The future is multimodal

Amsterdam Schiphol’s Klaas Boersma reflects on the importance of a shared vision when it comes to embracing multimodality at the world’s airports.

I am obviously biased, but the journey airports have made over the last 50 years to become key social and economic generators, synonymous with global trade and connectivity, still amazes me.

They are prestigious and ambitious, they compete on a global scale, are scrutinised and loved, and, for most of us, the starting point for some of our greatest adventures as they connect us with the rest of the world.

As we all know, airports are more than just about accommodating air traffic movements or a seamless passenger flow through the terminals. Airport have a role to play on all levels of scale. At Amsterdam Schiphol, we aim to facilitate connectivity on all levels of scale, from wide-body intercontinental aircraft to cycle lanes and pedestrian zones.

This perspective is not necessarily new, although I dare venture to claim that airport operators and owners tend to lean more towards the aircraft side than the other modalities. What is new, in my opinion, is that the distinction between modalities and levels of scale is fading, and there is an increased integration of different forms of transport.

Arguably, two major trends are reshaping the way airports should develop – the growing demand for sustainable solutions; and the enormous pace of digitisation.

Sustainable mobility is on the rise, with advancements like biofuels and electric, hydrogen, and solar technologies gradually replacing fossil fuels. This public demand is joined by social responsibility and regulations as air travel needs to significantly reduce its impact on the environment.

Looking at sustainability issues from Schiphol’s perspective, we commissioned The Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) and research institute CE Delft to investigate what is needed in order to bring the airport’s CO2 emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Research showed that at least a 30% reduction in CO2 (when compared to 2019) is needed for Schiphol and European aviation to be on track in 2030. To achieve that, a strengthened national and international policy is needed. Given the strong international nature of aviation, it is essential that the polluter pays.

Furthermore, in the Netherlands we are advocating for a quieter, cleaner and better Schiphol, that is more in balance with our surroundings, in line with our ‘8-point plan’ unveiled last year.

Simultaneously, digital innovations make it a lot easier to travel on multiple modalities: faster, cheaper, safer, and more efficient and more sustainable.

Digital platforms are becoming more and more mature. Therefore, we see the emergence of cross-modality and cross-operator mobility services. These services shall enable passengers to seamlessly plan, book, and pay for journeys across various operators and modes of (sustainable) transport.

Sharing information between transportation operators here is essential, and requires companies to look beyond their natural interest and see a bigger picture.

Multimodal journeys are expected to leverage the strengths of different transportation modes. However, the success of such journeys hinges on the efficiency of transfers between modalities, which occur at transit hubs like airports, rail stations, and public transit terminals.

To optimise these transfers and enhance the passenger experience, the concept of multimodality is gaining more and more traction in boardrooms. Multimodal hubs where multiple transportation modes converge and offer bundled services that streamline the journey for travellers are going to be the new normal.

Multimodality, I firmly believe, will be the driver for the next wave of transport oriented development. And, as such, multimodal-connectivity is destined to become one of the unique drivers for foreign direct investments.

While the European Commission has advocated for the transformation of airports, ports, and stations into multimodal connection platforms back in 2011, the transition is still in its early stages.

Airports, in particular, hold immense potential to develop into multimodal hubs due to their existing infrastructure and integration capabilities. However, the current focus of most airport hubs remains primarily on facilitating transfers within air travel rather than between different modes of transportation

Nevertheless, there are some lighthouse examples of airports clearly focusing on becoming more. And the sector is beginning to see more airlines advocating for air-rail integration and multimodal services.

To become multimodal hubs, airports must adapt and innovate to accommodate high-quality transfers between various travel modalities and embrace a similar passenger-centric approach between different transport options.

This is something we are aiming to explore and develop at Amsterdam Schiphol in collaboration with Railforum – an independent knowledge network for the public transport and rail sector with more than 2,500 members from 173 companies, governments and organisations.

Many airport planners will know that Schiphol Airport is fortunate as it is located on top of the European Ten-T network, the main rail network both within the Netherlands and Europe.

Physical proximity of these two modalities (air and rail) is not an issue. Almost 50% of Schiphol’s O&D passengers use the train to get to and from the airport. It becomes more challenging when one aims to integrate international train services (instead of short-haul flights) to connect to long-haul or vice versa as this blurs the lines on a national, northwest-European and global scale.

Bringing together integrated air and rail links relies heavily on understanding the unique attributes and similarities of the two modes. Train timetables, for example, work differently (hourly repetition) to the (slot driven) schedules of airline networks.

Getting the right connections and guaranteeing the service is a whole new ball game for all parties involved. We all want to play this game, but we are still trying to understand and make the rules. There are some diverging interests and there aren’t yet many guidelines to work with (yet).

At Schiphol, we closely collaborate with the airlines and rail operators, with the rail infrastructure and capacity planners, and the national government as we believe that a truly successful implementation requires a platform to discuss and get to know each other’s sectors.

This paved the way for our joint collaboration on a pilot project between KLM and Eurostar Thalys, and we all learned a lot from the experience.

We discovered, for example, that information and wayfinding promoting the air-rail services were clear issues. As a result, we have started to include flight numbers for the train service on FIDS boards in the terminal.

KLM and Schiphol also created a special instruction video for transferring passengers. While NS (Dutch Railways) included flight numbers on their signage above the train tracks. These are relatively simple adjustments that improve the air-rail product.

In order to address air-rail ambitions in the long run, we have started multi-stakeholders strategy sessions that explore various scenarios. The five previously mentioned parties aim at understanding each other’s responses and needs in different future scenarios, guided by the Technical University of Delft.

These multi-sector, public and private scenario sessions are not necessarily geared to formulating a single cross-sector strategy, but more designed to paint a clear picture for policymakers, infrastructural investment needs, and business service design challenges. They therefore provide a narrative to the cross sectoral game we are starting to play.

In parallel, we work with the rail sector parties in Railforum, and through the Taskforce International Rail Transport – which contributes to the promotion of a single European rail system – we developed a set of recommendations for the European Committee and Dutch national government on how to improve international rail connections.

These include, among others, sharing data, creating awareness on cultural differences, improving international rail transport competitiveness, taking the cross-border network as a starting point, supporting a pilot project and providing slack capacity.

Ultimately, truly becoming multimodal as an airport requires that all relevant stakeholders share in a vision, share in ambition and are willing to learn from each other and set aside their differences and interests and work on the bigger picture.

It requires flexibility and a sincere interest to work in multiple fields and to learn from each other. Isn’t that what life is about anyway?

About the author

Klaas Boersma is the senior strategic advisor on master planning at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, board member of Railforum, and helps drive the airport’s intermodal agenda.

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