CONTRACTS for construction of the substructure of HSL-Zuid in the Netherlands were expected to be signed by May 1 following a ceremonial start of work on March 27. Presiding at the event near Breda, Transport Minister Tineke Netelenbos was joined by her Belgian counterpart Isabelle Durant to underline the international character of the 300 km/h line. Letters of intent were signed by the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works & Water Management with five consortia on March 13, and all now looks set for work to forge ahead. Antwerpen - Rotterdam should be complete by mid-2005, with Rotterdam - Schiphol - Amsterdam following by the end of the same year.

Forming the final leg of a high speed route from Paris to Amsterdam, HSL-Zuid has much potential to unload the congested roads and airways of northern Europe. Forecasts suggest that six to seven million passengers a year will use it for Dutch domestic travel, with a similar number of international trips. A full hour will be sliced off the present Brussels - Amsterdam Thalys timings of 2h 39min, with Paris - Amsterdam down to little more than 3h. Once Britain’s Channel Tunnel Rail link is complete, London - Amsterdam could take well under 4h.

Some indication of how seriously HSL-Zuid’s potential is taken can be gauged from an alliance formed by NS, national airline KLM and Schiphol Airport to bid for access rights. All three stand to benefit, with KLM replacing uneconomic flights to Brussels and Paris by high speed trains. The bid is thought to be substantially higher than the NS offer rejected last November. Should it be accepted, we trust Dutch planes on rails will run without the nonsense of airline-style security that still segregates Eurostar passengers from the rest of Europe’s rapidly-growing high speed network. n