertips at all times. Of course I don’t like a delay, but the uncertainty made it a lot worse. That’s what intrigues me about working on transit projects..."
One of the most exciting developments in the rail industry in recent years has been the increase of new influences shaping its progress. From start-ups and entrants from other industries to creative solutions to long-standing challenges and fresh products and platforms, the image of the industry as a conservative one is no longer accurate. Quite simply, there’s a new way of thinking of how things are done. And today, our Editor Luke Upton brings you a fascinating 5 Minutes with Dr. Edwin Lohmann of Quintiq, an industry leader in planning and optimizing supply chains who has brought not just a PhD and bags of energy to the industry but also a desire to help their clients overcome their fear of the unknown and reach their full potential. In a wide-ranging interview, we discuss solving puzzles in rail, learnings from other industries, major challenges, and of course, his favourite rail journey…
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today, to open up our discussion, what’s the path that has brought you into working in the transport industry?
Dr. Edwin Lohmann (EL): Once upon a time there was this little boy that wanted to become an optimization expert… No, in reality I always had an interest in mathematics. But when I got to college I really discovered how much I was interested in finding the best solution to a category of problem, rather than to specific problems themselves. Take a Sudoku puzzle for example. I was more interested in finding a way to let a computer solve all Sudokus for me automatically than solving each puzzle by hand. After I completed my PhD I was looking for a place where I could use this passion in the real world, rather than following an academic track. Quintiq was (and is) that place for me. Here I get a chance to see different businesses, assess where they are leaving money or efficiency on the table in their operations, and help them find a better way to plan to realize that hidden potential. This is especially true in public transport, where operators are often slow to adapt and change the way they do things. At Quintiq we help organizations discover new ways of thinking about how they plan their resources.
LU: Thanks, you have have extensive post-grad experience in decision making and operations research. How can a focus on this improve rail operations?
EL: The schedules that rail planners make are tremendously complex. But while the human brain is an amazing tool and is great at using experience and intuition to find a good solution, it also lacks brute computing power. When stuck, it uses rules of thumb and looks for known patterns for making decisions around things like which resources should be used to cover a train service or which replacement crew can be dispatched to resolve a disruption. This is where I believe intelligent planning technology comes in, but it cannot do the job on its own. It’s the combination of smart optimization with intuitive planner knowledge that yields the best results.
LU: What’s the biggest challenge you face in your role?
EL: For me, it’s helping people overcome their fear of the unknown. At different levels of an organization I see very different concerns. Planners and schedulers are always initially worried about what a new planning technology means for their job. In reality, technology often makes their day-to-day challenges easier to manage. Managers usually worry that a new scheduling platform won’t be aware of their organization’s specific rules like union agreements or soft rules like shift preferences. But again, if these are modelled in to a 100% fit then plans can actually comply with these more often, saving the organization from paying fines or having to resolve grievances. Executive leadership is afraid of failed projects or even just fear of adding another system to their IT environment. These are concerns we’re able to remove from the equation with Quintiq’s industry experience and track record of success implementing projects.
Even my own internal team can get scared when we embark on delivering an ambitious new project. It’s always fun to look back a year later, recall the concerns, and see that it all worked out!
LU: Quintiq actually got its start in the world of supply chain. Where’s the similarity between supply chain planning and public transport planning?
EL: That’s a great question. At first glance, you might assume that software being used to solve challenges in the manufacturing and logistics industries has nothing to do with public transit planning. But Quintiq’s founders built our solution with the goal of solving the most challenging planning puzzles on a single platform. In this way, the same core technology can be applied to many different industries and processes. And it’s also worth noting that our fourth ever customer was actually in the rail space, so it didn’t take long for transit operators to see the similarities and opportunities.
Transit planning involves many of the same challenges as production or logistics planning. While the inputs might be different, ultimately they’re all about find the optimal solution for a challenge with lots of moving parts. In addition, you are trying to balance your supply – in this case your drivers, fleet, or other resources – with your demand of passengers. You also need to manage a timeline for each service and factor in constraints such as labor rules and capacity limits. This is all very similar to other supply chain planning puzzles.
Ultimately, all operations are about using the assets you have in the most optimal way to meet your business goals. Because we configure our solution to 100% fit each of our customer’s unique rules, Quintiq can create a model for any type of planning challenge. As we’ve implemented more and more solutions in the public transport space we’ve integrated some of the more specific aspects of the industry into our product.
