Four strategies for improving flexibility, responsiveness and efficiency

The global pandemic has certainly disrupted the passenger rail sector in an unprecedented way: volatile demand, evolving sanitary procedures, frequent timetable changes – and of course – plummeting ridership revenues. Nonetheless, passenger rail remains a core component of urban mobility and decarbonization of the transportation sector. These challenges, along with an evolving market and growing operational constraints, require rail operators to be more flexible and efficient than ever.

For over 40 years, public transport and passenger rail operators worldwide
have relied on the integrated modules and powerful algorithms in GIRO’s HASTUS software to optimize planning, scheduling and operations activities. Within an integrated environment, operators can plan, schedule and manage mission-critical resources, from track access and timetables to workforce assignments and train schedules. The resulting efficiency gains enable them to meet evolving business goals while also striking the right balance between quality of service, resource constraints and operation costs.

Below are four proven strategies for achieving such resilience. They stem from discussions between rail operators and GIRO’s chief rail experts, Alexandre Savard, Director of Business Development, and Jean-Marc Pennont, Product Manager.

  • Strategy 1: Implement dynamic timetabling to adapt and improve service.
  • Strategy 2: Leverage integrated planning to improve processes, resource allocation and costs
  • Strategy 3: Optimize rolling stock and maintenance planning to make schedules more robust and cost-efficient.
  •  Strategy 4: Embrace short-term workforce scheduling and optimization to adapt to changes and empower frontline staff.

Dynamic timetabling
The pandemic has doubled or even tripled the frequency at which some railways have had to adjust their timetables. This doesn’t include all the last-minute changes needed to keep up with evolving sanitary rules and rampant workforce unavailability.

One of the biggest barriers to dynamic timetable adjustments has long been crew shifts, which can’t be significantly changed once they’re agreed upon with staff and the union.

‘HASTUS has powerful optimization capabilities that allow for dynamic shift adjustments while keeping them within the acceptable range – such as ensuring the new report time stays within 30 minutes of the original report time’ says Jean-Marc Pennont. ‘It also takes into account up-to-date ridership data and projected demand as well as rolling-stock plans. Imagine a single environment where you can move a train and instantly visualize and resolve the impacts on rolling stock and work shifts.’

Integrated planning

Rail timetabling is just one piece of the complex scheduling puzzle. Annual scheduling, day of operations, timetables, track access, rolling stock, workforce. Everything has to be carefully synchronized to allocate resources in the most robust and cost-efficient way possible, without compromising on safety. Being able to publish changes to schedules quickly is also essential, as riders, on-board workforce and station staff need – and expect – to have the most up-to-date schedules.

Managing track access in a shared infrastructure network used by various operators is another puzzle. It takes time, expertise, and resources to efficiently analyse new track-access requests and apply changes, especially on high-traffic corridors.

‘HASTUS streamlines the back-and-forth between the infrastructure manager and train operators’ says Alexandre Savard. ‘If a rail operator requests a new train path or changes to an existing path to better fit its new timetable, HASTUS can use custom or standard data interfaces such as RailML to analyse and process responses from the infrastructure manager. For instance, if track access is granted, but with a slight time variation, HASTUS would automatically inform the operator if this violates any of its rolling-stock circulation rules or creates any discrepancies in workforce assignments. By improving integration and collaboration between stakeholders, HASTUS ensures that all resources required at a given time and location are available. This makes it easier
for operators to adapt their services more efficiently while controlling access costs and planning more robust schedules.’

Rolling stock maintenance
Creating and securing a viable rolling stock plan is yet another complex matter. Operators naturally want to keep these plans as stable as possible, as any planned or unplanned changes to rolling stock are likely to impact timetables and assigned staff. With optimization software, operators can generate, compare and put rolling-stock plans in service in record time.

‘The rolling-stock optimization algorithms in HASTUS can consider variables such as passenger demand, infrastructure constraints, rolling-stock types, yard capacity, maintenance and servicing plans and overnight service’ says Pennont. ‘This ensures the most cost-efficient deployment of rolling stock to cover all services while meeting maintenance requirements.’

By generating and optimizing rolling stock plans, operators can increase network robustness and quality of service while adapting schedules more dynamically to meet changing passenger demand or cope with service adaptations such as track works.

It can also lead to potential cost savings by reducing mileage, improving maintenance schedules and accurately defining the required workforce.

‘Optimization is a multi-variable problem in which resources, quality of service and costs have to be carefully balanced’ says Savard. ‘Optimization software leads to better-adapted rolling-stock plans that are robust, conflict-free, and ready to put in service with minimal adjustments.’

Empower frontline staff
Technology also lets operators build more freedom into their workforce assignments. One case in point is SNCF, which recently tested a dynamic work-assignment system that considers staff preferences at the Paris Est station. This was done in the context of a major HASTUS implementation program aimed at transforming rolling-stock and workforce planning and management at
SNCF Voyages, Transilien and TER. GIRO has also collaborated with several operators on developing short-term optimization algorithms and personalized rostering features in HASTUS. Instead of assigning detailed workweeks several months in advance, operators now only publish days off and high-level duties to employees on a mobile portal. Employees then enter their work preferences for a given date or period using their smartphone.

‘If a train driver who normally works day shifts needs to attend to some personal matters, they can indicate a preference for evening shifts for the next little while’ explains Pennont. ‘When the adjustments period is closed, HASTUS distributes work by taking into account all rules, regulations, qualifications, costs and personal preferences in the most efficient and fair manner possible.’

Operators who adopt this more flexible and personalized short-term planning approach report a significant decrease in absenteeism, uncovered work and overtime costs. Employees say they have a better work-life balance and feel empowered because they are more involved in the planning process.

‘We support rail operators across the globe, and nearly all of them are focused on building enough resilience into their ecosystem to handle whatever the future brings’ says Alexandre Savard. ‘Optimization software lets them improve robustness, flexibility and efficiency.’

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