Running to Time - Integrated Rail Freight Scheduling
July 19, 2011 | 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands
Scheduling rail freight requires highly detailed planning, all of which is liable to delays. Dutch-based freight planning specialist Quintiq, however, has come up with a system to configure locomotives, crews and checks into an integrated platform. Rowan Watt-Pringle discovers how Quintiq's software overcomes the intricacies of visualising and pre-empting unforeseen events.
Independent international logistics group SNCB Logistics has chosen the planning system from Quintiq to aid a major restructuring that aims for a significant improvement in the operation's quality and productivity.
Supporting the full resource planning cycle, from long-term planning through to execution, Quintiq's planning solution is intended to integrate the planning and scheduling of SNCB's line locomotives, shunting machines, drivers and ground operators
Advanced planning and scheduling (APS) specialist Ab Ovo, along with Rail IT, is implementing Quintiq's software for SNCB, with long-term planning ready to go live later this year and real-time execution management expected in early 2012.
According to SNCB Logistics CEO Geert Pauwels, the proven state-of-the-art Quintiq software, in combination with Ab Ovo's specific rail and APS expertise, perfectly matched the group's business requirements, adding, "We needed an integrated IT system that permits us to perfectly synchronise all our processes and resource utilisation. Moreover, this system has to be integrated and implemented in the short term ... After an intensive selection process we decided to choose Ab Ovo and Quintiq."
Rowan Watt-Pringle spoke to Quintiq senior sales executive Ruud Verstegen to learn more about this innovative integration platform.
Rowan Watt-Pringle: What is the primary advantage to be gained from combining different resources into a single integrated technology platform?
Ruud Verstegen: By combining different resources into a single integrated technology platform, companies can overcome interoperability issues. Determining whether a planning solution is feasible is a very complicated process, due to the many constraints involved. For example, not all driver / train combinations are possible because drivers have different qualifications and route authorisation.
Quintiq tackles this challenge through its easy constraint management. The system will check all rules and constraints related to the orders, locomotives, drivers, shunters, train paths and any combination between the latter. Automatic checks are performed on almost all regulations - is a locomotive allowed on a particular route or train type? Does a driver have the route knowledge to run the service? Does the driver have the certification to drive the assigned locomotive type?
In case there is a change in the plan (like a planner deciding to assign a different locomotive) the Quintiq system will check in real-time whether any constraint has been violated.
Furthermore, violations are available to all affected users in the graphic planning views, significantly enhancing the utilisation of resources and circumventing operational disturbances resulting from interoperability issues.
RWP: How exactly does Quintiq visualise potential future events and devise strategies to deal with such a wide range of scenarios?
RV: Quintiq understands the complexity of dealing with day-to-day operations. Especially during execution management, it is advantageous to have a planning system in place which perfectly reflects reality; because the Quintiq technology planning platform is driven by business logic, any business rule or constraint can be easily defined within the system, creating a 100% fit solution.
When disturbances occur, Quintiq immediately calculates and visualises their impact on the complete plan using a component of the software, called the propagator engine, thereby allowing all planners to proactively take appropriate and timely action for their area of responsibility. In addition, this sophisticated solution helps companies to meet important business goals by mitigating the effects unforeseen disturbances have on long-term plans. The user-friendly interface makes interaction between the planner and the system direct, fast and intuitive: individual planners choose the visualisation according to their specific planning requirements, creating insightful displays of data that enable them to make informed and effective decisions.
By showing company-specific key performance indicators (KPIs) - such as resource utilisation, employee satisfaction and customer service levels - in the user interface, the user is directly informed on the quality of the decision taken. This results in a system which offers decision support and in which the planner has full control.
RWP: In what way does Quintiq's system keep delays to a minimum and to what extent is it able to achieve this?
RV: Operational disturbances typically include delays, unavailability of planned resources and last minute changes. The propagator already mentioned handles disturbances in the operation as they happen, instantly deriving every consequence and presenting the end-user with alternative solutions for any problems it anticipates. This will help a dispatcher to notice an operative issue before it arises in the live operation. Furthermore, if a dispatcher already knows an unexpected event will cause issues to arise in the near or long-term future, they can take proactive steps to resolve problems before they occur.
RWP: What are some of the main supply chain challenges that can be alleviated via the Quintiq system?
RV: As the European market leader in advanced planning solutions for the rail freight industry, Quintiq offers a full range of solutions for every planning horizon, from strategic planning, simulation and timetable generation, to tactical capacity planning and diagramming, as well as daily real-time revision management and short-term operational planning and dispatch.
RWP: How resilient is the system - are there any circumstances in which it might fail or be put under excessive strain and, if so, how would this be dealt with?
RV: At Quintiq we understand that a planning solution is a business critical system and many of our customers use the system in a 24/7 environment. Quintiq's IT architecture is designed for large companies, allowing customers to take full advantage of the variety of IT architectural options provided. Quintiq offers a central server with the customer's entire business model and multiple users across the network. The system can be divided or shared over multiple physical servers, allowing the construction of several types of failover strategies.
Interaction with other systems is key for any advanced planning and optimisation solution, while the system is also reliant on data quality. Quintiq's technology is able to integrate into external systems - such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), HR systems and handheld devices - using a multitude of technologies including XML, open database connectivity (OBDC) and simple object access protocol (SOAP).
Train and schedule information can be checked against the infrastructure manager's timetable system in real-time and any differences between the internal and external timetable are visualised, enabling the planner to take appropriate action.
RWP: What specific challenges are presented by the rail freight industry compared to other supply chains?
RV: The rail freight industry has changed dramatically due to its liberalisation and the entrance of new competitors, while increasing focus on reducing the carbon footprint of transport operations presented rail freight operators with new opportunities and challenges, including the need to optimise the utilisation of a fixed rail network by multiple operators with varying schedules and needs.
Former state-owned companies have had to deal with increased competition, while new rail companies are creating ways to differentiate themselves - something Quintiq's integrated technology platform does by combating interoperability issues between the rail network, resources and so on.
As customer demands increase, market players are being forced to make a bold tactical decision: whether to focus on operating fixed, highly efficient rail services or to become flexible, multimodal, door-to-door operators.
RWP: Alongside SNCB Logistics, who else is using the Quintiq system and, finally, how will the relationship between Quintiq and SNCB evolve in the future?
RV: Other rail freight operators are already using our system, including Swedish operator Green Cargo and DB Schenker Rail in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The system is currently being implemented at Swedish-based Hector Rail, an independent line haul provider for the European Rail Transport Market.
Our implementation partner Ab Ovo is busy readying the system for operation at SNCB and Quintiq is involved via the project's steering committee. Following the primary implementation within SNCB's newly established operations, the solution will also be rolled out to SNCB's international production affiliates Cobra, Sibelit and OSR France. Finally, while some initial talks have been held it is still too early to say whether or not SNCB's passenger division will also adopt the Quintiq system to oversee its resource planning, but the relationship between Quintiq and SNCB Logistics looks set to go from strength to strength.