The digitization of trains

By Ed van Doorn

Whereas thirty years ago on every train the final destination was marked on the side of the train with a "course roll" that was manually turned by the conductor, today trains are increasingly digitized. "Telemetry data comes from hundreds of sensors spread across hundreds of trains," says Wim Liet, who has worked as an IT manager at NS (Dutch Railways) for 27 years. "We can use this telemetric data to create new possibilities all the time. NS is a company that constantly wants to stay up-to-date. Therefore, because we live in fast times, constant developments and innovations are needed.

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A good example of that innovation is wifi on the train. Liet: "We started that five years ago. That was one big hosanna story, but we were overtaken by our own success. Wifi on the train was a satisfier for people in the beginning because they had a better connection than at home. Over the years, so many people got smartphones and iPads that our wifi became over demanded. In that way, a satisfier became a dissatisfier. For NS, that was one of the reasons to take the existing system in hand."

This existing system is the On Board Information Services (OBIS) platform; a managed ICT platform on the train. NS currently has 365 Intercity trainsets equipped with it. Simply put, OBIS consists of various on-train and on-shore ICT components, such as software, hardware, infrastructure, displays and sensors on the train. It ensures, for example, that passengers can view up-to-date travel information on the screens on the train, as well as see the destination indication on the outside of the train.

IT on the Train

"Just as a computer at home needs to be replaced after three or four years, so does IT on the train," says Liet. "That's why we started the IT on the Train program in 2013. Its goal is to replace and renew IT on the train and improve onboard-shore communications and on-shore applications. We asked Highberg to carry out the project management of this program. From the original idea to reality on a train is a long road with lots of great work, hopscotch jumps, tenacity, explanations, sweat and sometimes tears. Or as Liet puts it, "It's missionary work." Highberg stood by and stands by NS, making sure the project stays afloat in all areas. Liet: "Together with Highberg, we are trying to get very clear on what we ultimately want on the train, how we are going to realize that and what all is needed for that. It is a quest that is still ongoing, but we are already making considerable strides."

Streaming media

The first scoop from the replacement and renewal program IT on the Train is now a fact: two test trains have been equipped with the renewed IT platform and a new Content Management System (CMS) for the digital information screens on the train. This allows NS to communicate with passengers faster, more directly and more flexibly, and to display other information as well. Liet: "A 4G internet connection was also established from the program and a portal page that travelers can see from their own laptop, tablet or smartphone. The possibilities for that are incredibly extensive." 

For example, e-Books could be posted on the new site, but Liet also envisions NS partnering with a media company to stream media. Liet: "There are undoubtedly film providers who want to put their films on our site. That's all possible now. With the old system we need a thick pipeline to get all the data to shore, whereas with the renewed system we can store all the content locally on the trains. As a result, the technology is faster, cheaper AND we can serve passengers with capabilities that were previously unthinkable." 

If you want to know more you can contact Ed van Doorn.

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