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The Netherlands : the network reaches its limits. Towards a six-second schedule?

(version en français)

Do we have the capacity – and the money – to further increase the number of railways tracks and all the civil engineering that goes with it (noise barriers, bridges, underpasses)?  Are we get to a point where maybe we should say “stop the concrete” ? This is the big question from the Dutch infrastructure manager ProRail. Which offers solutions.

First, let’s look at the Dutch context, which is probably similar to that of other countries in Europe. The Dutch rail operator ProRail expects the number of train passengers to increase by 45% by 2030. ProRail also sees an increase in the number of freight trains. But he warns the increase is making it increasingly difficult to allocate track capacity among train operators on the Dutch network. In 2019 alone, more than 2.2 million trips are planned for passenger trains, covering nearly 165 million kilometers.

ProRail must also manage factors that are difficult to predict. The growth in the number of travelers is faster than expected. This growth follows the urbanization and growth of the economy, so that more people work and use public transport. Roger van Boxtel, CEO of the national enterprise NS, said that the limits of the railway system had almost been reached. ‘Every year, more and more people are choosing the train, which makes us happy, while increasing the risk of crowds and delays,’ Van Boxtel explains.

More people on the dutch trains (photo press NS)

We note that we are slowly going to reach the limits of the network,’ says Wouter van Dijk, transportation and scheduling manager at ProRail. ‘More and more trains are on the tracks. The incumbant NS have also ordered new trains, we are now looking into where we can put them and things are going to start getting complicated, but I think we can do it properly until 2025-2030. But beyond that date, now there is a need to start developing other solutions.

There are now over 7,300 kilometers of track in the Netherlands. According to ProRail, additional tracks make few sense and it is also difficult to build new ones, as there is little land available. With the expansion of the traffic, the number of trains in circulation is increasing, which requires more facilities for cleaning and U-turns. Prorail is already considering short-term measures. Prorail has pointed out that there are insufficient stabling facilities, with quick measures needed to create more capacity. As an incentive, Prorail will start to consider “parking as a service” offered to train operators. This change will enable Prorail to oversee and control the available capacity better and optimise capacity allocation.

Stabling facilities. Here at Utrecht (photo press Prorail)

Towards a six-second schedule?

According to ProRail, some innovations can somewhat ease the pressure on the rail network. For example, the schedule will be programmed more accurately from 2020: more per minute, but by 6 seconds. This concerns the internal planning of the railway manager and carriers. Nothing changes for travelers, they continue to see schedules per minute.

Improvements are also possible through the Time Table Redesign (TTR) tool, which allows more efficient train reprogramming. This is particularly useful for the transportation of goods, as these trains are more unpredictable. 96% of freight trains change time slots and must be repositioned! But the message is also launched on the side of the carriers. ‘Carriers must also become more inventive’ says Van Dijk. ‘It’s also possible to create more capacity by running the trains differently.’ He also thinks of different types of trains, for example more metropolitan. ‘It’s lighter, so the stopping distance is shorter. On the track along the A2, between Amsterdam and Eindhoven, there are six intercity trains per hour’ says Van Dijk. ‘There must be four sprinters and one freight train per hour in between, so you can imagine how tight it will be.

A problem : mix between passengers and freight traffic (photo presse Prorail)

Carriers also have their opinion on better use of the capacity of the Dutch rail network. According to Hans-Willem Vroon, director of the association Railgood : ‘We see that the public transport sector is putting pressure on the government to invest more in the railways, there is a lot of lobbying, but we should not exaggerate it. There is still a lot of transport efficiency to achieve.’ The proposed solutions do not have to be technological. Thus, according to Mr. Vroon, it would be appropriate for the toll for the use of the tracks to be clearly and deliberately distinct between peak and off-peak hours. ‘In the case of heavy occupancy, carriers will pay 150 per cent of the tariff per train kilometer, 100 per cent in normal traffic and 50 per cent in off-peak hours.Tariff differentiation can ensure better utilization of the track.

Then, other measures such as the extension of the trains to 740m are envisaged. But according to Vroon, Germany must follow the same rhythm, in which case it would make no sense. ‘With this, 8 to 12 containers can be added on each train. This equates to 4 to 8 trucks that will not encumber our roads. For shippers, this significantly reduces transportation costs per tonne or per container’. ProRail has made DB Cargo run tests with this length, but according Vroon, it’s not fast enough. ‘In Venlo (border station with Germany), there are too few tracks available for a length of 740 meters, sometimes even for lengths of 640 meters. It’s fantastic that tests and study are done, but when does it become concrete?

Rotterdam, one of the containers terminal (photo NL)

The media apparition of Prorail at the end of August can be interpreted as a signal coming from the political power : more trains with less money. We must find a panoply of solutions to absorb the expected growth, without covering the country with concrete. It also shows that if the railway is a key element of sustainable development, it will not happen with a too much level of public expenditure. Prorail, like the national incumbant NS, are dependent on government policies, as everywhere in Europe. Large projects such as the implementation of ERTMS or the transition from 1500V DC to 3kV DC are time consuming.

So, to relieve the occupation of trains at peak times, it is even the association of Rover travelers who proposes a curious solution: ‘Between Rotterdam and The Hague (30km), is it necessary to take an Intercity?’ told Tim Boric. According to him: ‘Other means of transport such as the metro, the bus, the tram and the Randstad Rail can absorb some of the traffic in the densely populated parts of the Randstad. The necessary growth of public transport should not concern only ProRail and NS, but also the means of transport of metropolitan areas and provinces.

The future of rail in the Netherlands will be through a mix of diversified solutions, combining technology and especially new operating measures.


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