article

14 trains per hour on a 2-track rail section? The Dutch prove that it ISpossible!

Posted: 15 February 2011 | | No comments yet

Imagine: six intercity trains, six regional trains and two freight trains per hour in the morning and evening peak hours. In September 2010, the Dutch rail industry carried out a unique test named ‘Each ten minutes a train (ETMET)’ on a mainly two-track route. In a special interview for Global Railway Review, Erik Sigger (NS) and Peter van Waveren (ProRail), Project Management of ETMET, explain that although this is the dream of every train passenger, is it really possible?

The answer seems to be yes, provisionally, because with a structural introduction of this metro-like system, there are a lot more factors than just arranging extra trains and staff, as was discovered by Dutch Railways (NS), infrastructure manager ProRail and the united freight railway undertakings Royal Dutch Transport Federation (KNV).

Imagine: six intercity trains, six regional trains and two freight trains per hour in the morning and evening peak hours. In September 2010, the Dutch rail industry carried out a unique test named ‘Each ten minutes a train (ETMET)’ on a mainly two-track route. In a special interview for Global Railway Review, Erik Sigger (NS) and Peter van Waveren (ProRail), Project Management of ETMET, explain that although this is the dream of every train passenger, is it really possible?The answer seems to be yes, provisionally, because with a structural introduction of this metro-like system, there are a lot more factors than just arranging extra trains and staff, as was discovered by Dutch Railways (NS), infrastructure manager ProRail and the united freight railway undertakings Royal Dutch Transport Federation (KNV).

Imagine: six intercity trains, six regional trains and two freight trains per hour in the morning and evening peak hours. In September 2010, the Dutch rail industry carried out a unique test named ‘Each ten minutes a train (ETMET)’ on a mainly two-track route. In a special interview for Global Railway Review, Erik Sigger (NS) and Peter van Waveren (ProRail), Project Management of ETMET, explain that although this is the dream of every train passenger, is it really possible?

The answer seems to be yes, provisionally, because with a structural introduction of this metro-like system, there are a lot more factors than just arranging extra trains and staff, as was discovered by Dutch Railways (NS), infrastructure manager ProRail and the united freight railway undertakings Royal Dutch Transport Federation (KNV).

In order to be able to appreciate the unique character of the test, it is necessary to understand a little more of the Dutch situation. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Space is scarce, so the number of traffic jams grows every day and the most important motorways in the country are gradually grinding to a halt. The discussion about the climate has also triggered a broader societal and political demand for good, reliable and fast public transport.

The Netherlands already have a good public transport rail system. The rail network is relatively finely meshed and the quality of the railway sector fares well in a comparison with the surrounding countries. Roughly speaking, at the moment there is one intercity train and one regional train every 15 minutes in the greater Randstad region. In addition, there is also capacity for one or two freight trains per hour.

But the quantity of passengers and freight just continues to grow and grow. On weekdays, on these busy routes to and from the Randstad region, there is hardly a seat untaken during peak hours. The trains cannot get longer and higher – NS is already using double-decker Intercity trains. If the railways want to compete with the comfortable, individual car, then solutions are needed: they need to offer travel comfort and a quality upgrade. What should be done?

High-frequency rail transport

In high-frequency rail transport, the rail sector, supported by the government, sees a solution for the capacity problems. The rail sector and the government are investing €4.2 billion to enable in gradual stages – with a train every ten minutes – high-frequency travel on four important corridors in the country by 2020 (the High-Frequency Rail Transport Programme in Dutch is called PHS). This amount covers modernisation of the infrastructure, the laying of extra track, noise reduction measures and measures concerning level crossings at a number of strategic locations.

But an unobstructed crossing here and an extra track there doesn’t get you there. Fifty per cent more trains? That requires a different approach, better cooperation, more staff, more trains and a sympathetic environment. For travellers it is great to have extra trains at their disposal, but for the people who live near the track the structural implementation of ETMET means more noise and being faced more often with a closed railway crossing. Good consultation with municipalities along the track is therefore necessary.

Add to this the fact that the Dutch state does not subsidise the NS rail transport. Extra trains must therefore be profitable in order to have a chance of succeeding within the business model currently followed in the Netherlands.

A difficult task

At home and abroad, railway colleagues are watching with interest how NS, ProRail and the freight railway undertakings are tackling this issue.

“It was a difficult task to get a grip on,” admits Erik Sigger from NS and Peter van Waveren of ProRail. Together, this pair constitutes the Project Management for ETMET.

“On paper, the system looked almost impossible to implement. Short stopping times, trains running close to one another like welloiled machines within the traditional signalling system that dates from 1954, intensive cooperation between train staff and traffic control, very fast responses and a lot of other things,” the two gentlemen list. “Normally, on the basis of estimations on paper, we often get caught up in discussions about whether something is possible or not. We decided to break with that mechanism this time and test the high-frequency timetable in practice.”

