THIS is the year by which Railned was to fit automatic train protection throughout the Dutch network, and all trains down to the level of track maintenance machines were to be equipped. It is not going to happen, but the transport ministry’s bungling attempts to impose deadlines, coupled with draconian speed restrictions on non-fitted trains, are already disrupting freight operations and causing headaches for passenger operator NS Reizigers.

Although the obsolete Dutch system (ATB) dates from 1954, coverage is incomplete. Even in the densely populated Randstad region, some secondary routes do not have ATB. After a collision at Rilland-Bath near Roosendaal in 1993, safety inspectors recommended that all lines should be fitted by 2000. Transport Minister Tineke Netelenbos confirmed last January that all lines must have protection by the end of 2000, and she is tightening restrictions on the use of non-fitted rolling stock. The speed limit for non-ATB traction has been cut from 100 to 40 km/h, except on non-fitted routes, but including open access operators Short Lines and ACTS on the busy Rotterdam Harbour branch where ATB has been removed due to trials with 25 kV electrification. July 1 saw more exemptions to this crippling limit cancelled.

The problem for operators is that Railned has started fitting secondary lines with ATB.NG (new generation), which is incompatible with ATB. Elderly DMUs already fitted with ATB have been banned from branch lines in the north that were previously unfitted, but now have ATB.NG. More modern stock converted to ATB.NG ends up isolated from depots by long stretches of line still using the old system. Short Lines and ACTS are trying to fit their locos with ATB-L, which supposedly operates on both systems, but Railion (formerly NS Cargo) has no locos fitted with ATB.NG, and had to discontinue its Roermond - Venlo chemicals service.

Such confusion might be forgivable if this was a simple transition. Not so, for the transport ministry has now curtailed the installation of ATB.NG. It has been shown to reduce capacity (RG 9.99 p587), and is incompatible with the emerging European Train Control System, the Dutch version of which is BB21.

As freight is potentially worst affected by this chaotic muddle, Railion has joined with the private operators and SNN, a heritage train operator, in lodging a formal appeal against the minister’s decision. They maintain that the minister’s policy is inconsistent, that new operators were never informed that the rules were to be tightened, that equipment cannot be obtained at short notice, and that there is no proof the ATB-L works reliably on ATB.NG routes.