CONFUSION has deepened over who will operate and maintain the new freight railway linking the port of Rotterdam to the German network at Emmerich. Contrary to our last report (RG 2.06 p68), no contract has been signed for maintenance and operation of the Betuwe Route.

In a statement on February 14, Transport & Public Works Minister Karla Peijs failed to endorse a Memorandum of Understanding that would have seen the Green Tulip Railway Co take charge of most of the new line when it allegedly opens next January.

The MoU was signed on January 16 by Dutch infrastructure manager ProRail and GTRC, which is a consortium of ProRail, the Rotterdam and Amsterdam port operators, and Babcock & Brown subsidiary Towrail.

A parliamentary hearing on February 9 was told that GTRC would have been awarded a contract to operate the Betuwe Route between the Sophia tunnel near Dordrecht and the junction with the existing network at Zevenaar. Despite its stake in GTRC, ProRail expressed concern about safety at the six operational interfaces: one at each end, and two each facing north and south at Deil and Ressen (not all of which would see regular use). ProRail believes responsibility for safety should rest with one organisation, and Peijs decided more time was required to investigate the issues.

A wide gulf also remains between the track access charges that GTRC plans to collect from train operators and what freight shippers are prepared to pay. A letter from Erik Staker, Director of the Port of Duisburg, was quoted at the hearing as saying that rail traffic to and from Rotterdam would cease if these charges were imposed. An MP asked Railion Nederland Managing Director Carel Robbeson what the operators could realistically pay. He suggested ’a gradual growth model starting at €0·96 per train-km in 2006 and gradually increasing by 10% to 15% a year on the Betuwe Route as well as the rest of the network until 2012, when the levels charged by DB Netz would be reached.’ To achieve this, GTRC would need a €40m subsidy to cover the first three years.

Meanwhile, no-one is willing to procure at least 50 multi-voltage locos, let alone equip them with ETCS. And until the track access charges are settled, the operators cannot invest in expensive retrofitting of existing locos. Robbeson said ’every day Railion postpones the decision to invest in ETCS will delay the moment that Railion is actually using the Betuwe Route - if we ever will. A decision made in February or March leads to starting our services in autumn 2008, almost two years after the line opens.’

NS Reizigers and ProRail are currently recasting the national timetable to move from a three-tier to a two-tier passenger service in December 2006. Many existing freight paths will disappear, on the assumption that the new line will be open by then. DB Netz says it needs to know by April 1 if freight now crossing the frontier at Venlo will switch to the Betuwe Route, so that adequate paths can be provided between Emmerich and Oberhausen.