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Dutch railway uses IoT to reduce people jams

Railway stations in The Netherlands are monitoring the movement of travellers to manage traffic flow and reduce people jams

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Traffic jams are the bane of commuters, both in their cars and on public transport. In the case of the latter, the travellers themselves are creating hold-ups too. In Dutch train stations, however, the internet of things (IoT) is being used to untangle these people jams.

The Netherlands is a small but crowded country. More than 17 million people work, live and travel in its modest 41,500km2. Most of these – some seven million people – are concentrated in the urban area called the Randstad. This is a ring formed by the four largest cities in the country: Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht. Travel in this area can be quite daunting, by car or by train.

Smart city starts at the station

Amsterdam has always been a busy city, but the past few years have seen an influx of people travelling to and through the Dutch capital. Due to regular traffic jams in the Randstad, and also the historic nature of Amsterdam’s inner city, this influx is only partly translated into car traffic.

Public transport is the most popular choice for residents, commuters and tourists. This leads to large numbers of people navigating streets, tram stops, bus stops and train stations. City planners would like to manage these complex flows.

Dutch railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) is already tackling this challenge. NS is monitoring and steering crowds in its stations, which are also connected to the wider traffic in cities.

The switch from printed paper tickets to plastic chipcards for public transport in the Netherlands has opened up possibilities for tracking people’s movements. The proliferation of smartphones, lower-cost sensor technology and smart application of the IoT have made this more feasible.

Different users, different routes

The possibilities for monitoring traffic go beyond simply tracking people’s travel plans. Smart monitoring also applies to movement of travellers in train stations, which consist of more than just entrance points and platforms. Modern train stations have check-in gates, hallways and tunnels, connecting shortcuts, as well as a range of shops, snack bars, restaurants and pubs.

All these attractions translate into different kinds of travellers, each with their own optimal route. This became clear in an early project at a railway station in Leiden, near The Hague. The motive for the project was the coming requirement for public transport to offer card-based check-in. The central station of Leiden was equipped with chipcard capability in 2007, before plastic tickets were mandatory and paper tickets were still being issued.

Like many other train stations in the Netherlands, Leiden Centraal Station is not just a destination for travellers. It is also a major interchange for people moving from one part of the city to another, through the station’s pedestrian tunnel.

The planned requirement for checking in and out with chipcards, known as OV-chipkaarts, had the potential to severely hinder this passing through. And that could, in turn, delay train passengers on route to their designated platform. So the city council, together with the NS, decided to measure the use of the station.

Tracking people through bluetooth, Wi-Fi and infrared sensors

NS worked with Dutch engineering and consulting firm Royal HaskoningDHV and Danish specialist Blip Systems to create the Smart Station. This concept encompasses an advanced measuring system developed specifically for the NS and its railway stations.

The smart system goes beyond just counting chipcard check-ins and check-outs, because that limited approach would only give insight into the number of people travelling to and from the station and the time they spent inside.

Read more about IoT in the transport sector

The Smart Station uses several other ways of gauging traffic, crowdedness and routes in NS public properties. A combination of bluetooth, Wi-Fi and infrared sensors map the location and movement of people going through the stations. Infrared sensors do the initial count of people in a station, then individuals are tracked using the unique media access control (MAC) addresses of their bluetooth and Wi-Fi-connected devices.

Strategic placement of sensors gather data to give an accurate, replayable oversight of people and their routing in a specific railway station.

Not everybody has a device with bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi, or has that wireless functionality activated, but the basic counting by infrared sensors makes up for this gap in station scanning.

Privacy by design

The nature of this system might anger or worry citizens who are concerned about privacy, but that has been foreseen and mitigated. Transporter NS, the facility managing company ProRail, and Royal HaskoningDHV have taken pains to practice privacy by design. Specialised advisors and legal experts were involved from the first phase of the Smart Stations realisation.

Gathered data is anonymised and privacy is guarded on three levels: on a technical level, by using one-way hashing for privacy sensitive data such as the MAC addresses; on a process level, by time-limiting the storage of data; and on an organisational level, by educating and training employees and undergoing regular privacy audits.

If any doubts surface, the privacy officer of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen can shut down the whole system until issues are resolved.

Data insights improve travel

The early project in Leiden delivered valuable insights six weeks into the monitoring period. Based on these measurements, the crowds at Leiden Centraal Station were divided into three categories: train travellers arriving and leaving; visitors using the shops and catering outlets; and pedestrians crossing the train hub as the fastest route to their city destination.

This approach has given quantitative insights into the various routes around the train station. Those insights have given the NS practical information to discuss with the city council and other stakeholders concerning the flows to and from the station. Pavements, bike paths, traffic lights and bicycle parking all form part of the broader traffic ecosystem surrounding the smartened up train station.

The project in Leiden has been continued on a regular basis, and expanded to larger and busier railway stations. These include the central train stations of Amsterdam and Utrecht, each handling more than a quarter of a million people on a daily basis. The main railway stations of both cities have been transformed, partly guided by the analysis of data delivered by sensors. The central station of the northern city of Groningen and the Amsterdam railway station at Schiphol Airport have also been made smart.

At Schiphol and Leiden, the measurement of traveller streams has been done continuously since 2013. Amsterdam has followed in this automated mapping to improve the flow of people.

These measurements lead to adjustments in the layout of stations and help with regards to planned construction works and expansion, said NS in its 2015 annual report. Amsterdam Centraal Station has recently finished a large reconstruction, and the national train hub of Utrecht Centraal Station has also undergone its own renovation.

The science of smart stations

All this may sound like simple traffic management, but it is a relatively young, dynamic and expanding field of science.

Thanks to many small sensors, strategically placed and linked to an analytics engine, a much more detailed picture arises on which decisions can be based – smart decisions for travellers and public transport operators, and also for other people and businesses.

Separately, detailed analysis by scientists at the Delft University of Technology has also delivered insights into routing choices by people in stations.

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