Friday, February 1st, is an absolute low point in the history of high-speed trains in the Netherlands. We have one high speed line (HSL) that connects to Belgium. From December 2012, the new high speed service on the HSL has replaced the Benelux train between Amsterdam and Brussels via the old line.
Not for long though. The new high speed train “Fyra V250 Albatros” encountered such serious defects that it had to be withdrawn from service. But with our congested network, no path was available to reinstate the Benelux service over the old line.
So an alternative had to be found to bridge this important gap between Amsterdam and Brussels.
Temporary fix: a temporary service every two hours (half the original), eight times per day from The Hague HS to Brussels runs in 2 hours and 15 minutes via the old line. In the weekend it runs to Antwerp. For comparisons sake, that is only half the frequency of the original Benelux service that ran hourly from Amsterdam and was often jam-packed…
The failure of the V250 trainset itself is serious but the whole discussion of Fyra and HSL (high speed line) clearly indicates that the Netherlands are stuck with a line that never should have been built in the first place.
How did it get to this?
European unification gave a desire to connect major cities in Europe. The success of the French TGV proved to be an excellent alternative to aviation over these distances. In France and Germany, the distances between major cities are large enough for high-speed trains. Additionally, high speed trains can run on existing tracks too. It is therefore logical to interconnect European cities with a high-speed rail network.
The Netherlands eagerly ambitioned to connect to the high-speed network. The Netherlands, being a trading/logistic hub and port to Europe, should not miss out.
The cost saving French method seemed the way to go; to run high speed trains within cities on existing tracks and only on high speed track where they were cheap to construct. And completely betting on the new European train safety system to be available by that time saved the cost of having to build two safety systems.
Unfortunately our penny wise planners thus overlooked some important aspects:
- The properties of a high speed train in terms of acceleration, top speed and braking require cities to be far apart to use this type of train to its full potential.
- The cities in the Netherlands are however so close together that a high speed train never achieves its intended speed.
- Hence running the HSL along the old line was impossible. So the high speed train had to run on a new dedicated route, skipping some important cities.
- That high-speed trains can run on existing track does not mean that ordinary trains thus should run on the HSL. Passengers are not going to be amused if their intercity service can no longer call at major intercity stations like The Hague and Leiden because it runs on the HSL. And hold up real high-speed trains while doing so.
- Moreover, the current trains do not run under the HSL power and safety systems. And they won’t be replaced before the next 30-40 years.
- To let the HST use the existing track was a mistake. It works for France, but the Dutch rail network is much more congested. Any extra train at the station increases the chance of delays for all trains. Taking the little time saved out the window. Why would passengers want to pay a supplemental fee for that?
The planners had better looked at the densely populated Japan, where high-speed trains (Shinkansen) run punctual because they always run on their dedicated track and platforms even within cities. (Are the HS2 adepts beginning to see an anology?)
Left holding the proverbial bag
The result has become painfully clear. After cancelling the existing Benelux service, major cities in the Randstad were no longer serviced at the cost of loss of passengers and increased journey times. The political capital The Hague found itself without a direct link to the political center of Brussels. Now the city (!) of The Hague is trying to set up that connection over to old line.
To travel on the Fyra, you pay a surcharge. But on average, delays void your time saved one day a week. The reservation requirement and higher ticket price for the service to Brussels took the fun out of occassional journeys. The Thalys (a premium TGV service between Amsterdam and Paris) suffered from increased delays. And people with disabilities were once again lost out.
There is a lot of public discontent about AnsaldoBreda (manufacturer of Fyra V250) and NS (the national train operator). From both passengers and competing rail operators. But changing operators is not going to solve the aforementioned shortcomings. Trains from another manufacturer take years before qualification to run on the HSL. Moreover, neither solves the problem with our too small distances between stations.
Could we’ve done it differently?
The rail sector and Dutch politics could have had done better if they had considered all available transport modes of the 1990s.
But the planners were too fixated on the savings of the French high-speed model in combination with using existing track. Other alternatives were waived off as being too expensive, batting with the just acceptable projected passenger numbers.
However, none seemed to think about how to attract more passengers than projected. Increasing the number passengers will allow to invest more and still improve the return on investment.
Bypassing major cities such as The Hague and Leiden is certainly not the way to attract more passengers. This fact alone should have made the government understand that a high speed train is not the right solution for the Netherlands.
One possibility would have been to use a more appropriate lower speed to call more often. But if you’re going to construct completely separate infrastructure anyway, there are other options.
Only one system in the 90s was (and still is) capable of combining high speeds with short distances: the magnetically levitated train (Maglev).
- The Maglev is designed as a regular intercity train with spacious, wheelchair friendly level entrance and interior. It would be useful to many more people than the smaller number of international travelers on a Thalys with a luxurious bar.
- At high frequencies of every 5-15 minutes many more people would be able to spontaneously use them. Without having to reserve seats.
- Maglev has been extensively tested for commercial acceptance. Not surprisingly, Maglev has proven in practice to be more reliable and punctual than other trains.
- The passenger value of a reliable and fast connection would surpass the extra cost of building infrastructure in (or under) urban areas.
- The journey from Amsterdam to Brussels would take about an hour, with stops at 12 stations. Including The Hague and 3 airports. Even if Belgium would not cooperate and you had to change trains at the border, the system would still be faster than what we have now.
- The maglev train Transrapid, being a German product, could have possibly extended to Cologne and Frankfurt under a Dutch-German political agreement. Amsterdam would have a direct connection to the financial capital of Europe.
That would have been a real alternative to the car and the airplane. There would be no need for Fyra nor Thalys.
Netherlands is a strong economic and innovative region in the world. However, with the rise of the BRIC countries and other continents, the Netherlands must strengthen its infrastructure to maintain this position. A Maglev system that replaces the entire intercity service is one part of a solution to do so. And the railway sector can step up to a much higher modal share and service level.
Wouter van Gessel
Chairman of the Foundation Freedom of Mobility.