rail freight

Ruud Verstegen is business unit director of rail and public transport at Dutch software company Quintiq. He has over ten years’ experience in the planning and optimization sector, with specialities in the field of complex logistics and transport solutions within the rail and public transport industries.

Ronald van Doorn is director at Dutch independent ICT services and products provider Ab Ovo. Doorn joined the company in 1999 and has been active in the rail sector and implementing advance planning and scheduling (APS), rail planning and optimization solutions since 2000.

Working together on a project for SNCB Logistics since 2011, the companies have implemented an integrated IT system that allows for the synchronised planning of all processes and resources across SNCB Logistics’ operations. Here, they explain the challenges they faced and how IT is revolutionising rail resource planning.

Julian Turner: Describe the evolution of the project involving SNCB Logistics, Quintiq and Ab Ovo.

Ronald van Doorn: Railroads were traditionally passenger-dominated and so off-the-shelf and in-house IT applications were created to suit those requirements. Now, as a result of EU legislation, more and more European rail operators are separating their passenger, cargo and infrastructure operations.

"At Ab Ovo, we always promise and deliver a 100% fit to the customer, and the only way of achieving that is by following an interactive and iterative implementation process."

SNCB Logistics, part of SNCB Group, was looking to streamline its cargo operations and roll out alternative IT solutions across the group. If you want to enhance your business by improving your processes, then you need improved IT to support those processes – after all, IT should follow business, not the other way around -and there was increased demand for cargo-specific solutions.

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Ab Ovo already had links with SNCB and its subsidiaries related to the company’s planning and scheduling as well as its dedicated order-to-cash processes. We built up a relationship with Quintiq during the tendering process, with a Quintiq-based solution focusing on advanced planning and optimisation.

Ruud Verstegen: In terms of a timeline, the project started in February 2011. The first go live date was for the long-term planning for SNCB Logistics’ locomotives and drivers in December 2011. Six months later in June 2012, the short-term solution went live, before full roll out and enhancements in 2013.

JT: What were the main challenges of implementing an integrated IT system that allows for the synchronised planning of all processes and resources across SNCB Logistics’ operations?

RVD: First, there was the challenge of streamlining SNCB Logistics’ order-to-cash enterprise resource planning (ERP) with a dedicated Ab Ovo solution. In collaboration with the customer, we determined at how SNCB Logistics was calculating the demand for its services and requesting track access. That determines when and how the train is going to drive and from that you do the full resource planning (locomotives, locomotive drivers and local activities and personnel).

Significant changes were made to the company’s track-ordering process by adding this to the planning process and application. Demand information was generated from the ERP system, which we then translated into ‘virtual’ trains and track demands. Ordering data – how much track SNCB needs to negotiate from the infrastructure manager Infrabel – was generated by Quintiq’s solution, called IRON at SNCB Logistics.

We ended up with two separate projects: IRON ordering and IRON planning. The latter involved creating a potentially unlimited library of standard operational weeks. These were specific resource undefined, since you plan at this stage around the resource types only, not the specific driver or locomotive. Using the library, we built and designed scenarios, long-term planning simulations, short-term resource schedules, cyclic rosters and finally the scheduling, dispatching and revision management.

The integrated solution therefore also contains a module that deals with cyclic staff rostering and personnel optimisation, which includes the labour rules in Belgium and within SNCB Logistics.

Despite the EU’s efforts to establish more transparent rights for rail passengers, extensive exemptions allow an all too easy set of loopholes.

SNCB Logistics split from SNCB and the latter company had its own locomotives and drivers working for both SNCB Logistics as well as SNCB – SNCB Logistics only had limited dedicated resources. The transfer period was a challenge, since our system had to cooperate with the SNCB planning and IT solution, adding another level of complexity to the whole planning process.

RV: One of the major challenges was that in the past SNCB Logistics’ various operations were all done by different departments using different systems. To transfer the long-term plans to the short-term planners was very difficult from a technological point of view and in terms of communication.

Now all these departments are working on the same system, so if there is a change it is immediately communicated across the different departments, users and operations.

JT: How was the Quintiq/Ab Ovo resource planning solution adapted to suit SNCB’s specific needs?

RVD: A resource planning application is quite different from implementing other IT. You cannot simply document every last detail of a functional design, and develop and test it with the intention of creating a 100% fit the first time. Instead, you first try to create something that is 70% ready and iteratively test and develop it with the customer.

Throughout the project we used Quintiq’s Project Life Cycle (QPLC) methodology and involved the project stakeholders in the whole process – analysis, testing, even the development itself. It is also important to involve engineers with an in-depth knowledge of the rail cargo business, so we don’t end up with a new IT solution based on old processes, one which has no relationship with reality.

At Ab Ovo, we always promise and deliver a 100% fit to the customer, and the only way of achieving that is by following an interactive and iterative implementation process. We aim for a model that is 95% complete in order to test the functionality. Then, the last 5% is really geared towards fixing important issues in order to gain acceptance from the customer before going live, something we called extrapolation.

To achieve this 100% fit solution we use what are known as project enablers, project templates and industry solutions. For example, you don’t have to tell a rail operator what a locomotive is; it is the same in every company. But the locomotive may have specific characteristics and requirements from a planning perspective and that is something you have to take into consideration to create the promised 100% fit for the customer.

JT: How has the integrated software helped SNCB Logistics to improve its operational efficiency?

RV: The two main benefits are improved quality and reduced operational costs. SNCB Logistics has improved its cargo transport quality and punctuality, meaning the company now delivers within the timeframe promised to the customer.

"From a passenger and cargo resource planning point of view, we see the major trend being mobility, getting quicker feedback from the field and acting based on current events."

Operational improvements have also allowed SNCB to reduce train running costs from a locomotive and personnel perspective as well as better utilise the rail paths it orders from Infrabel. SNCB Logistics personnel can more easily cooperate and the system allows them to quickly assess the impact a rescheduling decision has on the overall plan, improving productivity. Having everybody in one system also improves cooperation and collaboration between different departments.

This also improves transparency throughout the whole supply chain, from long-term and operational planning to disposition, and also the chain linking rail paths, drivers and locomotives.

A couple of years ago SNCB Logistics were producing red figures – now they are producing black figures. You cannot attribute that just to the Quintiq and Ab Ovo project, of course, but the implementation of the system and improving the company’s IT environment has definitely benefitted SNCB Logistics.

JT: How do you see the resource planning sector evolving and what are the major industry trends?

RVD: Freight operators that traditionally offered full train and unit cargo services, and executed these from a full train and station-to-station planning and operational perspective, are developing more and more into operators that act as network or block-train operators, and provide services over long-distance corridors throughout the whole of Europe. They also move single wagon loads via slot sharing on trains and using each other’s network, an example being the X-rail concept.

This has a major impact on the planning and executing of their operations and therefore on the IT solutions required to provide decision support and optimisation of complex diversified freight transport services, and in their operations execution, multi-level planning and dispatching.

RV: From a passenger and cargo resource planning point of view, we see the major trend being mobility, getting quicker feedback from the field and acting based on current events.

Ab Ovo has responded to increased demand for mobility solutions by offering its own solution within the Quintiq platform, which will enable planners and dispatchers to more quickly communicate with each other and gather real-time feedback. For example, a freight yard worker can indicate that a train is ready or has problems, and immediately communicate this to someone in the field and to the dispatching department to immediately determine the impact and make the required decisions.