The hurdles of the Dutch-German Eindhoven-Aachen train: ‘not operational this year’
Various Dutch media reported in recent days about the forthcoming intercity connection from Eindhoven to the German Aachen. It should start operating at the end of this year during peak hours and at weekends. However, it remains to be seen whether this will actually happen, as many issues remain.
There are quite a few hurdles to be overcome in establishing this cross-border connection. The main one: Dutch national railway operator NS has to award the concession for this line – at least initially – privately to Arriva. Another: a key for the government’s contribution to the costs must be found. This is 4.8 million for the first year and 3.8 million for subsequent years.
Three decision-making options are currently on the table, according to the decision memo of the IC-Aachen Steering Committee. The first involves a so-called day-round connection starting in late 2023. That connection consists of five round trips during rush hour. To make that happen, a cooperation between NS and Arriva will have to be agreed – at least for the first year.
In the second option, the daytime fringe connection applies from December 2024. In option two, there is more time and space to obtain certainty about a cooperation between NS and Arriva, while additional other governance options, without dependence on NS, can also be considered.
‘Limited backing from NS’
In the first option, NS would have to award a private contract to its competitor Arriva. NS has the main rail network concession in the Netherlands, but Deutsche Bahn subsidiary Arriva runs regional trains, as well as open-access nightly trains since December 2022. Arriva already has trains that can operate in both Germany and the Netherlands and are used for the connection to Aachen from Maastricht in the Netherlands.
The Eindhoven-Aachen connection touches on two concessions: that of the province of Limburg and the main rail network concession. In NS’ view, there are legal risks involved in cooperating with Arriva on this. Law firm Pels Rijcken shed its light on the matter and concluded that “the responsibility and substantive consideration ultimately lies with NS itself.” Because of the uncertainties and questions NS has, there is limited support from NS on this, the decision memo stated.
“I can’t say much about it at the moment”, NS spokesman Arno Leblanc stated to sister publication SpoorPro. “Whether this intercity connection will already become operational at the end of this year, I don’t think so. What is important to us is that a high-quality connection will eventually be established between Eindhoven and Aachen, from the traveller’s point of view. That is what we stand for. But as to when that will materialise, that is now highly uncertain.”
According to Dutch state secretary for infrastructure Vivianne Heijnen, the solution lies with decentralisation. “After an inventory of possibilities to mitigate these risks, it has emerged that decentralisation can offer a possible solution”, she writes to the parliament. “To further identify the possibilities of decentralisation, I have therefore agreed with the parties in the steering committee to further explore the decentralisation variant in a joint working group with the aim of controlling legal and financial risks.”
The ‘decentralisation working group’ will initially focus on decentralising the Eindhoven-Aachen IC concession from December 2024. Should that work out well, it will look at whether earlier decentralisation – by December 2023 – is also possible. “This working group will delve deeper into the exact implications of what decentralisation means, what is financially possible and how a decentralisation decision relates to the desired fully-fledged intercity connection between Eindhoven and Aachen or a progression to a desired IC connection between the Randstad and Aachen”, Heijnen writes. “In doing so, the various pros and cons will be clearly identified.”
Longer term: direct award by NS, province or state
Apart from the concession issue, there is another tough nut to crack: financing. Since it is unclear how much the IC connection will bring in, a government contribution of at least about 4.8 million euros is required for the first year the train runs and about 3.8 million for the following years. A distribution key will have to be found for this in any case. The Dutch and German parties should reach official agreement within 4-6 weeks on the level of individual government contributions from the end 2023 and obtain the political and administrative mandate for this.
For the longer term (option three), final choices have to be made for the governance model: subcontracting via private award by NS or private award via the Ministry of Infrastructure , or the Province of Limburg. There also has to be final clarity on the availability of the necessary government contributions from the Dutch and German sides. Moreover, Dutch rail infrastructure manager ProRail will still carry out tests on this link in the context of operational, technical and safety aspects. Finally, the Consumer and Market Authority (ACM) still has to look into the matter.
In short: there are still many uncertainties about the establishment of an IC connection between Eindhoven and Aachen, especially where the effective date of December this year is concerned.
“I expect to inform you about the results of this further exploration around the summer”, Heijnen concludes her letter to the parliament, followed by a political kiss on the forehead: “That a lot is possible with good mutual cooperation for international rail transport is illustrated by the signing of the declaration of intent for the realisation of the three-country train (Drielandentrein) together with Belgium and the province of Limburg, which will start in December 2023. With such cooperation, I want to further increase the international accessibility of the Netherlands in the coming years.”
This article first appeared on Dutch sister publication SpoorPro.nl