QUESTIONS have been asked in the Dutch parliament about the widespread failure of NS Reizigers to meet comfort standards laid down in its 1995 service contract with the government. These require 85% of passengers travelling for more than 5min in the commuting peak to have a seat. But at the end of August NS warned that unoccupied seats, especially in the morning rush hour, would be extremely scarce this autumn.

The government surrendered quickly on September 15 to protests by road hauliers over the high price of diesel. The fuel shortages seen in neighbouring countries never developed, but NS would have been in serious trouble if motorists had switched to the trains in large numbers.

The underlying problem is that the growth in passenger-km (2·7% in the last six months) has exceeded all expectations. Despite hiring 80 coaches from Belgium, only 40 to 48 of which are available on a given day, NS is around 150 short of the number required to run the planned service. Among other difficulties, the double-deck DD-IRM stock is still plagued by roller bearing failures and excessive tyre wear, while the relatively new DD-AR suburban EMUs suffer from reliability problems.

High levels of sick leave, a typical sign of low morale, exacerbate the crisis. In the Utrecht region, 20% of conductors and 9% of drivers are sick on any day, and NS is preparing to roster drivers and platform staff as conductors in the Randstad cities where there is a shortfall of 200. Because a rule requires two conductors if a train has more than six single- or four double-deck coaches, short formations are being run. The wisdom of carrying 800 people in four grossly overloaded cars rather than eight comfortably loaded with one conductor is naturally being questioned.

NS has decided to buy 150 renovated Bm235 EuroCity coaches from DB as they are replaced by ICEs. These will be hauled by reinstated Class 1300 locos until 252 new double-deck coaches offering 25000 extra seats are delivered by 2005 to strengthen the DD-IRM sets.