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ProRail, a Dutch infrastructure owner, is on a mission: they want to invest in the future of their railway. They seek to understand why and how their railway behaves. They consider this knowledge crucial in order to build a solid foundation for future track renovations.

A new record in punctuality

The Dutch rail network is one of the busiest in the world, yet they are ranked in the top three list of countries with the most punctual passenger rail transport. In 2018, Dutch passenger trains set a new punctuality record by reaching a mark of 91.4 percent. According to the government agency, performance on the regional lines was even higher. 2018 was also a satisfying year considering the number of failures as ProRail recorded a ten percent decrease of major failures on the Dutch rail network.

Although the punctuality of the trains has never been better, ProRail is very much aware that this can change in a heartbeat.

“The figures are good again, but this does not mean we can sit back. We need to improve ourselves continuously” – Pier Eringa, CEO, ProRail.

In order to reach a satisfying result, ProRail has introduced special teams on specific routes. They wish to continue improving their performance. As a result, ProRail and NS International have agreed to invest in the modernization of the Dutch railway.

Short-term vs. long-term

In the process of modernizing the railway, ProRail has decided to invest in learning about the behavior of the railway.

They are currently experiencing issues with three ‘hotspots’ on a 4 km railway stretch. The term ‘hotspots’ are used to refer to challenging locations on a railway track. The hotspots on ProRail’s railway stretch force the passing trains to reduce their speed due to safety concerns.

The hotspots occur because the railway embankment is unstable due to high water content. The underground primarily consists of clay which is covered in sand. When it rains, it runs through the clay which makes it quite heavy. At the same time, the rain makes the sand almost fluid. The combination of rain, heavy clay, and fluid sand has resulted in an embankment which is sinking.

The easiest solution to solve this problem would be to install a drainage system. However, ProRail also wants to measure the water level content in the ballast and the underground. Installing a drainage system would not provide them with this knowledge.

Additionally, installing drainage is not only a very expensive solution, it would not solve the problem in the long run either. It can be difficult to determine the magnitude of the change in the moisture condition attained by the drainage. Therefore, the problem could reoccur after a few years due to the lack of maintenance of the drainage. In that case, you will be back to square one, experiencing the same issues.

On a journey to learn

Many infrastructure owners experience embankment settlements and they can be caused by many different variables. To solve these settlement issues, most of them often choose what they consider to be the ‘easiest’ and quickest solution – and understandably so. With more than a thousand kilometer worth of railways to supervise, time is of the essence.

Yet, the question remains: why not invest in understanding why the issues occur?

ProRail believes that in order to create sustainable railways ready for the future, it is critical to understand your railway and everything it entails. In other words: ProRail is on a journey to learn. They wish to fully understand exactly how high levels of water content influences the embankment. Simultaneously, they want to gain a thorough insight into the movements of the embankment and the railway. They aspire to discover exactly how they move and why.

Invest in understanding your railway

Although it might seem overwhelming to initiate a learning process like the one described here, it will be worth it in the long run.

Understanding the behavior of your railway and the root causes for why certain hotspots occur, enables you to take these insights into account when planning your future maintenance strategy. Based on the knowledge you have gathered; you will be able to predict when and where similar hotspots might occur. This way, the risk of running into similar challenges in the future can be substantially reduced.

If you are curious to learn more about ProRail and their journey, you can read this brief article.

About ProRail

ProRail is a Dutch government task organization, responsible for any maintenance and extension of the national railway network infrastructure. Read more about ProRail.

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