A Tale of Two EU Cities: The disastrous new high speed rail link between Amsterdam & Brussels
On the 9th December 2012 the 55 year old international train service between Belgium and the Netherlands 'terminated', bringing an end to the intercity trains that had taken about three hours to cover the 210km journey from Brussels to Amsterdam. Gone too the possibility of hopping on a Brussels to Amsterdam train at the last minute and in its place Fyra, a new high-speed train service, reputed to complete the journey in 1hr 46min, but with tickets that not only have to be booked in advance but are also twice as expensive. Except if you are an MEP who, it was reported in Het Parool (an Amsterdam newspaper), have been offered a 50% discount on their Fyra journeys. Well that's progress one might think but in reality Fyra has been far more unreliable than the old service it replaces, so much so that on 18th January the Belgian rail authority stopped the service, citing concerns about safety as the main reason.
Fyra, a joint enterprise between Belgian rail operator Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen (NMBS) and NS-Hispeed, part of Nederlandse Spoorwegen its Dutch counterpart, was heralded as providing a 21st century rail link between the two Benelux capitals that would cut journey times by about 40%. From the beginning many were extremely unhappy with the new rail service. Season-ticket holders, who regularly commuted between Brussels and Amsterdam, found that the service was no longer a viable option for the daily commute, especially as it was uncertain whether season tickets would continue to be available now that Fyra had taken over the route. Surprisingly, whereas the old service provided a direct link between The Hague and Rozendaal, cities not served by the Thalys, Fyra doesn't go there either so since December here has been no direct rail link between Brussels and The Hague.
In spite of these criticisms the new high speed rail link might still have been regarded as a success if the trains had proved to be punctual and reliable, however, in reality they have proved to be the exact opposite. From the start the service has been plagued by delays and cancellations, due to faulty trains, and after six weeks it was halted leaving no alternative service in place. "Apparently the trains cannot cope with ice blocks. A piece of bodywork and a protection grill from the Fyra train were found on the tracks. No wonder therefore that the safety department of the Belgian railways imposed a traffic ban [on January 18]. Accusatory fingers are now being pointed at the manufacturer, the Italian company AnsaldoBreda, which issued a hasty apology. But the question is also why NS-Hispeed and NMBS opted for this supplier and not one of the better-known makers of rolling stock on the European network, such as Siemens, Alstom or Bombardier. A classic case of "penny wise, pound foolish"?" (presseurop.eu)
In consequence the Fyra service will not be restored for several months, leaving the Thalys as the only direct rail link between Belgium and the Netherlands in the interim. Unfortunately the Fyra story is far from unique, as 'classic' cross-border train services are being scrapped, all over the European Union (EU), in favour of high-speed rail services that are far more expensive and, in some instances, not yet operational. At a recent press conference Siim Kallas, Vice President and European Commissioner for Transport, was asked to comment on the Fyra debacle and how it echoed similar situations of disappearing cross-border train routes across the EU. In response he said, “I don't have this type of information that high-speed trains will eliminate other types of trains. The network of classic trains exists everywhere; so far we don't have to deal with this type of problem.” Unfortunately, in spite of being European Commissioner for Transport, he seems to be unaware of the true situation although in the past he has declared himself as being committed to increasing cross-border transport.
Surprising when "last month the World Car-Free Network wrote an open letter to the European Commission expressing alarm at the situation. The letter listed a staggering number of cross-border routes that have been lost over the past few years. In addition to the Benelux service, December also saw the end of train routes between Barcelona and Zurich, Barcelona and Milan and Bucharest and Belgrade. Direct trains between Lisbon and Madrid were axed last October, which was also when the ferry-train route between Berlin and Malmo stopped. Routes between Vienna-Sofia, Berlin-Kiev and Paris-Rome were also cut in 2012, to name a few. Last year Greece ended all of its international train services, under pressure from its troika of international creditors. These are just the recent examples. Rail enthusiasts in Brussels will remember how the ‘classic' train service to Paris was eliminated when the Thalys service began. There is no longer a low-speed direct train from Brussels to either Lille or Cologne. Although it was promised that competition on these two routes would bring lower prices for high-speed services, in practice the prices remain higher than the old ‘local' train." (EuropeanVoice)
Will the UK's HS2 suffer from similar problems? Whether it does or not it doesn't bode well for the EU's plan to establish a "Single European railway area". Welcome to public rail transport in the 21st century.
EU: Establishing a Single European railway area - A Rail Transport Network fit for the 21st Century? can be read here
Last Updated (Thursday, 14 March 2013 08:51)