LU: What do you find most interesting about solving puzzles in the rail space?
EL: The number of moving pieces – literally. For a train service to be on-time there’s a lot that needs to happen. Some of that is under control of the railroad but a lot of it is not - or not directly. From maintenance, to timetable creation, to fleet planning, to crew planning: if any of these pieces are suboptimal, the effect on a train service can be big and can ripple throughout services for the rest of the day, and sometimes even for weeks ahead. Especially in an age where customer expectations go up but budgets stay the same, it’s crucial to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of a schedule as you can.
I’m one of those customers who has high expectations. I still remember the frustration of being at a train station after a customer meeting and hearing the announcement that my train was 30 minutes delayed. Then it was cancelled. It was back on, now 45 minutes delayed. Then, actually only 20 minutes delayed.
I’m part of the generation that expects the latest information at their fingertips at all times. Of course I don’t like a delay, but the uncertainty made it a lot worse. That’s what intrigues me about working on transit projects. How can we fix planning so that we always know the answer to questions about the future effects of our decisions? If a train service doesn’t have right of way and needs to wait, what’s the downstream effect on my fleet and crew plan? What actions do I need to take now to minimize impact? Railroads are amassing huge amounts of data in these areas. It’s just not always put into action to improve operational effectiveness.
LU: What has surprised you most about the rail industry?
EL: Without a doubt, it’s how siloed their approach to planning can be. Creating a new timetable is still very much a manual, step-by-step, process. If we delay a train service by five minutes, what will the effect be on my fleet and crew plan? Will that change upset how crew pairings are currently being run?
Answering those questions and coming up with the best possible plan, while taking into account customer service, rolling stock costs, and crew costs, involves a lot of importing and exporting files, and passing files around teams.
With ridership stabilizing and budgets limited there should be a real drive for efficiency. In other industries where margins have declined over the years, there is a true focus on gaining competitive advantage through better planning. In rail, there is often a natural monopoly that protects and allows for suboptimal efficiency, but this shouldn’t reduce the drive for improvement.
LU: Interesting, so what do you see as somee of the biggest differences in mass transit between now and in 10 years’ time?
EL: I think we’re already starting to see transit operators, at least here in North America, begin to digitalize many of the processes that have been slow to change in the past. This is already happening with, for example mobile apps for riders and innovations in the form of last mile partnerships with ridesharing apps like Uber or Lyft.
But while passenger technology is, of course, crucial for increasing ridership numbers, the increase in technologies in back-office areas like operations is quickly evolving as well. With the advent of operations control centres we see transit agencies moving toward a more holistic view of their operations and using technology like decision support to help their employees make smarter decisions about their operations. This will be key for staying efficient and agile in the face of disruptions to service as operations become more complex with each new mode added and the regulatory environment changes.
I believe this is an area where solutions like Quintiq ( @ ) is really helping rail organizations move towards an integrated model of decision making. Now everything from infrastructure, to service planning, to crew management, to maintenance decisions can all be housed in a single system. This means decisions are not made in a vacuum and efficiency can improve as a result. I really hope to see more operators moving in this direction in the coming years!
LU: And finally, as we always like to ask... what’s your favourite rail journey?
EL: I grew up in The Netherlands, a country fully organized around public transport (and of course biking!). It’s a world of difference in the United States, where I live now, where the car is so often the main mode of transportation. For five years I lived right next to a small train station. I could watch the train pull into the station, leave home right away, and still make the train. It made getting around the country simple. When I go back to The Netherlands, I continue to be amazed with the quality of public transport. My favorite journey is traveling to London by train from my college town, Tilburg. It has great memories associated with it, going to London with friends to watch soccer, and the Eurostar (pictured above) makes it low stress and low cost to travel big distances -- much like Amtrak does in the USA.
LU: Thanks very much Edwin!
5 minutes with… You? Each Friday the team here at SmartRail World brings you a new 5 minutes with... interview. This fun, fast-paced feature will help you get to know more about personalities across the industry, their ideas and experiences and of course their own favourite rail journey! Want to take part? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Next week's 5 minutes with... Paul Comfort, Chief Executive Officer, MTA Maryland.