Innovation is important as it can help us realise our ambitions in times of great challenges such as COVID-19, the energy transition and shortages on the labour market. Innovation contributes to our strategic themes, such as increasing our socio-economic impact, consolidating the basics, developing a broad range of mobility options and finding smart ways of attracting passengers in trains and stations. The perception of NS as an innovative company is part of our reputation score. Following years of consistent increase, the perception score fell slightly in 2021.
Meeting customer wishes using NS Go
In 2021 NS launched NS Go, as part of our strategy to retain our ability to meet our customers’ wishes in the long term. Via the platform we facilitate door-to-door journeys and develop a broad range of mobility options. We pursue a sustainable, flexible and smart mobility policy to help our business customers respond to the rapid changes in business mobility. Via a single platform, our customers’ employees gain access to flexible mobility options. This enables them to travel from door to door in the way that suits them best and with carriers of their own choice. Using NS Go, customers have maximum control to make their own management decisions regarding costs and sustainability.
Exploring new technologies
To consolidate the basics, NS is exploring the opportunities offered by new technologies, processes and methods. This includes the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system, smart external cleaning techniques for trains and energy-efficient train operation. For example, digital twins and digital representations enable us to make more effective choices in train operations and respond more flexibly to changing passenger behaviour.
Automatic Train Operation
In the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) programme, NS is examining the potential contributions of automatic train operation for the company in terms of railway capacity, operational processes, safety and sustainability. We are studying this in collaboration with the railway sector and train drivers. This improves our insight into the interplay between people (train drivers) and machines (ATO). NS is conducting several different experiments to examine the technical possibilities offered by ATO as well as its limitations. Since the first journey of a train equipped with ATO in late 2019, NS has covered more than 9,000 kilometres using this system. In 2022, NS wants to study the impact of ATO in the shunting process, for example on getting trains in position and on combining and separating trains without passengers remotely. ATO can help us to increase rail capacity and, as such, to deploy more trains to operate the timetable.
External train cleaning
NS tests innovative materials and techniques, such as dirt-resistant coatings, to slow down the accumulation of dirt on trains and cabin windscreens. By preventing such accumulations and making it easier to remove them, these innovations can significantly reduce water and energy consumption. Another crucial benefit is that this contributes to clean trains for our passengers.
PhD research into energy-efficient train operation
In collaboration with Delft University of Technology, NS is examining the potential of energy-efficient train operation techniques. This will enhance or socio-economic impact. The research has shown, among other things, that coasting techniques may yield a significant reduction of both energy consumption and carbon emissions. We translate coasting techniques into specific instructions and algorithms which we can use in speed advisory systems for our drivers. The Swiss railway company SBB is going to use the algorithms developed by NS for their research into energy-efficient train operation.
Preparing for expected growth in passenger numbers
NS wants to ensure it is prepared for the expected growth in passenger numbers, and to continue to offer safe journeys at peak times. In this context, during the Formula 1 weekend in Zandvoort last September NS ran a pilot with drones and artificial intelligence (AI), with due regard for the legal frameworks set by the GDPR. The purpose was to map out the flows of traffic from the racetrack to the train station with AI and use this data to produce better estimates of flows and congestion, waiting times and safety for large groups of people. So far we have been unable to measure passenger flows in outdoor settings, as it is impossible or too expensive to install the sensors required for that. Drones may provide a solution.
Innovations such as ATO, external train cleaning and the use of drones and AI all contribute to smart strategies for attracting passengers in trains and stations.