THE FUTURE viability of Railion Nederland NV has been thrown into question since Transport Minister Karla Peijs announced earlier this year that track access charges are to rise substantially in 2006, and could double again within the following two or three years.

At the same time, parliament is insisting that charges for using the new Betuwe Route freight line connecting Rotterdam port with the German frontier at Emmerich must cover its operating costs from the day it opens in 2007. This would require access charges as of the opening of the line far higher than most of the projected traffic could bear.

The immediate crisis arises from the decision that the publicly-owned infrastructure manager ProRail must switch from charging on the basis of train-km to gross tonne-km. The impact of this on container traffic is perhaps bearable, but for heavy bulk materials it makes a huge difference, especially in a country where barges compete strongly with rail.

At present, Railion moves six iron ore trains of 5400 tonnes to Dillingen every day, and between four and eight coal trains of 4000 tonnes to various German destinations. Its open access competitors, mainly rail4chem, ERS and DLC, handle lighter trains and will be less seriously affected.

Managing Director Carel Robbeson told Railway Gazette on September 8 that some of Railion Nederland’s infrastructure charges ’will be up to four times as much in 2006, and that is just the start. In two or three years it could be eight times more than we are paying today.’

He admits that even those rates are ’not enormously high’ compared to the European average - or at least, to what his much larger sister company Railion Deutschland pays in Germany. Both companies are 100% owned by Stinnes, and he confesses to ’some difficulties in explaining the problem to my owners.’

But the freight market is already tough for rail in the Netherlands because ’only 5% of a trucker’s costs go in road user charges, and for barge operators it is zero.’ Robbeson explains that under the proposed regime Railion will have to pay ProRail ’10% to 12% of all our costs at the start, ending up at 20%.’

’This is ridiculous’, he insists, as ’ProRail will end up receiving less money. For us it is a disaster, of course. It is killing us. We need time to grow our charges to customers.’ At the same time, passenger train charges are not increasing overall. ’I don’t have an opinion about that’, Robbeson told the financial daily Het Financieel Dagblad, ’but we pay more and passenger trains get priority.’

Betuwe Route impasse

The main problem with the Betuwe Route, says Robbeson, ’is that we don’t yet know what the charges are going to be.’ Only in June 2006 will they be revealed. What he does know is that members of parliament are demanding a very high level of cost recovery from the freight operators, maybe €4/train-km, when two years ago he believed that €1/train-km was the most that could be paid without driving traffic away.

But for now ’I can only make an estimate’, he points out, and on that basis ’it is impossible to invest in locomotives.’ Yet these will be needed if the Betuwe Route is to be successful. Diversion of current traffic might see 20 to 25 million tonnes/year using the new line initially, but the capacity is 70 million and at least 50 million tonnes would have to be carried to cover the costs of operating the line from realistic track access charges.

Robbeson is adamant that ’it is impossible to cover these costs at the start’, and that attempting to do this will simply drive traffic on to the roads. It cannot remain on the existing routes because the option of continuing to use the present passenger-oriented network is going to disappear from 2007. ProRail, which controls the timetable paths available, will ’force us to use the Betuwe Route’, explains Robbeson. ’But I won’t accept that, I will go to court.’

Faced with this challenge, Railion has joined forces with the other operators, including rail4chem, ACTS and ERS (owned by Maersk Sealand), in an attempt to get the impasse resolved. Together they intend to launch an appeal to the rail regulator, and to lobby for charges that would avoid a situation where the costly new infrastructure remains under-used while containers now moving by rail are forced onto the roads.

There remains another issue to be resolved: the fitting of locomotives with ETCS Level 2 with which the 25 kV Betuwe Route is being equipped, along with the 50 km Harbour line serving the Rotterdam port.

Robbeson estimates the cost of retrofitting up to 70 locos with ETCS at ’between €30m and €38m.’ A grant of €15m has been offered, but this is only supposed to be for engineering and development work, and not for series installation. Initial tenders from Siemens and Bombardier are coming in at €0·6m to €0·7m per loco, but the suppliers have indicated that they will not have Level 2 fitted to the four-system Class 189 electric locos that are supposed to operate on the Betuwe Route until March 2008.