OFF THE RAILS: Senior Program Manager for Research at ProRail, Arjen Zoeteman

Posted: 17 May 2024 | | No comments yet

In this week’s installment of ‘Off the Rails’, I spoke to Senior Program Manager for Research at ProRail, Arjen Zoeteman.

arjen zoeteman

What was your route into rail?

It was a simple A4 advertisement for a graduation project, at the Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management of TU Delft where I studied. The project was part of a full technical study supporting the railway track selection for Comunidad de Madrid, managed by Professor Coenraad Esveld – well known in railways around the world. I was asked to prepare a life cycle costing (LCC) study for the new metro track, different systems of slab and ballasted track. I prepared most of the analysis in the Netherlands, and collected maintenance data over there and visited all the work sites. In Madrid, I worked directly with the director Prof. Manuel Melis and later director of the Madrid Metro, Ildefonso de Matias, a great privilege. They drove me by car into the subway tunnels, we visited the heart of the tunnel boring machines and stations in progress – unforgettable for me as a young student. Our advice was directed to the use of concrete block systems in the tunnels, and I hope it still is doing its job. The great extension works in Madrid showed me most of all how business can really be changed by vision and plans.

My thesis also made me win the Best Graduate Prize at TU Delft (TPM) 1997-1998. With hardly any knowledge in the sector, I was asked to continue with a PhD study, which was made possible with co-funding from Strukton Rail, NS Railinfrabeheer (ProRail’s predecessor) and the European Rail Research Institute (later integrated in UIC).

Six years later I finished my PhD and became a postdoc for a while. It was a great effort, but I had developed LCC optimised track renewal strategies and renewal criteria, did case research for the Dutch High-Speed Line South and a lot more. Again, I had job offers in road and rail. I chose the asset management department of ProRail to see what more I could achieve in that complex, somehow fascinating system. I felt comfortable to work with technical experts, met nice and interesting colleagues and quite soon I started international adventures in all kinds of working groups. For a few years I worked in Brussels at European Rail Infrastructure Managers.

In the last few years, I worked on all kinds of technology driven innovations and business cases and manage much of our applied research, also now within Europe’s Rail together with colleagues. I still enjoy what I do today, meeting ambitious people and learn new aspects of rail, from a more senior position. I also believe in open source learning, almost anything I worked on has been published in papers or conferences.

Over the years I worked with quite a few Master and PhD students, and I hope to continue that for a long time. Hopefully I will bring many of them to the rail sector to create innovative breakthroughs, for instance in sensory technology and AI.

What are three characteristics you believe are integral to a successful career in rail?

There is no single success formula, skill, or characteristic – a diverse group of people is needed. Professional project management is of course a no brainer. Most of all, we need colleagues with a hands-on mentality, managing daily operation and incident management. Without them, the railway would halt quickly. I must think of all colleagues working in night shifts, making repairs, following strict safety protocols. It is one year ago when the accident happened in Voorschoten, between a rail lorry driver and a train – the safety investigation has just published (15th May 2024).

Next, you need people who like “puzzles and games”, in fact master planning, timetabling, gaming and scenario building. A third category of people and skills might be people who can strategise, change, and implement new data and IT methods, as well as a few of them who go for applied research and innovation, and never stop lobbying for such longer term investments. I must be in this category.

Most importantly, in any role, I believe you need a strong dedication to rail, believe in its role and societal contribution – and have a long breath. Be motivated to contribute and be able to cross all organisational boundaries. I really enjoy bridging the gaps between the rail system and other ecosystems, which can help us battle our challenges, such as knowledge institutes, universities and market parties. That is why I also like to work on programmes such as Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking.

What is the biggest challenge the rail industry is currently facing?

There is running the business and changing the business – there is a shortage of people on both sides, as well as a shortage of investment. We need to show why young people can have a brilliant rail career – there’s never a dull moment!

We need to be a place where they can learn and apply new skills, including all the digital development that is ongoing in any industry sector. The business is too fragmented and the fact that people cannot plan a simple rail journey through Europe does not bring us any credit. It is killing for the image of rail across Europe, in my opinion. I also have to often pick the modality when I travel, normally it will be rail, but in some cases the options are simply not good enough or too complicated to book. A flight is booked in minutes. I think the same applies for shippers. Rail should make it easy for everyone to use.

What is an innovation you’d like to see in the sector in the next five years?

In terms of infrastructure technology – my area of work, we need to move on with digitising and automating the railway further. Capacity should be enhanced on the existing railway. The solutions are there but we are hesitant to implement them. I hope railways find a way to accelerate ERTMS investments as this process takes so many years and is too expensive.

