ProRail Uses Low-Code Automation to Deliver Reliable Transportation
I’m a doer,” says Johan van der Linde, ICT Manager at ProRail. In 2012, van der Linde was hired at ProRail, a company assigned by the Dutch Government to maintain over 6,800 km of their national railway, to build a development team that “does”, quickly creating applications that create business value.
To achieve this goal, a new way of developing was needed at ProRail. “My first step was to build a solution-oriented team of suppliers (the way ProRail refers to developers) that understood IT and the business,” says van der Linde. “and the suppliers must love to try new things, adopting new technology and moving toward a solution as soon as possible.” With a growing team of suppliers in place, van der Linde tasked them with addressing ProRail’s business goals and initiatives.
ProRail’s mission is simple – to ensure passenger and freight rail travel in the Netherlands is high-quality, safe, on time, and convenient. In practice, however, ProRail’s mission is logistically challenging, requiring the company to maintain a high-quality workforce, using high-quality systems.
The company is organized into three infrastructure management organizations, tasked with maintaining physical rail infrastructure, planning railway allocation 52 hours in advance, and planning traffic control 52 hours in advance. “There is often more demand than there is track capacity,” says van der Linde, “and IT is responsible for the processes that enable our railway network to operate properly.”
For example, while planning railway allocation and traffic control, ProRail will send the capacity to NS, a company responsible for the operation of trainsets, who will then set availability expectations with their customers, accordingly. These intricate calculations are maintained by ProRail’s core systems, and a report on adherence to KPIs is submitted to the Dutch Government. If ProRail and NS do not meet these standards, they are fined.
Beyond these core responsibilities, ProRail constantly aims to rationalize its internal processes, creating a leaner, more efficient organization that spends its resources wisely.
ProRail’s core systems operation is sophisticated and of extremely high importance to the Netherlands, requiring a substantial amount of IT oversight. At the same time, the business at ProRail was constantly generating new ideas to create efficiencies in their processes, first asking IT for help solving these problems, and sometimes turning to third-party solutions. This situation was difficult – growing ProRail’s backlog and creating a proliferation of Shadow IT.
“The IT department had to have more influence on business processes,” said van der Linde, “we needed to use our tech-first perspective to prescribe the right solution to the problem the business was hoping to solve.” ProRail needed a new way of developing applications, enabling Johan’s team, and IT as a whole, to build applications that were fast-to-market, first-time-right, and highly reliable in the office automation domain.
ProRail considered a number of options to address their growing backlog and proliferating of Shadow IT. Off-the-shelf solutions were proposed, solving for particular business initiatives, but proved too expensive or insufficient. “Off-the-shelf solutions often mean you end up with a bunch of features you don’t need or use – a big waste of money,” commented van der Linde. The decision was made to seek an application platform – a foundation for ProRail to develop applications that were fine-tuned to solve for their own specific needs.
Johan’s team got to work quickly, and over the past five years, has built 37 applications on the platform, creating significant operational efficiency gains. These applications include:
Risk Management & Contract Management Application
- ProRail uses the “Performance Oriented Maintenance Contract” model when issuing contracts to the third-party organizations that work on the railway system, meaning that their contractors are held to important success KPIs.
- If the contractors do not complete their work according to KPIs, they are penalized by ProRail.
- This application allows ProRail to provision these contracts in a uniform manner, confirming if work is done correctly, and managing its expenses in a wellordered manner.
Work Management Application
- To maintain the integrity of the Dutch railway system, ProRail has employees working 24 hours a day over 3 different shifts.
- Previously, shift workers responsible for the same tasks (like inspecting railway stations), would manually log their work on paper, leaving the paper for the next shift responsible.
- The Work Management application allows ProRail employees to use their mobile device to enter their completed work for the day, transferring it to the next employee.
- ProRail is responsible for a significant amount of maintenance and new construction projects across the Dutch railway system.
- To properly plan and execute these projects, engineering consultants and architects are constantly creating and iterating upon technical drawings, all of which need to be organized.
- The Plandix application manages these drawings, as well as their delivery timelines and associated engineers for all ProRail maintenance and construction projects, integrating with the RIGD-LOXIA Railz system to ensure proper storage of these key artifacts.
“Platform development is more efficient,” says van der Linde, “you build one thing and you re-use it. We’ve found that as we build functionality, we can re-use it across our portfolio.” This new approach to application development, working alongside the business and re-using functionality, has enabled ProRail and its IT team to significantly speed development and satisfy the business, all while creating significant operational efficiency gains.
The adoption of the Mendix platform has delivered multifaceted value to ProRail and its IT team.
- “Projects are delivered more quickly now. We wowed the business with much shorter time to value, and have gotten IT even closer to the business, giving us quicker solutions.”
- “We’ve been able to transfer a lot of our development from waterfall to SCRUM/Agile, and on to DevOps. The Mendix platform is helping us manage that transition.”
- “Every development hour costs money. With the Mendix platform and an agile approach, we’ve been able to reduce the hours of development on our development projects by 5x.”
The Mendix platform alone, however, is not singularly responsible for ProRail’s IT successes. It took:
- The right people, building a team of suppliers that were talented and solution-oriented.
- The right process, transitioning a waterfallcentric development organization to an agile-first one.
- The right app portfolio, building a relationship with business success-by-success to ensure that ideas are presented to internal IT, eliminating Shadow IT.
“Managing infrastructure is difficult, and pride in doing it well is in the culture and DNA of ProRail,” says van der Linde, “We’ve been able to build an organization that solves these problems by looking at technology as an opportunity, not a threat. In my time of management my team was able to reduce the quantity of applications from 150 single applications to 105 from which 25 are running on a platform; this is a major rationalization in the infrastructure. We’re now constantly looking at new ways of thinking, and we’re not afraid of making mistakes.” With the right team, ambitions, mindset, and technology, ProRail’s IT team has turned a corner, and continues to deliver for their business colleagues and the citizens of the Netherlands.