BACK IN October there did appear to be some prospect that the Betuwe Route – which was formally 'opened' by Queen Beatrix on June 16 – would at last be carrying freight trains on a regular basis from December 9 (RG 9.07 p536).

On November 12 Bombardier's plant in Randers began fitting ETCS onboard equipment to the first four of 20 Railion Class 6400 diesel locos to be used on the line. Meanwhile, Railion Deutschland is equipping 26 multi-voltage Class 189 electric locos with Siemens on-train ETCS that has a proven record of successful operation with Alstom's ETCS lineside equipment.

Betuwe Route infrastructure manager Keyrail has now agreed in principle that one train an hour can run in each direction, but the designated paths are at fixed times which do not correspond to paths allocated by DB Netz in Germany east of Emmerich. So the ability of the Class 189 locos to run through this frontier station without significant delay is wasted.

Railion had intended to run the maximum possible number of intermodal trains over the Betuwe Route from December 9, which is about 30% of the total traffic anticipated in the early years. Intensive route and ETCS training for 24 Dutch and 30 German drivers was supposed to have started on October 22.

But powers granted to mayors along the line in return for getting planning permission to build it have enabled them to block commercial train movements on the grounds that local fire brigades have not been trained to earth the 25 kV catenary. And even if they were so trained, fire brigade chiefs continue to complain that they could not reach a burning train because of high noise barrier walls that also mask the Kemler code which identifies wagons carrying dangerous cargos. In addition, the ditches alongside the railway from which they would normally expect to draw water are likely to be frozen solid in winter.

The grotesque result is that each of the limited number of training trains (consisting of a loco hauling four empty wagons) which are allowed to run is shadowed by a car on the parallel motorway carrying Keyrail technicians, ready at a moment's notice to assist local firemen if it bursts into flames. But it now seems unlikely that driver training can be completed in time for the planned transfer of freight services to the new line on December 9. In addition to Railion Nederland's drivers, Railion Deutschland was expecting to have 26 of its drivers trained on ETCS by then, and another 12 by Christmas.

Meanwhile, other trains that were supposed to be using the Betuwe Route by now, including the 60 block coal trains of 4 000 tonnes that Railion Nederland operates every week, are having to fight their way to and from Emmerich along the increasingly congested main lines through Utrecht or Nijmegen.

Rotterdam – Köln trains continue cross the frontier at Venlo where the Class 189 locos do not have to be changed – a valuable attribute here as the Mayor of Venlo has recently exercised his powers under Dutch law to impose operating restrictions on the railway (but not, of course, on road transport) by banning this dangerous practice.

As if this were not enough, another safety measure threatens substantial disruption across the Dutch network. Legislation has been passed that bans any rail worker from being on the track outside a possession, and this includes patrolling inspections. Because an average of one track worker per year has been struck and killed by a train in the last 10 years, it has been decided that lookout protection will not be sufficient after this rule comes into force on January 1 2008.

Single-line working on the adjacent track around a possession will still be permitted, and so far as possible the timetable coming into force on December 9 attempts to take the new situation into account. But the new rule is still expected to have a serious impact on the consistency of freight and passenger service that can be offered in the late evening and at night, when widespread single-line working over distances of up to 40 km is expected to be imposed by ProRail for maintenance.

The impact on passengers is bound to cause problems for the politicians who voted this measure through, but out of the public eye those responsible for scheduling the growing number of freight trains are facing an almost impossible task. The operators are therefore appealing to the Netherlands competition authority NMa on the grounds that ProRail has a conflict of interest between its role in allocating capacity on the network and its desire to make possessions as long as possible.

Expanding market

The rail freight sector in the Netherlands is experiencing rapid growth, according to industry lobby group Rail Cargo.

Publishing its latest assessment of trends in October, the group reported that a record 42 million tonnes was moved by nine train operating companies in 2006, a 9% increase on the previous year. With the number of operators now up to 13, the group predicts further traffic growth to an estimated 90 million tonnes in 2020.