A glimpse of Dutch railway operator National Spoorwegen’s digital journey

The Dutch railway operator National Spoorwegen (NS) is a national and international rail operator with a fleet of over 1,000 trains transporting 1.1 million daily passengers across 400 stations, employing approximately 20,000 employees.

To transport over a million daily passengers to their destination on time, and to improve its services and customer journey, the NS relies on a vast number of systems, some of which no longer deliver the expected value as needs and expectations change and innovative technologies are brought to the market.

The NS’ digitalization strategy focuses on three pillars: Reliable and affordable travel, optimal workforce support, and operational efficiency & cost savings.

Reliable and affordable travel

The first pillar aims to offer passengers a high-frequency and safe service and experience at an affordable price. To achieve this goal, the emphasis falls on a modern ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) for positive train control, i.e., the system enables greater insights between infrastructure and trains, reducing operational incidents, better route utilization and infrastructure availability, acceleration, and braking optimization, to name a few.

The ERTMS is complemented by an Automatic Train Operation system (ATO) to optimize train efficiencies by taking control over certain parts or the whole train. ATO is particularly useful in reducing energy consumption (26% energy savings for NS’ rolling stock in 2023).

Onboard IT/digital capabilities have also been expanded and continue to improve thanks to onboard wifi, personalized travel information (door2door), and wayfinding.

Optimal workforce support

The second pillar supports and augments NS’ workforce by automating (parts of) decision-making, fault diagnosis, maintenance planning, and inspections. The workforce, including engineers at maintenance depots, also makes use of augmented reality and virtual reality technologies to lower training times and remote support.

A modern Driver Controlled Operation system (DCO) is also part of the transformation journey. The DCO is a digital, camera-based system offering the driver a high-definition live feed on the in-cab monitor (ICM), increasing safety compared to platform-mounted mirrors or screens.

Operational efficiency & cost savings

The third pillar focuses on cost optimization, a result of rising supply chain costs, inflation, and the fact that ridership has not fully recovered post-pandemic.

The NS’ cost reduction strategy emphasizes maintenance cost reduction, including logistical complexity; service disruption prevention by improving asset performance monitoring; and reducing energy consumption.

To reduce maintenance costs, the NS is taking a condition-based maintenance approach by collecting fleet data in addition to data from Wayside Inspection Devices (WID). The latter provides data insights by measuring the geometry and stability parameters necessary to evaluate the wheel-rail interface for pre-emptive and predictive maintenance.

Vision analytics for inspection in cooperation with infrastructure operator ProRail enables the NS to take high-detail photographs of moving trains, which are used to detect any issues. The system is also coupled with automated maintenance capabilities to speed up the maintenance process at a lower cost.

The NS is further experimenting with remote operations by automating the shunting process, i.e., the preparation of the train before its service, such as the process of sorting items of rolling stock into complete trains, or the reverse.

Cultural shift and challenges

The adoption of new technologies and the overall digitalization process required the NS to implement a cultural shift. The operator reorganized itself into value streams, working in multidisciplinary teams (engineering, IT developers, mechanics, planners, data analysts, etc.), which enables the firm to take small, but effective steps instead of a big bang approach, which often becomes highly complex and lengthy before value is achieved.

The train operator’s approach to software has also changed. Through a test lab or digital twin, it tests and validates software changes, including updates and patches, before go-lives. Standardization remains a challenge, but the NS is working closely with regulators, industry peers, and IT service providers to make processes and operations more agile.

With the adoption and proliferation of cloud platforms, IoT, APIs, and more, the attack surface has significantly expanded, and the importance of cybersecurity has been given a top priority. For example, the operator now uses more than 520 APIs with over 12 billion calls per year. To give shape to this priority, not too long ago, cyber was separated from IT, while now, NS’ cybersecurity Director and CISO Dimitri van Zantvliet has a seat at the leadership table.

Today, cybersecurity is infused in every functional and non-functional design. While it mainly relies on perimeter-based security, between 2026-2023, the NS will shift towards identity-based security underpinned by Zero Trust.

In PAC’s view, it is interesting to see train operators, typically conservative in digital innovation due to their societal impact and compliance with health and safety regulations, undergoing a profound internal reorganization. This cultural shift enables rail operators to accelerate digital and technological adoption, enhancing operations and customer experiences while also optimizing costs.

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