Holland is the high-tech pioneer

They take journey planning seriously in Holland. A bus, tram or railway timetable can be the source of as much lengthy and animated conversation as politics, the weather or even football. What’s different is that virtually everyone in the Netherlands has to be a bit of an expert when it comes to getting from A […]

They take journey planning seriously in Holland. A bus, tram or railway timetable can be the source of as much lengthy and animated conversation as politics, the weather or even football.

What’s different is that virtually everyone in the Netherlands has to be a bit of an expert when it comes to getting from A to B. The public transport system may be excellent, but the 15.5 million population is, quite simply, far too large for such a small country especially as the majority are bunched together in the centre of the land.

The capacity for congestion, travel delay and over-complexity in moving this massive group of people around by train, tram, bus and car is vast. Which is why a few years ago, the Dutch state railway company Nederlandse Spoorwagon (NS) created a small team of innovators charged with automating the group’s timetable system.

Three years ago, NS sold its ‘ideas’ unit to US software giant EDS. Eduard Tulp of EDS says the in-house group had already completed some quite advanced work on creating a software suite called Journey Planner for the railway company and its enquiry desks.

The system, introduced in 1988, has since been adapted in a variety of forms. A version directly available to the public has been a big seller with an information-hungry Dutch public. What EDS has done is to take the seeds of the basic idea and sow them to a far greater audience, says Tulp.

Like all good ideas, Journey Planner was based on some solid fundamentals. The core of the system is a set of routing software giving the best travel possibilities based on actual timetable information, date and departure or arrival time. As well as suggesting the quickest route, the system tries to find routes which take a bit longer but need fewer changes.

Journey Planner was used throughout the organisation and at all enquiry offices, transforming the reliability and speed of information passed on to passengers.

Mobile applications

Turning its attention to the trains themselves, the group devised a mobile application called Railpocket, a hand-held Hewlett Packard 200 LX palmtop computer, with a range of options for NS’s 3,000 conductors and platform personnel.

Eduard Tulp says EDS has taken the idea into a number of other European countries: ‘It is now in use all over Scandinavia in Denmark, Sweden and Finland where it’s very successful. The thinking is that it will find application in many more countries as well.’

But what about the UK, with its varied, privatised and decentralised rail system? ‘We’re already in the UK market, in that we independently market a UK Railway Planner system,’ says Tulp. ‘That’s possible because the rail regulators have made all the information freely available. Railtrack has a central database which is available to us so it was a simple task to integrate that information with the software.’

But this is only marketed direct to the general public. EDS has yet to sell either an information or ticketing system to the independent railway operators in Britain, but believes it is only a matter of time before this happens. In the meantime, the group is forging ahead with newer, more advanced versions of the original idea.

The goal is to embrace the entire public transport system, from trams, to trains, to buses and even ferry crossings. In Sweden, a digital map of Stockholm was created in one version of the system, which enable users to plan their journey with awesome accuracy. There’s even a module which lets you estimate how long it will take you to walk between different transport modes.

Tulp says the possibilities are endless: ‘We can help with all sorts of journey planning for multimodal or intermodal trips and I can also see it being used to plan car trips. But at the moment our big customers are all public transport networks and I guess they would not be too happy if we were to give this planning capability to their biggest competitors cars.’

Alan Dickey in Amsterdam