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In order to be and remain relevant for Dutch society, we are working hard to optimise our performance both on aspects that are important today and on demands that will be made of us in the future.

Innovation involves NS as a whole

Rather than an end in and of itself, innovation is a means that will help us realise our ambitions and implement our strategy. As we are innovating, we are also confronting major challenges, such as implementing timetable adjustments, improving our performance for customers, facilitating the energy transition and dealing with shortages on the labour market. The perception of NS as an innovative company achieved a score of 54.2 in 2022 (RepTrak). But innovations can also make work more agreeable and pleasant. This is why we will continue to invest in innovation, in all our business units. Below are some examples of major innovations that contribute to the strategic themes of NS.

Smart ways of attracting passengers to trains and stations

  • Passengers want to be able to travel safely, fast and conveniently, with as little delay and hassle as possible. This is why we are keen to prevent overcrowding on our station platforms whenever we can. In this connection, it is important for NS to know how many passengers a platform can process in a safe and efficient manner. Last year, an NS colleague received a doctorate at Delft University of Technology for research into the passenger processing capacity of platforms. We used a public transport smart card data model and pedestrian sensors at the stations as part of the study. We used the research results for various purposes, including careful consideration of optimal platform width in the context of the renovation project for Amsterdam Centraal that has started recently.

  • The need for effective management of passenger flows and safety at our platforms prompted NS to develop a method that enables us to predict levels of crowding in real time. In the longer term, this will help NS to spread passengers more effectively across the available platform space. We now have a better tool to organise platform processes (waiting, boarding and alighting), passengers enjoy a higher level of comfort and safety remains guaranteed as passenger numbers increase.

Developing a broad range of mobility options

  • Our customers increasingly expect us to provide seamless door-to-door journeys. In response, in the context of the OV Payment programme NS and several partners ran a pilot with new payment methods for public transport. The new system enables passengers to check-in and check-out using a debit card based on the contactless EMV technology of Mastercard and VISA, and will be rolled out nationwide in 2023.

  • Passengers need a mobility app that offers them the best and most personalised range of options to choose from. To meet that need, we further developed and expanded our travel planner. Passengers can now also use it to plan a journey with other modes of public transport, including bicycles. In addition, passengers can find and book shared electric scooters via the NS App.

  • NS initiated a pilot at 3 stations, with a total of 90 electric public transport bikes. The purpose of this pilot is to find out if the electric public transport bicycle meets our passengers’ wishes and is a valuable supplement to the regular bikes. The fourth pilot site went live in Maastricht on 13 January 2023.

Digitalisation and data-driven operations

  • Optimal deployment and maintenance of trains means we minimise the risk that passengers can find no place to sit in our trains. By developing a new decision support system, we can more effectively respond to the constantly changing circumstances in which we implement our timetable. The new system incorporates data on the current logistical situation, scheduled and unscheduled train maintenance and the expected numbers of passengers.

  • As another example of the smart deployment of people and resources, NS launched a new working method for inspections. NS has embarked on a project to develop and test a system for the digitalisation of certain types of inspection. We take photos of passing trains at two fixed locations in the infrastructure. We use the images for inspections of pantographs and wheelsets. The high-resolution images and the possibility to zoom in on specific components increases the quality of inspections. We also examine opportunities to move work from night-time to day-time hours. This type of innovation increases work satisfaction rates among our colleagues and helps to reduce staff shortages.

  • Parallel to the installation of portals and human interpretation of the images, NS and train manufacturer CAF are developing an algorithm to ensure that colleagues are shown precisely those train components that are most likely to have abnormalities.

  • In order to be able to respond to the increasing speed of change in the world around us, we have to remain agile and keep developing ourselves. We do so by, for example, experimenting with and applying a range of technologies.

  • Data-driven working methods come with a risk of data leaks, so they should be accompanied by measures to protect our customers’ privacy. NS attaches great importance to ensuring the highest level of care and protection in processing the personal data of its customers and business relations.

  • Over the past year, the use of artificial intelligence helped NS to improve its passenger forecasts, recognise graffiti, enhance the rolling stock scheduling system and personalise marketing activities.

