When Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS, the Dutch Railways) expressed that they were looking for quicker recovery solutions following railway disruptions, Deb Panja took the challenge. Together with a team of researchers from Utrecht University, Erasmus University Rotterdam, TU Delft and TNO, Panja has landed an NWO Complexity in Transport and Logistics grant worth €590,000, of which €90,000 is co-funded by NS and ProRail. The team will investigate disruptions and (near) out-of-control situations in the Dutch railway system, and work to improve the system’s resilience and reliability. The research team will seek to develop a complex systems approach, in particular modelling the rail network as a network of networks. Interestingly, similar approaches have sometimes been used in climate and evolutionary ecology research.
The project was originally conceived after Panja and Stefan Dekker (Copernicus Institute) heard a pitch by NS at the launch of the National Platform of Complex Systems. Panja explains: “The problem they pitched resonated very well with us. It appeared to be a classic opportunity to showcase how fundamental research could address a problem of high impact on public life. That evening, when I got home and excitedly told my wife about the conversation we had with NS, she responded: ‘It would have a major impact on everyday public life if you can solve this problem.’ I was moved by that remark.”
In December 2015, Panja and Dekker approached Henk Dijkstra, Professor at the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht (IMAU), to harness his expertise on networks. With a small workshop grant from NWO, they invited researchers from Utrecht, Rotterdam, Delft, NS and ProRail, and TNO in March to brainstorm on the problem and write a proposal, which was funded in November 2016. Panja is really happy with the collaboration from ProRail and NS. “I really hope that shortly after the research is concluded, NS will be able to announce that their disruption handling is working much better than before.”