With that firm decision, the rail sector was taking a risk. The chosen route for the trial, the track between Amsterdam and Eindhoven, is partly two-track. On that part – which runs parallel to the busiest motorway in the Netherlands, the A2 – in a normal situation there are four intercity and four regional trains per hour. NS operates according to a ‘tailored transport’ system: the composition and length of each train is adapted to the transport demand at that moment.

That becomes substantially different with ETMET. Erik Sigger says: “What we want to achieve with ETMET is that travellers can take a train whenever they want. The train to Amsterdam always leaves from the same platform; you just have to wait a few minutes. It’s the dream of every train passenger.” It is expected that this different way of travelling will lead to a better distribution of passenger demand so that the length of the trains will be largely the same.

What will passengers notice?

Passengers will notice the following improvements:

  • More trains, every ten minutes
  • Different departure times
  • Different connections with other public transport.

Level crossings

A point for attention are the dozens of level crossings on the conventional track, especially along the southern part from Utrecht to Eindhoven that passes through many built-up areas. How long do the barriers stay closed and what are the consequences of this? Peter van Waveren says: “If intensively used level crossings stay closed for a long time, there is a danger that road users will still cross the track, slaloming between the barriers. Together with the municipalities concerned, during the test we have not only measured how frequently and how long the level crossing barriers are closed but we also investigated what the impact of this is on road traffic.” He continues: “No accidents have happened, and thanks to extra supervision and intensive consultation with municipalities and local residents, incidents have been avoided.”

The fact remains that ProRail – despite the extra investment of €4.2 billion – cannot convert all of the level crossings into flyovers or underpasses. Proof of the fact that more trains on one route does have consequences for the surroundings and even for the national train service.

Case: first test

From the 31st August until the 4th September 2009 inclusive, the very first test took place on the Amsterdam to Eindhoven route and vice versa. After an intensive preparation in which employees – from train drivers, conductors, platform staff and traffic controllers to marketing and logistics staff – worked together on the design, six intercity trains, six regional trains and two freight trains per hour travelled over the track almost without problems. While executives and project management first watched nervously and then admiringly from the platforms and main buildings, the thousands of NS and ProRail employees introduced this – for the Netherlands – revolutionary timetable almost perfectly.

In short: the test was a success. “We especially wanted to learn from this experiment and hadn’t expected that the results would be so good,” explained Sigger and Waveren. “The punctuality was better than normal with fewer trains. Passengers had to adjust a little, but at the end of the week they no longer wanted anything else. This was an enormous stimulus for us to continue with it because if we can give passengers a carefree travel experience, the train can count on a strategic place in the daily life of 16 million Dutch people.”

Case: second test

The test provided valuable information, but they wanted a second intensive try-out – on the same route, in a busier period, for a longer time and according to the principle of ‘business as usual’.

“We formulated 13 conditions that we wanted to investigate during the test month,” explained the two gentlemen. “Our aim was to get an answer to the question of whether the structural introduction of ETMET on the Amsterdam to Eindhoven route was feasible and profitable. The business case in simple terms: the added value of extra trains must be higher than the additional costs. It must also still be feasible if we operate soon at this frequency during every morning and evening rush-hour.”

Murphy’s Law!

The stars were less favourable for the second test. September 2010 was a busy and unsettled month when throughout the whole country rail travel, and therefore passengers were inconvenienced by infrastructure problems, rolling stock shortages, changed rolling stock deployment and incidents. Twice as many disruptions as is normally the case, to be precise.

The result: the punctuality was lower than normal – in the first weeks the trains were too full, there were complaints about corrective measures and the customers were not satisfied.

Murphy’s Law! And that led to the employees and project management not being happy about the service provided in the test month. But what went wrong did, however, provide interesting learning material.

“The match between the train length and number of passengers was not right yet,” explains Erik Sigger. “Passengers still come to the station at the time they are accustomed to. The spacing over the hour is, particularly during the morning rush hour, not even. Spacing the passengers in time and physically over platforms and trains was a major focus of attention. An initial conclusion is that the behaviour of passengers can be influenced with information notices and other resources. Moreover, we are starting to realise that we should in fact no longer plan our rolling stock deployment at the level of each individual train, but that the trains should all be roughly the same length.”

Robust and simple

Keep it simple: that seemed to be an important lesson from ETMET. Not too much shunting during the peak hours and not changing too many staff at busy intersections, which make the system vulnerable. Use the same type of train as much as possible for the recognisability.

“A number of ETMET requirements conflict with the way our organisations and processes are set up,” says Sigger and Waveren. “If we want to modernise our product and affect an upgrade, we need to reconsider certain assumptions.”

Punctuality is a strong point on the Dutch railways. For the government, the only shareholder of NS, it is an important measurement criterion for the performance. At ETMET, flow (running each 10 minutes a train, maybe not on the planned schedule) is also important: a good optimum must be found between the two.

Another important aspect is the variation during the day itself in the service rosters of the mobile staff, a right fiercely contested by the trade unions. “Now you hear employees saying in the evaluation that for the manageability of the train service during ETMET in the peak hours on the A2 corridor it is better to keep the same staff on one train and not to change too frequently in Utrecht on the ICs in between because that makes the train service more vulnerable,” explains Sigger and Waveren. “That again indicates that ETMET is not only an intensification of the train service on a single route, but also affects the way in which we look at trains and rail management in the Netherlands.”

