Disruptions on the rails
Every day, more than 3,800 trains run on the Dutch rail network. They are operated by 1,400 engineers and 1,150 conductors, and all of these conductors, engineers and trains have their own schedules. We draw up these schedules in order to ensure reliable train service, but the complexity of the schedules is most apparent when (major) disruptions occur on the rails. When that happens, for example when a train cannot continue along its route due to a blockage, the 3 schedules no longer complement one another.
Timetable building blocks
A railway timetable is composed of several building blocks: the availability of the infrastructure (the rail network), the personnel (engineer and conductor) and the material (the rolling stock). Every day, we work together with ProRail to combine these three schedules in a complex puzzle with the support of automated processes and advanced systems. But when one of these building blocks is not available, we cannot run according to the timetable, and a disruption occurs.
Cause and effect
There are many potential causes for disruptions on the rails, but they are all based on one of 3 factors: the weather, technology and people.
For example, heavy snowfall can block railway switches. Or trees blown down by the wind can block the rails. Electrical blackouts can temporarily disable signals and computer systems. Or defective rolling stock can block the route. But people walking along the rails can also cause trains to run slower than usual, or to stop altogether. These are all some common causes of disruptions, but they almost always have the effect of delaying our travelers' journeys.
The duration and consequences of a disruption are always different. Some complex disruptions may be barely noticeable for our passengers, while simple disruptions can have major and long-lasting effects. This is due to a combination of factors, such as the time of day, the location or the occurrence of other disruptions earlier in the day. All of these factors have an influence on the building blocks of the timetable.
Reporting and analysis
Together with ProRail, we constantly monitor train traffic from a national control centre and five regional control centres. Train personnel or detection systems can send reports of defects that can cause the trains to fall behind schedule to these control centres, where they are immediately analysed. What is the problem? How can we ensure that the situation on the rails is safe for everyone? What consequences will the disruption have for the timetable and our travelers?
Once we understand the disruption, we work to ensure that the trains can continue to run on schedule. That is hard work, because we have to find logistical solutions for the timetable, the personnel and the rolling stock. The Dutch rail network is one of the busiest in the world, which often causes extra dilemmas right away. If we choose to temporarily suspend train service on a specific route, that will have immediate consequences for the travelers. So we may choose to try to reset a system or delay repair work temporarily so that the trains can run with a slight delay instead. That is naturally our preferred solution, but sometimes it is simply more efficient to stop the trains in order to solve the problem quicker. Our goal is always to keep the effects of a disruption to the absolute minimum and to get the trains running on schedule as fast as possible.
Depending on the cause of the disruption, we may call on assistance from several outside parties. If a power line is broken, then the maintenance contractor will repair it. In the event of an accident involving a person, the police, the ambulance and the fire brigade are all called in, as well as the ProRail and NS emergency services in order to provide assistance to the travelers.
One major challenge for the control organisation is to arrange the proper timetable building blocks in order to get the trains running again. This causes imbalances in the logistical process, because the different building blocks for the timetable are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If just one piece of the puzzle is missing, such as an engineer to operate the train then the train cannot run.
Adjustments to the rail timetable
If trains cannot run on a certain route, then we must improvise changes to the timetable. This means that fewer trains or no trains at all will be able to run along the route. In order to keep trains running on as many routes as possible, we utilise de-coupling points. These are stations (junctions) where we can re-route passengers based on the available infrastructure, personnel and material. Trains can reach these de-coupling points and then return in the direction from which they came, allowing us to avoid the blocked route by using alternate routes or bus transport.
The number of buses assigned depends on the duration of the disruption, the route and the time of day. It is often much more difficult to arrange sufficient buses during the Monday morning rush hour than it is in the middle of the day. And for brief disruptions, the trains can often resume operation before the buses can reach the location. For longer disruptions, we assign as many NS personnel as possible at the affected stations in order to provide travelers with service and information.
Information about disruptions on the rails is available from a number of sources: via the public address system at the station, the digital travel information screens, from the NS personnel aboard the train and via the Travel Planner in the NS-app or our website. We do our best to provide the most up-to-date information during disruptions. This is possible if a reliable, pre-determined plan has been drawn up for adjustments to the timetable. But sometimes it takes some time to draw up such a plan, for example if the disruption is more complex than usual, or if the information cannot be entered in the system fast enough. In these cases, the travel information will lag behind the current situation. As soon as the information becomes available, the travelers will be informed as to the cause of the disruption, a prognosis and an alternate travel recommendation. We will also keep travelers informed as we work on obtaining accurate information.
Restoration of rail service
Fortunately, the time always comes when rail service is restored and we can once again run according to the normal timetable. In the event of major disruptions, such as the total suspension of rail traffic into and out of Utrecht, some trains on the rail network will still be unable to resume normal service. This depends on the availability of the infrastructure (the rail network), the personnel and the material. We always begin with a single train series (a series of trains on a route in a fixed pattern, such as the Intercity from Maastricht to Aklmaar every half hour). Once this series runs according to schedule, then we re-start the next train series. In so doing, we can gradually restore full service according to the normal timetable.
It is therefore possible that the travelers may still experience irritations due to trains that are too short or too long, or that use other types of rolling stock than usual. Trains may also be less tidy than usual, because their cleaning schedules have been interrupted due to the disruption, and have not been able to be in the right place at the scheduled time.
Once the disruption has been dealt with and the trains are up and running again, ProRail and NS still have work to do. During the following night, we will ensure that all of the building blocks for the next day's timetable are available so that we can run according to schedule once more.