Alfons Schaafsma

Test facilities for automated train driving in the Netherlands

Why would an infrastructure manager be involved in the automation of train driving? Alfons Schaafsma, advisor Innovation and Development at the Dutch infrastructure manager ProRail will elaborate on this question at the Intelligent Rail Summit in Vienna on 28-30 November this year. Experimenting is key for a successful development of this innovative technology, he beliefs.

As an inframanager supporting the implementation of Automated Train Operations (ATO) in train systems, ProRail aims to facilitate the current developments. “This means we invest time and money, help organise relevant activities and provide test facilities for trains equipped with ATO systems”, said Schaafsma.

Test facilities

As the test labs for automated driving cars are popping up in the Netherlands, ProRail is looking into providing similar facilities for automated driving trains, which do not easily ride around the block. Laying tracks with this sole purpose is not realistic, therefore ProRail is looking at existing railways where experiments would not cause any disturbances.

“The Betuweroute is the most realistic option for such test facility. Due to ongoing construction work on the German side of this connection, the line is not used to its full capacity. There are moments when there is limited to no traffic. Moreover, the signalling system (ERTMS) is compatible to automated driving technology.”

For the same technical reason, the Hanzelijn between Lelystad and Zwolle is considered as a potential test facility, as this line is also equipped with the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Moreover, the northern province of Groningen is keen to provide with test opportunities, Schaafsma explained.


Asked about the advantages of automated driving in trains, Schaafsma highlights the ability to consume energy more economically, an interesting component for an inframanager. “Furthermore, automated driving allows for a reduced headway between trains in a tunnel. As a result, more trains can pass the tunnel in a given time.

‘In this regard we can learn from the UK, where this method is applied in the Thameslink Tunnel. Indeed, this has enabled an increase the number of trains passing the tunnel. This could be a viable solution to the train traffic congestion in our Schiphol Tunnel. Widening of this tunnel would be a very costly project and this is a good alternative for the time being.”

Specific purpose

As he points out, ProRail currently looks at such specific circumstances where automated driving could benefit the railway industry, rather than eyeing an overall implementation in the sector. Another example is the returning of empty trains to the train depot, a task not appealing to most drivers. “Such a task could be carried out with an automated system”, suggests Schaafsma.

Looking at the implementation of ATO-systems in this way, the future is not too far, he believes. Still, there are challenges on the road. “Investments must be made, materials must be provided and employees must be compensated in their concern of losing their job. Automated driving systems are now only taking over tasks, but in the long run, we are heading towards driverless trains, a picture not many train drivers like to see.”


Alfons Schaafsma has been employed in the railway industry for more than thirty years. His core areas of interest are operational traffic management, railway capacity enhancement and time table development, including innovations in these domains. Since 2015 he acts as the ProRail representative in European ATO working groups.

The Intelligent Rail Summit 2017 will take place on 28, 29 and 30 November at the Infocenter of Wiener Linien in Vienna (Austria) and is open for registration

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of and, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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