Innovations are required to strengthen NS's strategy. This means they should contribute to at least one of the following aspects: winning back passengers, efficient train operations, development of sustainable hubs, expanding and balancing supply and demand, a digitally driven business, and enhanced sustainable mobility, also internationally. Over the past year we have been working on seven innovations, some of which are long-term projects whose development spans several years. Between them, these seven innovations make five contributions to ‘efficient train operations’, three contributions to ‘a digitally driven business’ and supply, and three contributions to ‘balancing supply and demand’.
Automatic Train Operation (ATO)
Following the first, successful experiments with ATO on the Hanze Line in late 2019, we continued the ATO programme in 2020. The first half of the year saw experiments with ATO in the context of ERTMS, with a train being operated automatically, section by section, between Zwolle and Lelystad. We also ran experiments with object detection technology. Using machine learning and an advanced camera, we trained a model in recognising a variety of objects, including cars and cyclists, and estimating their distance to the tracks. We also did some successful experiments with ATO and the ATB First Generation system between Haarlem and The Hague. These experiments included a specific focus on the interaction between people (train driver) and machine (train equipped with ATO) so as to combine and maximise their respective strengths. With a view to ATO experiments in the shunting process, we launched a market consultation in late 2020, inviting market parties to join forces in promoting innovation.
In the second half of 2020, we made a train available for innovation testing purposes. For example, we used this ‘innovation train’ for tests involving AI-based image recognition. We also tested new technologies for exact position monitoring of trains. We need to know exactly where a train is at any given moment In order to be able to make a train come to a halt at the right location using ATO, as well as to determine the speed it needs to arrive at the scheduled time.
Technical inspections using cameras
Many of our trains are required to undergo a technical inspection every 48 hours. We currently perform those inspections at night, when the trains are not being used, at crammed shunting yards. We will adapt the inspection method, for example by using automated cameras that take pictures of crucial components. Service engineers assess the photos during the day, allowing us to schedule repairs more efficiently and minimise the time the train is out of service. We are now also exploring the possibilities for automated assessment of the photos using image recognition technology.
In November, NS launched a new tool for passengers: the Treinwijzer (Train Indicator). Passengers can register their intended train journey in the Treinwijzer to get an idea of how crowded the train is likely to be. They will then be alerted if the train is cancelled or likely to be more crowded than expected. The passenger input thus obtained allows us to predict levels of crowdedness even more accurately and help passengers select the best train in a period in which travel behaviour is changing.
NS has launched an initiative to make high-resolution images of stations and station sections in 3D, using drones and LiDAR laser technology. Such images enable us to assess the current condition of station sections and other relevant objects faster and more accurately. This technology also results in more efficient management of our assets.
5G has made it possible to transmit huge data volumes with minimum delay. This has created opportunities for new automation concepts and services in our trains, on the tracks, at the station and in our workshops. In 2020, we explored the opportunities available and launched our first experiments with the development of 5G technology applications.
Hyperloop is a concept for a vacuum tube train. To create the conditions that would allow the commercial operation of this concept, several fundamental research questions will need to be answered. The purpose of the three-year Hyperloop Development Programme is to demonstrate that Hyperloop is a feasible and safe means of transport for which the technology is available. NS is participating in the programme as a member of a coalition to promote the development of the concept and examine the extent to which it might offer a future role for NS that is in line with our strategy. NS has created a multidisciplinary team that focuses in particular on operational scenarios, safety aspects and passenger needs.