I like the way ProRail tendered for innovative solutions for that, ERTMS ASAP (, and hope it will help deliver.  ProRail and Network Rail tested years ago ERTMS Level 3 Hybrid, and it worked. Such demonstrators should lead to real application. For instance, the housing area in the Netherlands will grow a lot in the next 10 years and the extra mobility of these 1 million households need to be taken as much as possible by public transport, through sound planning and actual performance. Personally, I hope the innovations I work on with TU Delft in sensor technology, combined with AI and strong engineering knowledge, will lead to breakthroughs in more cost-effective management of track assets. Still there is a lot to do in that basic area of railway engineering.

You worked at EIM, could you explain the benefit of European Interoperability Standards (EIM) in rail?

These standards are creating the single European Railway Area, of course, together with sound deployment plans. It would help a great deal in the rolling stock market and authorisations, if there were uniform European standards to meet, with not too many exceptions. I think these standards also help national railways and their national governments to modernise. Without binding legislation, it is easy to scrap investments over the years and modernisation would just halt or be partly implemented. What I learned from my time at EIM is that an open attitude is always needed to understand the points of view and interests when it comes to developing standards. The rail systems have been developed from so many different backgrounds for numerous decades that investments really need to be finetuned, and in some cases it is not worth going for full standardisation. Rail is a complex system and includes an interplay between many stakeholders, but the setting in Brussels allows for thorough analysis before any standard can be agreed. Brussels is a place where decision making is accessible and you can have your say, if you come with good data and knowledge.

You published in 2017 work on a potential upgrade of Dutch traction power supply to 3kV DC, what is the current state and your view on this theme?

It was a really promising business case and study at the time, especially as it could give us many benefits while being less disruptive in terms of migration, compared to a change to an even more powerful 25 kV AC system. It is a topic where you would need long-term planning and very early on decisions to really benefit from such an upgrade and do it as smoothly as possible. The migration is not foreseen at this stage, as was decided last year, after intensive new decision making – I was not involved in that part of the process anymore.

In the Netherlands, we are in a phase with multiple challenges at the same time, when it comes to infrastructure aging, rolling stock renewals and particularly ERTMS deployment. I can understand that the focus is now on committed programmes. The scarcity of specialised personnel and budgets, also for energy, clearly became visible after the Covid period. Scarcity is there to stay, as society turns to smart grids with all challenges for energy infrastructure involved. For now, what is being done well is enhancing the current system in a big project to meet future traffic demands for years to come. New technologies and initiatives are on the horizon to improve the current system performance and meet capacity for many years, e.g. through optimised recuperation, batteries, and peak shaving.

How can track settlement issues be prevented?

Prevention of settlements on existing networks is a big word. In a country like the Netherlands with a lot of soft subsoils, it is simply impossible. However, we are gaining new knowledge on how best to (re)construct embankments and what is beneath, how best to “read”, monitor and risk-rank the embankments to cope with growing traffic. We are also developing and combining new sensor technologies and data to have settlements managed better. It will take time, and this underlines why infrastructure managers need to think years in advance about the necessary innovations to keep in pace with the future traffic demands. I think the key driver in all these developments is to allow traffic growth to meet our ambitions. Also for embankment this is feasible, I think, but costs can be high. The more knowledge on our geotechnical conditions we have, the better we can plan ahead and avoid setbacks. The topic is now in the heart of ProRail’s development agenda.

This year, 2024, is Global Railway Review’s thirtieth birthday, its pearl anniversary. Do you have a pearl of wisdom for the industry?

Thinking big, I would say. The rail sector needs to demonstrate the capability to manage big system migrations and modernisation, including ERTMS and FRMCS and convince governments to make rail a much bigger European modality, not just rely on paper ambitions. Speaking as a rail traveller, I would like to see a full European backbone of high(er) speed lines and night trains. If the EU and its Members would really want to achieve its sustainability aims, they need to include transport, it needs to start somewhere. We should not take our current share of rail for granted. We need to address why rail is the backbone of modes to help European international transport further.

I had two inspirational visits in March and April. One to the Global Rail Centre of Excellence site in Wales and one to the Irish Train Control Centre, which is under construction. Examples of how countries might plan for step changes to infrastructure. I need to see such developments for my own inspiration, often it starts with a few inspirational people and a vision. Rail infrastructure deserves big investments and a lot of attention. The investment plans in Germany on a high-performance network is an example. Everyone will recognise the value once they use a well-connected system, and young people will want to work in an environment with big plans, almost by definition, when I look back at my own career starter in rail.

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