Feb 24, 2011
Is my train actually going to come on time today? The same question was on the minds of many Berlin residents this winter. The situation, dubbed “commuter rail chaos” in the media, prompted even the Senate to take action about the train cancellations and constant late arrivals. While passengers do not always have to show as much patience as those taking the commuter train in Berlin, it is rare for everything to go smoothly when we travel. Buses, trains, and airplanes often arrive later than the scheduled time. Sometimes natural forces are to blame, but often enough it is also the fault of poor planning on the part of transit companies and airlines that do not deploy their vehicles and staff in the best possible way to keep schedules working smoothly.
This is precisely where Professor Natalia Kliewer can help: Kliewer, a professor of information systems at Freie Universität, develops strategies to optimize routes and schedules and ensure that available staff is assigned highly effectively. The team of researchers headed by the newly established Chair of Information Systems within the School of Business and Economics at Freie Universität works hand in hand with companies including Frankfurt-based Lufthansa, Germany’s flagship airline, and initplan GmbH, a provider of planning and scheduling systems for transportation companies in Karlsruhe.
Kliewer’s work focuses on topics such as scheduling and routing in public transit. “These are highly complex issues,” says the 38-year-old information systems specialist. While a company knows how many employees – such as bus drivers – it has and how many vehicles are available, using that information to craft a schedule that works smoothly and meets the needs of customers isn’t all that simple, says Kliewer: “Many companies have changed their schedules and routes repeatedly over decades, trying to adjust them to fit the real world and its requirements better. But these plans are still far from being optimal.”
With this in mind, Professor Kliewer and her colleagues have developed universal models that get traffic flowing. This kind of model can, however, only be used as a basis and has to be adjusted for each specific company. Kliewer’s team works with mathematical algorithms that have proven their value in finding solutions to many complex issues. The researchers also have to clarify what, exactly, a company and its employees hope to achieve. Only when all of this information is in place can they begin their computer-aided calculations. “We don’t supply schedules or other fixed solutions,” Kliewer says. “Instead, we work together with software companies, as in this case, where we are working with a provider of public transit planning systems – Initplan, in Karlsruhe.” The researchers provide the companies with appropriate methods and models that they can use to achieve specific results, such as schedules and route plans.
Another field in which Kliewer is performing research, and a relatively new one, is revenue management. Models and algorithms are used in this sector as well, but instead of vehicles and staff, the focus is on flight tickets or hotel rooms. After all, airlines aim to sell seats with the best possible returns, and hotels hope to do the same with beds. Kliewer views the various fields in which she works as offering a thrilling range of challenges: “We don’t just deal with theory; we also know directly what our work has accomplished in practice.”