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Wake-up call on the Betuwe Route

01 Aug 2000

ALTHOUGH work is under way, the 9·5bn guilders project to build a high capacity freight railway from Rotterdam to the German frontier appears to have turned sour. The financial press pointed out in June that discussions with 74 companies had failed to produce one willing to invest - not even Railion. But when one considers what is planned at Barendrecht, it is less surprising.

Tracks through this station are being increased from four to nine to accommodate both the Betuwe Route and HSL-Zuid. To cut noise, a 1·5 km artificial 'tunnel' is to be constructed over the whole lot, including a glazed wall along the platforms. But the safety precautions for this 8m high monstrosity outclass an Alpine base tunnel. The heat resistant structure must contain an explosive force of 100 kN/m2, with sprinklers, forced ventilation and emergency exits every 63m.

Given the extreme improbability of a freight train exploding at this precise point on its 160 km journey, it is clear that no rational assessment of risks has been carried out. Yet Dutch journalists are apparently being told by transport ministry officials that traffic projections were 'hopelessly optimistic' and the line would be a 'white elephant'. The word, off the record, is that before tracklaying contracts are signed next year, the ministry is to consider running 'guided lorries' over the route.

Now it just happens that Nicholas van de Laar, President of Buiscar, has been peddling his ideas for putting road trains of up to five trailers (which his firm makes for use inside container terminals) on the public highway. Van de Laar wants the government to allocate one motorway lane in each direction for 2 h each night for a convoy running nose to tail. His vision is of 740000 TEU a year (over 100 'trains' a night each way) trundling at 50 km/h along the A15 to the border four years before the rail link is finished.

Since these rigs would be 100m long, with 15 tonne axleloads and a gross weight around 160 tonnes - and one could not complete the trip inside 2 h, let alone 100 - officials may be hesitant to put the idea to Mrs Netelenbos. But why not use the Betuwe Route 24 h a day? Think of the savings! No timetables, signalling or ATP (p468), and best of all, when a driver nods off and crashes the media won't even report it.

No, it's not likely to happen. But the fact that civil servants could even consider it seriously should be a wake-up call to Europe's rail managers. The barriers to open access and cost-effective operation across frontiers have got to come down now; tomorrow may be too late.