System remains intact

In short: there is still a lot of material for research and discussion. But the tests have proved: it is possible, 14 trains per hour on one route, subject to certain provisos. During the second test, ETMET also had no perceptible impact on the safety performance of the infrastructural domains. The dips in the performance are not all ETMET-related, but are also concerned with stock deployment and other causes. The basis of ETMET – short stops, fast flow – also remained intact during this important test month – a result that could count on surprise and then appreciation from foreign colleague companies.

The Swiss carrier SBB, the British and Belgian infrastructure managers Network Rail and Infrabel paid a working visit to see the remarkable feat of the Dutch with their own eyes. They gathered information about the logistic plan, the adjustment, the commercial aspects and the operational aspects of the ETMET project.

Can we? Will we? Decision in 2011…

The directors of NS and ProRail will decide at the beginning of 2011 on the structural introduction of ETMET on the Amsterdam to Eindhoven route. The rail sector has already won over public opinion.

“If it was up to the passengers, there would be six trains per hour tomorrow – under the condition that the reliability is at the same level as today with every 15 minutes a train,” says Sigger and Waveren. “And that’s why we are doing all this – to be able to transport even more people and freight quickly and safely. By exploiting the existing infrastructure optimally in combination with its directed extension, it is a strategic step forward for the future of the Dutch railways. And for the future of the Netherlands because fast, reliable and clean rail transport is an indispensable link in the sustainable mobility of our country.”

Welcome by-products / welcome side effects

The unusual approach, by Dutch standards, of testing in practise provided a lot of pleasing additions. Employees of both the companies concerned got involved in the most varied compositions in discussing how the test was handled. That produced valuable insights, but also a rediscovered team feeling. The result: sharpness and precision in the operation, skill and pride in the combined results. After the test too, NS and ProRail employees could work together better to consult in finding ways to remove obstacles as quickly as possible.

Research and data collection

During the test, intensive research was conducted concerning punctuality, train occupancy, level crossings, costs and incomes. Moreover, NS and ProRail asked approximately 2,000 passengers for their opinion and about their experiences.

“We have carried out a lot of measurements and investigations. But what our employees experience outside, in view of their often many years of experience on the railways, provides an indispensable supplement and clarification of all the research data.”

What did people think? Communication is key!

Passengers

Users of public transport have their fixed habits. Properly informing your customers before you carry out such a practical test is therefore essential. In this, NS and ProRail certainly succeeded, by means of advertisements, e-mails, newspaper articles and broadcasts. In the second test, 95% of the train passengers said that they had been notified in advance.

From the extensive research involving thousands of passengers, the following picture is obtained. In the beginning, the change in the timetable and especially the shorter trains causes some irritation. Free coffee at the stations, during the incidents, calmed the public down a little. After two weeks, passengers became steadily more enthusiastic about the new train service. “The more trains there are, the better!” and “I want it to always be like this,” were a couple of the responses. An important condition, however, is that there are good connections at the major intersections with the ETMET timetable.

Surroundings

For the area around the track, things are more complex. Local residents who seldom, or never travel by train, frequently suffer more nuisance from an intensification of the rail service. For this reason, ProRail sat down to talk with the municipalities and governments involved well before the test. All 90,000 inhabitants and workers in the area were sent a letter and were given many opportunities to make their opinion known. The 400 complaints received after the second test concerned noise nuisance and the longer time that level crossings were closed in Vught and Boxtel, two municipalities in the southern part of the corridor. Some of these problems can be resolved by track improvement projects included in the High-Frequency Rail Transport Programme (PHS) investment programme.

Innovation: helping hands

The ‘onthaaster’, ‘doorkomsttoner’ and the ‘Routelint’: the Dutch dictionary has once again gained a few new railway words. ProRail and NS grasped the opportunity provided by the test to try out a number of ingenious innovations on the track.

The train drivers on passenger and freight trains are enthusiastic about ‘Routelint’, the system that runs on their handheld computers – called Railpocket – in the cabin that gives them a better overview of what is happening along their route instead of only seeing the first traffic signal. By using ‘Routelint’, train drivers can anticipate, drive economically and follow more closely the train in front of them. The ‘doorkomsttoner’ is another new tool. It gives rail traffic controllers a better picture of the circumstances of delays. Using this they can warn of bottlenecks earlier and resolve problems quicker. During the test weeks, an ergonomics expert investigated the usability of the system with a display.

Moreover, during ETMET, ProRail and NS also tested a number of ways of influencing passenger behaviour. Take the so-called ‘onthaaster’. The aim: to help passengers get used to a frequent train service. A large display tells passengers before they go to the departure platform when the train leaves.

About the Authors

Erik Sigger (NS) and Peter van Waveren (ProRail) together constitute the Project Management of ‘Each ten minutes a train’ project. Both men have been working on the railways for more than 20 years, in various management positions in the field of logistics, timetabling and operations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Send this to a friend