Dutch transport infrastructure is at its limit. If we do not use what we have now in much smarter ways, capacity will not be able to grow sufficiently to meet the ever-increasing need.
Shortly after our country went into lockdown last year, Minister Van Nieuwenhuizen (Infrastructure & Water Management) announced that she wanted to accelerate infrastructure projects. It was the perfect time to make progress with the renewal of roads, railways and various maintenance work. In June, there was an extra step: tens of millions extra Euros were made available.
Unfortunately, this opportunity has not been fully exploited. In addition to infrastructure maintenance, the focus was mainly on maintaining mobility, employment and liquidity in the sector. But just 'maintaining' is no longer enough for our aging infrastructure.
Due to COVID-19, our infrastructure has not been as heavily used over the past year, but that will not last long. Dutch infrastructure has performed very well for a long time, but the limit had already been reached before the coronavirus crisis, and when it gets busier again, we will inevitably run into that limit again. Roads are getting congested, tracks are overcrowded, and even airports are trying to expand. We're not going to make it if we keep reverting to make do and mend. We need to start the innovation engine.
Not bigger, but smarter
If our infrastructure is clogging up, why don't we just build more? Unfortunately, the space for building these types of mega projects is limited. Moreover, they are at odds with other priorities, such as protecting the environment and limiting nitrogen dioxide emissions. But instead of asphalting over the country at great expense and expanding the rail network, we can also use existing infrastructure in a smarter way.
The business community has already seized the opportunity of the corona crisis to make enormous efforts to drive digitalization in their own infrastructure. They are now reaping the benefits: increased flexibility, better connections, more sustainable companies. Digital transformation is also key for our transport infrastructure. There is a huge but untapped amount of data that can be exploited to solve our capacity problems. Not to mention the currently untapped data that we could start to collect and use.
For example, by lining the existing road surface with sensors, we can proactively and efficiently regulate traffic on our roads. Think of automated diversions, AI-controlled traffic lights and other signals, automatic reporting of accidents and real-time monitoring of the quality of the road surface. By intelligently directing traffic flows in this way, we can put a stop to the growing number of traffic jams on the highways and in our cities.
Rail can also be made smarter using similar technologies, so that, for example, more trains can run faster and closer together and we can better control freight transport. In addition, it is possible to automate operational processes– provided the infrastructure is made intelligent enough. Aligned to this is the automation of transport itself, with self-driving cars and trains.
And just as you can make current infrastructure smart, you don't have to invest billions in new vehicles either: existing carriages can be equipped with excellent sensors and cars have been connected to the internet for years through external technology. Even smartphones can be used to better regulate our transport flows! A good example is the Overhead Line Equipment Statistical Analysis Toolkit (OLE StAT) that was developed in collaboration with Britain’s Network Rail: a tool that allows the performance data of existing catenary equipment to be better used to predict and prevent defects. Not only does this tool improve rail worker safety by reducing the duration and frequency of manual inspections, but it has the potential to generate millions in savings and make the rail environment safer and more reliable.
In addition to the aforementioned solutions, other innovations and improvements are possible through the use of 'digital twins'. A digital twin is a virtual replica of physical assets – in this case the infrastructure – that makes it possible to gather all the information about these assets, from condition to use, in one place. With a digital twin, more and better insights can be obtained to enable smarter decisions and more efficient use of available resources. Extensions or adjustments to the infrastructure can be designed more efficiently and innovatively by using digital twins. It also delivers real tangible results, such as when a digital twin was used on a nuclear reactor and dramatically reduced maintenance costs and decreased CO2 emissions by 30%. Although considerable progress is being made in a number of sectors, such as the manufacturing industry, with the help of digital twins, there is still much to be gained in the world of mobility.
From smart to connected infrastructure
Making individual infrastructure smarter is just the beginning. It helps us free up extra capacity, but that does not make mobility in the Netherlands future-proof. As long as we focus on individual modes of transport – we are either talking about road transport, or rail, or aeroplanes, or bicycles, or ships – we will continue to struggle with capacity problems.
An efficient and future-proof infrastructure must therefore not only be smart, but also integrated. There is much to be gained from connecting different modes of transport and when certain forms of mobility become overloaded, we must be able to immediately propose alternatives. This is called MaaS: Mobility as a Service. Need to drive straight through the city centre to your destination in the morning? Using that particular train and this bus you can do it much faster!
To achieve this, it is important that we now focus on data collection and exchange. In addition, this integration can only be achieved when different carriers and managers actually work together.
This last piece of the puzzle, cooperation, is still the weak link in Dutch infrastructure. When capacity problems or malfunctions arise, fingers are regularly pointed back and forth to apportion blame. But accusations solve nothing. It is much better to communicate openly and exchange knowledge, so that we can strengthen each other. If we want to innovate, we must be open to the possibility that other people's ideas can be a valuable addition to the way we have always done it ourselves.
Stimulating this multidisciplinary, technology-driven collaboration is what I am committed to in my work. Whether in the boardroom, during a knowledge session, or during the Raspberry Pi school competition that we organise every year: young and old are surprised time and again by the value of multidisciplinary approaches. Collaborating with other disciplines is the best way to improve your own ideas, and technology can enhance this collaboration in all kinds of surprising ways.
The Netherland’s existing infrastructure is in danger of coming to a complete standstill. But by using modern technologies in the right way to combine and utilise what we have in a much smarter way, we can breathe new life into our infrastructure.