INTRO: Cost over-runs and political problems have conspired to delay the completion of the Betuwe Route, and questions are being asked about its viability

supply network. ProRail also awarded a €75m contract to Holland Railconsult and Alstom in the same month for the ETCS Level 2 train control system.

Also in October, DB and NS signed a co-operation agreement which may see the 15 kV ’border’ shifted westwards from Emmerich to Zevenaar (RG 12.03 p762). In November the Siemens EBS electronic train control system for the junction at Zevenaar was commissioned.

Railion Nederland has started test running elsewhere with two new multi-system locos of Class 189 (RG 12.03 p762). A batch of 20 locos has been allocated to operate over the Betuwe Route and its connecting lines. The Siemens-built locos are designed to run on 1·5 or 3 kV DC and 15 or 25 kV AC. They are also being fitted with ETCS and the local train control systems required in the Netherlands and adjacent countries. However, it seems likely that most of the open-access operators running freight services in the Netherlands will be investing in diesel rather than electric locos.

Costs rise steadily

Although container lorries leave Rotterdam harbour nose-to-tail on the motorway, many heading towards Germany, the Betuwe Route has always been surrounded by controversy. There are suggestions that the harbour ’barons’ may have used their political power to get the line authorised in the 1980s and early 1990s without sufficient critical cost-benefit analysis that infrastructure on this scale warrants. Opposition from environmental groups and other lobbies nearly saw the scheme cancelled in its early stages, but for some time now there has been no question that the project would not be completed.

Since approval in 1998, the predicted opening date has only slipped from 2005 to 2007. However, the projected cost rose from €2·8bn in 1993 to €3·9bn in 1995, €4·1bn in 1997 and now it is officially €4·7bn. By mid-2003 €5bn had already been spent. More than half of the cost of the project is now being attributed to works other than basic construction, including environmental measures such as tunnels, cuttings, noise barriers and wildlife escape passages.

These extra environmental protection measures include five tunnels and three cuttings totalling 20 km. At Zevenaar a 1·5 km cut-and-cover tunnel has been built to preserve the quality of life for local residents, but a new ring road has been built above the entire length!

Transport Minister Karla Peijs confirmed in September 2003 that sprinkler systems are to be installed in the five tunnels, at an extra cost of €65m compared with the forced ventilation originally planned. According to Lloyds Register, this measure is unique in Europe.

Despite the tunnels, there will still be 160 km of noise barriers - even along the 95 km parallelling the A15 motorway and traversing rural areas. The barriers are needed to achieve the specified noise levels outside nearby houses of 57dB(A) during the day, falling to 52dB(A) in the evening and 47dB(A) at night.

The line is being built to carry 10 trains/h in each direction, although no-one expects this intensity of operation within a foreseeable timescale. In 1998 the line was projected to be handling 50 million tonnes a year in 2010: 16 million in containers and trailers, 18 million in chemicals and gases, and 26 million in ’industrial and agricultural’ traffic, which includes coal and ore. It is now generally accepted that these targets were over-optimistic, and the forecast for 2010 has been scaled back to 43 million tonnes.

It will be interesting to see how the 4000 tonne coal trains now running on the existing routes will cope with the 2·5% gradients on the new line.

In a separate, but related, project, the capacity of the Kijfhoek marshalling yard near Barendrecht is being increased from 1600 to 4000 wagons per day. Again, the question is being asked whether this extra capacity will ever be required.

All tunnels, but not the overbridges, have been built to accommodate double-stack container traffic at some point in the future, even though double-stack would not be compatible with the 25 kV catenary. Furthermore, no provision has been made for double-stack operations in Germany, even after the upgrading and opening of a third track between Emmerich and Oberhausen planned for 2010. Only when the 6min headways between trains prove inadequate would upgrading of the Betuwe route for double-stack be considered.

Along with other Dutch infrastructure projects, there have been suggestions that the line may have suffered from cartels in the construction industry. With project costs around 30% higher than their equivalent elsewhere in western Europe, the Dutch parliament has launched an inquiry into budget over-runs on both the Betuwe Route and HSL-Zuid.

Financial woes

Investors had never been interested in the proposed PPP, which was supposed to contribute €800m in private capital. And the doubling in the cost of building the line means that it is unlikely to ever recoup its capital investment. This is despite proposals to increase access charges, which in any case would make the railway less competitive with road and diminish the environmental justification for building it in the first place.

The Transport Ministry conceded in February 2003 that the line would never cover its operating costs either. The ministry now accepts that €15m to €25m a year will be needed to cover the operating deficit, although sceptics are asking why it will cost so much to run 160 km of brand-new railway.

In March 2003 the train operators threatened not to pay higher charges to use the Betuwe Route. The ministry’s proposed €2 per train-km was deemed unacceptable, but €1/km might be accepted - the charge to use the existing national network is just €0·38/km. The obvious concern is that road hauliers set the market rates, and if the rail operators try to charge more they will get no business. At some stage it seems likely that the government will have to accept the inevitability of the situation, since it is politically inconceivable that the completed line should lie unused.

Parliament was in favour of increasing the access charges, until it accepted the likelihood of the route being boycotted by the transport industry. At that late stage, the then Transport Minister Roelf de Boer considered cost-saving measures such as cancelling the electrification in favour of diesel traction and single line construction with train operation in ’flights’ (RG 3.03 p115). These options were subsequently discounted, and Mrs Peijs confirmed in September that abandoning the electrification would have required repayment of EU grants.

The road lobby has always disputed the environmental justification for the Betuwe route. And ever since the 1980s there have been questions over the economic case. Every re-evaluation has resulted not in cost-cutting but in a raft of extra measures, each adding hundreds of millions of euros. The 160 km route through flat landscape has no less than 18 km in tunnel, although only short sections were needed to pass under waterways, 7·5 km in cutting and 130 bridges and viaducts totalling 12 km.

With all its extra ’frills’, there is a serious risk that the line has priced itself out of the market, leaving only the Netherlands taxpayer to continue picking up the tab.

TABLE: The Betuwe Route in figures

Length 160 km of double track

Tunnels 5, totalling 18 km

Viaducts and bridges 130, totalling 12 km

Maximum linespeed 120 km/h

Maximum axleload 25 tonnes

Capacity 10 trains/h in each direction

Cost k4·7bn (official figure)