FOR MANY years Netherlands Railways enjoyed a reputation as one of Europe’s most efficient railways. When NS came top in a 1985 productivity survey, it ran reliable and frequent passenger trains on a densely-meshed interconnecting network. By almost any measure, it was a success story.

Ambitious plans for increasing the level of passenger services and eliminating capacity bottlenecks on the 2808 km network were incorporated into the government’s long-term transport planning. Rail traffic has risen steadily, with passenger-km up from 9·7 billion in 1989 to 14·7 billion last year. But it seems that the success story is now over, and the Dutch are appalled at what has happened to their national railway.

Recent years have seen near-continuous change. In 1992 NS operations and infrastructure were split, with Railned, Railinfrabeheer and the traffic management unit Verkeersleiding passed to the transport ministry. Freight operator NS Cargo was merged into Railion, and outside operators were given contracts to run some of the 33 rural lines identified as uncommercial.

In 1998 the government had envisaged that a tightly worded contract would be agreed with NS Reizigers, giving it a 10-year monopoly on the core inter-city and local network from 2000. But that has not happened, and NSR is currently operating under an interim performance contract that requires 88% of passenger trains to arrive within 3 min of booked time.

In the last year or so performance has fallen alarmingly, and NSR is achieving only 80%, with 10% of connections missed. As a result, NSR is receiving 10000 claims a week for compensation. Among the causes are technical problems, including broken sleepers apparently caused by defective rail fastenings. Industrial relations have deteriorated, prompting an outbreak of strikes. Citing staff shortages and rolling stock defects, NS chopped 300 trains out of the summer timetable, leading to overcrowding and more complaints. Now MKB, an association of small and medium-sized businesses, is to take NS to court because the delays and cancellations are causing its members to lose trade.

In July the Minister of Transport, Public Works & Water Management Tineke Netelenbos ordered NS to come up with plans to restore performance to acceptable levels. These were duly submitted last month, only for the minister to dismiss them in a television interview on August 16 as ’worthless’ - which is is not exactly calculated to improve morale among staff and management.

On July 11 Mrs Netelenbos wrote to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Economic Affairs with her own views of what should happen, since when rumours and leaks have done nothing to build an atmosphere of confidence and trust between the transport ministry and NS. One suggestion is for the Verkeersleiding traffic control agency to be returned from ministry control to NS so as to ensure better communications at operating level.

NS was due to attend a high-level meeting with the ministry towards the end of last month, and there was a suggestion that the railway would be given five years to recover before a 10-year contract is implemented in 2005. The intention is to lay draft legislation before parliament this month, for promulgation by the end of the year.

CAPTION: In an attempt to mitigate its rolling stock shortages, NS has bought 150 loco-hauled coaches from German Railway, which are currently being refurbished by PFA for introduction to service next year Photo Hans Scherpenhuizen


Front cover: Pandrol Fastclips have been installed on the recently-opened TGV Méditerranée line, where trains travelling at 300 km/h enable a Paris - Marseille journey time of 3 h

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