Economy Transport

Railways: High-speed fiasco in Benelux

22 January 2013
NRC Handelsblad Amsterdam

Two people pose in front of the new high speed Fyra train ahead of it's inaugural journey at Amsterdam's Centraal Station on December 9, 2012.

Two people pose in front of the new high speed Fyra train ahead of it's inaugural journey at Amsterdam's Centraal Station on December 9, 2012.

Less than six weeks after its launch — and a multitude of technical problems later — the high-speed Fyra train between Amsterdam and Brussels has been taken off the tracks. A flop that brings into question the way international supply contracts are handed out.

With his admission that he is "sick and tired of it all,” the chief executive of the Belgian railway company NMBS, Marc Descheemaecker, has voiced the opinion of many travellers on the Fyra high-speed train.

The NMBS director let his anger show on January 21 during the TV programme De zevende dag, broadcast by VRT. Fyra, the train that should have been a high-speed rail link between Amsterdam and Brussels, is a fiasco. Punctuality was poor right from the start [see below], and since last weekend the train has not been running at all — a situation that may last several months.

Causes ranged from a swan on the tracks to infrastructural disruptions in Rotterdam. Also often cited were information and communication problems that delayed trains or even brought them to a complete standstill between stations for an indefinite period of time. It now appears that technical problems with the rolling stock, the V250, are also causing serious concerns.

Penny wise, pound foolish

Apparently the trains cannot cope with ice blocks. A piece of bodywork and a protection grill from the Fyra train were found on the tracks. No wonder therefore that the safety department of the Belgian railways imposed a traffic ban [on January 18].

Accusatory fingers are now being pointed at the manufacturer, the Italian company AnsaldoBreda, which issued a hasty apology. But the question is also why NS-Hispeed and NMBS opted for this supplier and not one of the better-known makers of rolling stock on the European network, such as Siemens, Alstom or Bombardier. A classic case of “penny wise, pound foolish”?

The Dutch infrastructure minister Wilma Mansveld (Labour Party) has committed herself to providing an alternative train service, according to a letter sent to the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament on January 22.

Patience worn thin

It also appears that the patience that she initially showed for problems with the Fyra has worn thin. She will use her powers to hold the transport operators to the agreements made when granting the concession, or force them to make new agreements.

That is the least she can do – along with obtaining an in-depth investigation, already demanded of NS and NMBS, into the cause of the debacle.

This also means reopening the Belgian-Dutch consultation on the high-speed rail link – not characterised by flexibility at the best of times – with the future of Fyra at stake.

Train passengers may only hope that the outcome is a timetable that they can depend on. After all, reliability takes precedence over the false promise of high speed.

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom