‘Flop train’: EU’s high-speed rail ambitions hit a setback

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The EU’s top transport official says the troubled launch of a now-suspended high-speed rail service between Brussels and Amsterdam – christened the ‘flop train’ by angry passengers – is “not our problem” despite years of efforts to encourage such premium transnational rail service.

Dutch and Belgian lawmakers were due to hold a hearing today (28 January) in Brussels on technical problems with the Italian-built train sets, some of which broke down because of snow and ice on the busy 175-kilometre corridor.

Siim Kallas, the European Commission vice president in charge of transport, told journalists that the suspension of the service was not an issue for the Commission since it involves technical issues between the two rail companies and their equipment supplier.

“It’s not our problem,” Kallas said on Thursday (24 January), a week after the Fyra rail service was suspended.

“On this high-speed network, we have solved very many problems of interoperability already,” Kallas said. “But this happens. As the railway manufacturers say, and the airplane manufacturers say, equipment has become so complicated so that until you really run a machine that is free of all difficulties, it sometimes takes time.”

Libor Lochman, executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies, also said the problems with Fyra were technical matters outside the Commission's mandate.

Still, the Commission has encouraged transnational, high-speed corridors such as the Fyra and the opening of rail services to competition through a series of railway packages dating to 2001.

The Commission is expected to present its Fourth Railway Package this week aimed at improving the interoperability of passenger and cargo services across the EU.

Passenger groups aren’t happy

The Fyra service, jointly run by Belgium’s SNCB/NMBS and the Netherlands’ NS rail companies, replaced a service that had been shuttling passengers and commuters for 55 years. It was launched to much fanfare on 9 December and halted indefinitely on 18 January.

For passengers, the Fyra experience raises questions about EU efforts to end national monopolies on rail passenger and cargo services and remove technical and competition obstacles between EU countries.

Consumer advocates fear that the higher investment in both high-speed corridors like Fyra and premium railway carriages will drain funding for regional and local lines. The advent of faster trains has already corresponded with service reductions in some countries, passenger groups say.

>> Read: Europe’s rails: A bumpy ride to a single market

Competing service providers on these lines also raises another consumer question: cooperation on ticketing and reservations. The European Passengers’ Federation, for example, has noted the risk of one company not accepting the tickets of another under unusual circumstances – such as when trains are late or cancelled.

Fyra quickly became known as the 'floptrein' in Dutch.

Besides delays, cancellations and train break-downs on the Fyra corridor, the cost of travel was also an issue. Ticket prices were 34% higher than the service it replaced and on some intermediate stops, up to 82% higher, according to the TreinTramBus passenger rights group in Gent, Belgium.

Passengers’ needs were not taken into account when the Belgian and Dutch rail companies were planning new service, the Gent group contends.

Riders 'never consulted'

“The wrong kind of approach has been taken by these two railway companies,” said Kees Smilde, spokesman for the TreinTramBus. “And the passengers were never consulted.”

Smilde said many of the passengers who used the predecessor trains were commuters who could use monthly transit passes on the trains, while casual passengers were attracted by the frequent, unreserved service.

Fyra introduced a new reservation scheme, similar to another high-speed rail service already travelling on the same corridor – the luxury Thalys trains operated by the Belgian, Dutch and French railways.

Passengers “want a normal, no-thrills train. We have a longstanding tradition of just hopping on the train,” Smilde said. “Our passengers did not like the reservation issue. For this short distance, people hate it.”

AnsaldoBreda, manufacturer of the sleek Fyra V250 trains, issued a public apology for technical problems. Belgium ordered three sets, each costing more than €20 million, while NS ordered 16.

The company blamed problems on the buildup of snow and ice underneath wagons, but defended its record, saying the trains had undergone testing for winter conditions in both Austria and the Czech Republic.

But even before a cold snap and unusually heavy snow blanketed the Low Countries in early January, technical problems and delays had plagued Fyra since the December launch.

The Belgian daily La Libre estimated the technical problems and lost revenue to the financially-troubled Belgian rail service could amount to €1.8 million. Passengers on the corridor must now catch interconnecting regional trains or use a replacement coach service, nearly doubling the travel time between Brussels and Amsterdam.

The European Commission is about to introduce its newest railway package with the aim to further liberalise rail networks, citing rail’s low market shares of about 7% for freight and 12% for passenger services.

But after two decades of trying to create a competitive single market, major hurdles remain. Technological differences, regulatory barriers, underinvestment and debates over how best to manage infrastructure and equipment contribute to the slow pace of change in some countries.

The Commission’s recast of the first railway package in 2001 was adopted in 2012. It consolidates the 2001, 2004 and 2007 legislation and provides for strengthening regulatory oversight and performance of infrastructure operators. It also seeks to improve transparency in rail contracts and operations.

But sceptics of some of the EU executive’s laissez-faire approach say without careful oversight to balance market forces, rail services on well-travelled intercity and transnational routes – the latter were fully liberalises starting 1 January 2010 - will become more competitive while service to small towns or rural areas will be neglected.

  • 28 Jan.: Dutch and Belgian MPs to meet in Brussels to discuss Fyra
  • End of January: Commission expected to unveil its Fourth Railway Package

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