PROSPECTS for the opening up of public transport in the biggest Dutch cities have fallen sharply, following an EU decision that cities with in-house operating companies need not call competitive tenders.

The European Commission has retreated from its free-market approach at the behest of several member states, not least Germany. Taking advantage of this policy change, the Dutch parliament approved a motion in September reversing a law passed in 2000. This would have obliged the city authorities in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Haag to put their public transport services out to the market, starting with tram and metro routes from 2007 and buses from 2009. The cities are now free to retain GVB, RET and HTM as monopoly operators if they wish. Utrecht has announced that it still intends to contract out all public transport from 2009.

Not surprisingly, the three main private operators in the Netherlands, Arriva, Connexxion (Keolis) and Veolia, reacted angrily to the change of rules mid-game. They immediately announced that they would be leaving the public transport operators' association Mobis. But they have assured the Transport Secretary that they will continue to support the troubled OV-Chipkaart national smart card ticketing system which is n ow expected to roll out across the country in 2009.