The Netherlands concludes: railway cannot cope with extreme weather

The Dutch rail infrastructure cannot cope with extreme winter weather. It will require billions of euros to keep the rail infrastructure available under all circumstances, such as extreme heat in the summer, or winter weather such as which occurred in February this year. The infrastructure manager ProRail and railway undertaking NS concluded this in a joint winter evaluation.

Winter weather caused severe disruptions to the railway network earlier this year. On 7 February, train traffic was almost completely down, and only a handful of trains departed in the days after.

Regional, freight transporters and transporting contractors felt insufficiently involved in the provision of information and communication about adjusting the timetable. They indicated that a too optimistic picture was painted in the media, in which no distinction was made in communication to passengers about the timetables of NS, the regional carriers and freight carriers. Only after a week rail freight traffic from and to the Netherlands was able to resume, which meant a great blow to the industry.

What went wrong?

In the report, ProRail and NS conclude that not only the infrastructure is the problem. The processes in place dealing with major disruptions are not designed to cope with “a massive number of disruptions”. Moreover, when the number of disruptions is as high as it was in February, there is no clear plan on which train traffic should be prioritised. There is also no logistics scenario on how to maintain traffic in case of a ‘LUD timetable’, which is the reduced timetable of NS where less than 80 per cent of the trains are operative.

ProRail also admits that it did not sufficiently communicate with the rail freight industry during the disruptions in February. It provided with insufficient customised solutions for the industry, it states in the report. There was a lot of focus on passenger traffic, and on the resumption of passenger traffic, although rail freight was still stranded. This has been noted as feedback from the industry, and included in the report as one of the points to improve.

What can be improved?

The negative consequences of such extreme winter weather cannot be completely prevented, the report admits. However, there are solutions available that can reduce the impact. These mostly lie in the processes in responses to extreme winter weather. The organisions will improve the process with regard to the removal of snow and ice, optimise inspections and expand the so-called thaw lanes.

The winter-preparedness of switches will also be further improved. ProRail says it will better prioritise repair work in the event of such a large number of disruptions. It is designing a plan including the most critical routes on which transport must be possible as quickly as possible when the timetable is restarted.

Better communication

ProRail also promised better communication towards rail freight carriers in the event of massive disruptions. The report concludes that “resources are needed to bring logistics and infrastructure together in order to better prioritise failure recovery”.

Interest group RailGood is happy with these promises. “The rail freight sector will monitor whether this is being done persistently enough”, says director Hans-Willem Vroon. They demand short-term improvement measures from ProRail to “keep the ports, terminals, industry and trading companies accessible by rail during winter conditions. In the end, the rail freight carriers end up paying the bill.”

Not next winter

Yet, the report all but promises that circumstances such as in February won’t be repeated next winter. The minimum number of switches that should be operational in order to guarantee a minimum level of traffic continuance (Infrastructure phase 3) cannot be held operational during extreme winter conditions. This is due to current infrastructure setup and available/contracted recovery capacity, the report says.

“It should also be noted that crucial sidings – which are necessary for setup and maintenance – are not part of this infrastructure phase for carriers (which is necessary). In the short term, ProRail will not be able to meet that level”, states the report.

Minimal restart

ProRail will sit around the table with carriers to find a “balance between timetable and maintainable infrastructure at different weather types”. This includes one or more models to enable a restart of traffic, for example by using fewer switches, with minimal passenger and freight transport can be provided.

In the long term, it must be considered whether, to what extent and when infrastructure can become more winter-proof. But, the report states that “improvement potential that requires investments in infrastructure or equipment cannot be realised before next winter.”

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Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailTech.com and RailFreight.com, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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