ICAI Interview with Marjan van den Akker: Using algorithms to future-proof the Dutch public transport system

The Utrecht AI & Mobility Lab addresses complicated planning puzzles in public transport. Marjan van den Akker: ‘We are in a quadrangle with learning from data, optimization algorithms, agent-based simulations and human-centered AI.’

Marjan van den Akker (foto: GSNS, Utrecht University)

Marjan van den Akker is Scientific Director of ICAI’s Utrecht AI & Mobility Lab and is Associate Professor at the Information and Computing Science department of Utrecht University.

Utrecht AI & Mobility Lab is a collaboration of Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), Prorail and Qbuzz.

There are quite a few problems with public transport in the Netherlands right now. Mainly, that it’s overloaded. What kinds of problems is the AI & Mobility Lab addressing?

Marjan van den Akker: ‘One of the things we are investing is the planning for the service locations of the Dutch railways. At these locations the trains are parked when they are not running. They are cleaned there and small maintenance check and operations are carried out. These locations are in big city areas, close to the railway stations. Because of the enormous passenger growth, they are really overloaded.

And with the Dutch bus company Qbuzz we look into issues related to the energy transition and electric vehicles. Currently an electric bus cannot drive all day without charging, so you have to incorporate this in the schedule. We have to answer questions like: Do we charge often, which is good for the batteries? Or do we charge less, which makes the scheduling less complicated?’

How can these problems be tackled with AI techniques?

‘What we see at the service locations of the NS is that the problems are so complex that we need a hybrid approach. We have to combine optimization algorithms and learning algorithms. Another challenge is that all these planning algorithms are incorporated in decision support systems. They are used by humans in two ways. One way is on a strategic and policy level where people use the algorithms to estimate capacities of the transport system. The other way is in the actual operations where human planners need to work together with the system. The system does all these complicated calculations and suggests solutions, but it may happen that the human operator has to alter the plan because of a sudden change.’

Is this approach unique in the Netherlands?

‘Yes, to have all these different approaches in one computer science department is rather unique. Most places in the Netherlands use Operation Research in a mathematical way. But we use a hybrid approach of computational AI and Operation Research algorithms.’

Can you already tell us something about the lab first results?

‘We are a long-term lab and it’s founded on the bases of research that has already been running for some years. Four years ago one of our PhD students, Roel van den Broek, started on an algorithm for the planning of the service locations of the NS. The NS is currently running a pilot with this algorithm and intends to take it into use. This algorithm plans everything on the service locations: where the arriving trains have to be parked, when they go into the maintenance facility and the cleaning platform and which train units have to be coupled or decoupled. And that all has to be arranged in this highly packed area.’

You have been a technology consultant at the National Aerospace Laboratory for five years. Does that experience help you in working with companies?

‘Yes, I think I have more insight in the application domain. The goals of companies are a bit different from the goals of the scientists. A company of course, is mostly interested in the results and not in the paper that we write.’

What are the ambitions of the lab?

‘We want to extend in the field of logistics. We have conversations with new companies that are involved with mobility as a service. For example a company that organizes the use of shared cars and bikes and also gives travel advice. We try to connect as much as possible with all kinds of organizations in the new changing mobility area.’

Utrecht University has founded the AI Labs, of which the Mobility & AI Lab is part, and is ambitious in the field of innovative AI techniques. Can you tell us something about these plans?

‘Labs are a good instrument to achieve research. The UU started out with the Police Lab a few years ago, and that was very successful. So we are founding AI labs now in all kinds of areas. Besides the mobility theme, we are working on setting up labs in the fields of sustainability, health, media and the humanities. In Utrecht we can provide multidisciplinary research, in a way that a university of technology couldn’t, because we have more possibilities to take a human-centered approach.’

On November 18, 2021, the Utrecht AI & Mobility Lab will talk about their current work during the lunch Meetup of ‘ICAI: The Labs’ on AI and Mobility in the Netherlands. Want to join? Sign up!