ASSET Rail is one of five railway contractors in the Netherlands permitted to perform maintenance work for railway infrastructure manager ProRail. Over the past few years, the company has increased its market share to roughly 40% thanks to smart digital innovations. The support of UbiOps — the platform that runs ASSET Rail’s specially developed tools — played a role in making these innovations possible.
ASSET Rail was founded in 2007 and has two shareholders: Dura Vermeer and Arcadis. “Two very involved parties that give us all the room we need to excel as a company,” says Managing Director Jorn Pruntel. “The basis is innovation, including digital applications. We’re a bit of a living lab in that area.”
The Dutch railway network is divided into 20 regions. Infrastructure manager ProRail outsources the maintenance in these regions to one of five contractors qualified to do the work. The regional tenders are typically held once every five years and yield detailed performance contracts. ASSET Rail is currently responsible for the maintenance in eight regions. With a market share of roughly 40%, ASSET Rail is one of the two largest railway contractors.
Jorn: “We have 340 employees. The majority of them work outdoors. We ensure that the tracks are available for use so that ProRail can keep the trains running. This pertains to daily operations; large projects are dealt with separately.”
ASSET Rail processes a great deal of information every day. This information can be about anything from the condition of the rails or track switches to overhead lines and other components along a route. It also covers disruptions, damage and other matters that affect track availability. This information is used to send technicians out into the field based on what needs to be done, when it needs to happen, what takes precedence and how things should ideally be handled.
The company has set up an ingenious system for this, which is the brainchild of Jorn and his team. Jorn uses the knowledge and experience that he gained in his time as a tactical coordinator with the Royal Netherlands Navy. “Officially, it’s called the Principal Warfare Officer. That is the person who directs the daily operations of a ship in a combat unit from the command centre. It was there that I learned how to organise information processing and that, if you do that wisely, you can acquire a lot of information, which you can then use to make the right decisions.”
Information and Oversight
Jorn began working at ASSET Rail in early 2017. A year later, an operations centre was set up at his request. This “OPS” room was modelled on its military counterpart.
“Up until then, we had been looking at rijdendetreinen.nl and the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) website to find out how operations were going. We were in fact completely blind. When there was a disruption, we received an email from ProRail and that was it.
“There was so much that we could do better. We shifted towards the operational concept, much like how the armed forces would do. All information is now received at a centralised location, and the staff members act on their own: everyone knows what they have to do. You only need information and oversight in the background, in the OPS room. This helps the staff members to change course as needed and to make the right decisions.”
Software was needed to make this method of thinking and working possible. “We needed to process information and gain insight. That’s how we ended up with UbiOps.”
Jorn explains that a platform was required to run the software tools. “We have gradually incorporated an increasing number of parameters, like weather analysis and temperatures, because these can affect disruptions. There are loads of potential problems that can present themselves, and we want to find out more about them as quickly as we can. We have an enormous amount of data. In order to process and analyse it, we use the UbiOps platform.
“Various apps are used for things like disruptions and maintenance. We really try to keep everything as simple as possible for the technicians. Furthermore, there are over 50 AI and data science applications running on the UbiOps platform. The platform is truly a keystone in the foundation of our company. It’s a crucial part of the OPS room.” Jorn calls this the “lifeblood” of ASSET Rail, which in his opinion really sets them apart from other companies.
Scaling up as needed
The value added by the operations centre became even more apparent as ASSET Rail grew. “We initially handled two regions and a few hundred track switches. Now we cover eight regions and a few thousand track switches. In turn, the decision support provided by the system has only become more important. Luckily, the UbiOps platform enables us to scale up as needed. What’s also fantastic about the platform is that we can build new tools very quickly and process more data if there’s a need for it.
“UbiOps is a rather technical platform. It allows you to program quickly and smoothly as long as you have all the data and understand your problem.”
“All of this assists us in dispatching our staff in an intelligent way, so that we ultimately deliver better results than those we agreed to with our client.”
Digitisation has sent productivity through the roof. “In the past, we handled two regions with roughly 100 employees. Now we cover eight regions with 340 employees. Our innovative work method meant that very little additional overhead was required.”
ASSET Rail’s tools are constantly being developed further. For example, their system will now determine the most urgent disruption if there are several at the same time. “Asset management and the urgency indicated by ProRail decide in part what our contractual obligations are. Imagine that several track switches are malfunctioning due to heavy snow. The system will indicate which one must be fixed first, then second, and so on. The technicians will be dispatched automatically.
“We can only resolve a few at once. So, per our contract, we have to fix the main disruptions the fastest. If you do that well, you receive a bonus. If you resolve the wrong malfunctions or you work too slowly, then you are penalised.We have very strict contracts. So we agree to a performance level with ProRail.
This is established among stiff competition. The margin for profit is narrow, but it’s doable using our work methods.”
Brainstorming. “If we need advice, we can turn to the specialists at UbiOps.’’
“We’re not an IT company, but we do have various employees who work on IT full-time. That is our Data and AI department. They create dashboards that are all based on internal client requirements. That means we can handle the programming ourselves. We outsource app building to a different partner: another specialist in their field. Our collaboration with them is equally as good as with UbiOps.
“If we need advice, we can turn to the specialists at UbiOps. What’s great is that they also take the initiative if they think there’s something new to add or something can be done better. For example, we’re currently investigating new applications together with them in image recognition and AI, such as for inspections. We started working on that when we saw that other UbiOps users were successfully running similar applications which used UbiOps’ GPU functionality. It’s great that they brainstorm with us like that.”
Fire in the office
All ASSET Rail’s data and tools run via the UbiOps control plane in the cloud. In addition to the scope and speed benefits, this setup turned out to provide another advantage this year: “On 25 August 2023, there was a raging fire in our main office in Bemmel. As we are entirely cloud-based, the whole company was able to continue running digitally, even our operations centre. We dodged it all digitally. That was organised really well.”