  • Various industries regard 3D printing as a promising new technology. In 2022, NS invested in seeking collaboration with a range of partners, such as universities of applied sciences, suppliers and research institutes, and in applications for materials such as metal in 3D printing. By doing so, we are laying the foundations for our contribution to a more sustainable world in which we only produce what we need (stock reduction) and become less dependent on external production chains (reduction of transport and CO2 emissions). Finally, we started a pilot with a system that enables us to scan large numbers of items used in the train maintenance process, in order to create 3D models of those items and ultimately print them and apply them in our trains based on a standard defined process.

  • NS is examining possibilities to use augmented reality glasses in train maintenance work. Mechanics on the Flirt TAG did a test with remote support using such glasses. The mechanic on site can use both hands while an experienced colleague monitors the procedure from a distance and gives instructions that pop up the mechanic’s display.

  • NS is increasingly using process mining techniques to identify, monitor, audit and improve business processes. These techniques can be used, for example, to accelerate and enhance processes (automation). This enables us to deploy people and rolling stock more efficiently, which saves costs. Last year we achieved the first promising results in maintenance, specifically at the service desk and the production line for wheelset revision.

  • The use of sensors (in trains, tracks, workshops, at the stations) to collect data (images, temperature, vibrations, noise etc.) is essential for our performance. We use this data for a variety of purposes, such as ensuring that trains can be deployed safely, preventing unscheduled outages and monitoring real time train data. Over the past year, we found that real-time monitoring and image recognition are becoming more and more important, so we have made this one of our key focus areas. One example is the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) programme, in which we examine the potential significance of automated train driving for railway capacity, operational processes, safety and sustainability. We are studying this in collaboration with the railway sector and train drivers. For example, last year we set up a remote operations centre in Zwolle from where train drivers can run automated train driving tests in shunting processes. The trains are controlled from Zwolle to perform shunting processes in the De Vork shunting yard near Groningen. This improves our insight into the interplay between people (train drivers) and machines (ATO). Within the context of ATO technology we are also studying the development of a remote operator unit to perform remote shunting operations with empty trains. In this situation, a single train driver is able to perform shunting operations with multiple trains from a central remote location. This will increase the availability of train drivers for deployment on regular scheduled trains.

  • Crucially, all the technologies described above involve the exchange of (large amounts of) data. At present this mainly concerns data transmitted via cables and wireless 4G connections. The technical possibilities offered by 5G present a new type of connectivity. This is regarded as the driving force behind business process innovation and further digitalisation of the Netherlands. NS is studying the potential opportunities that 5G offers, for instance in connection with remote shunting.

Innovating with others

NS wants to make the Netherlands accessible for all in a sustainable manner, but cannot do so on its own. This is why we are partnering with many other actors, including research universities and universities of applied sciences, as well as other players in the railway sector, such as ProRail and DB. To maximise our impact, combine our strengths and learn from each other, we are also participating in various programmes that aim to accelerate innovations:

  • NS, together with ProRail, has been a core member of Europe's Rail Joint Undertaking, a European research and innovation programme, since 2021. This partnership, run by the European Commission and the European railway sector, provides grants to stimulate innovation in the railway network. Its purpose is to improve the interconnectivity of the various European rail systems, facilitate rail transport capacity growth after 2030 and make rail transport a more affordable and attractive proposition. European collaboration is essential to further improve the railway network.

  • The Stichting Kickstart AI foundation was set up to accelerate the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) in the Netherlands. The partners in this initiative - AholdDelhaize, KLM, ING and NS - are convinced that AI is going to have a significant influence on our daily lives and that it can potentially make a positive contribution to society. The foundation focuses on promoting education and research in the field of AI, developing and implementing intercompany challenges and enhancing awareness of AI, for example via a nationwide AI course.

  • NS believes it is important to take inspiration from the latest trends, to conduct early-stage experiments and to collaborate with start-ups. Our participation in SHIFT helps us to pursue those aims. Investment fund SHIFT Invest is an important tool to help accelerate innovations within NS. Since its incorporation, we have invested in eight start-ups and introduced ten start-ups to various business units. We have partnered with two start-ups for the purpose of launching a pilot project next year.

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