October 28, 2015

Dutch minister resigns as final Fyra report is published

Written by  Quintus Vosman
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Dutch minister resigns as final Fyra report is published Quintus Vosman

DUTCH secretary of state for infrastructure Mrs Wilma Mansveld resigned on October 28 following the publication of a report into the Fyra high-speed fiasco, which places the blame for the debacle squarely with various current and former government ministers as well as Netherlands Railways (NS) and Belgian National Railways (SNCB).

Mansveld says she has taken responsibility for her own failings as well as those of her predecessors in the handling of Fyra, although she was already under pressure to resign over a number of other rail-related issues, including the finances and performance of infrastructure manager Prorail.

A cross-party Dutch parliamentary inquiry committee led by Christian Democratic Party politician Mrs Madeleine van Toorenburg was set up in December 2013 to investigate the failings which led to the collapse of Fyra in January 2013.

According to the committee's final report, Mansveld failed to fully disclose information about her ministry's role in Fyra to the inquiry, a criticism also levelled at other ministers.

The primary aim of the inquiry was to establish why the planned services on the HSL South high-speed line failed, and the report, which is entitled De reiziger in de kou ("The passenger in the cold"), concludes that the parties involved had put a variety of interests ahead of those of passengers. The Dutch government was fixated on achieving the highest possible financial return and recouping the investment in the high-speed line as quickly as possible, while NS was obsessed with protecting its monopoly position in the Dutch passenger rail market.

This prevented the goal of achieving fast, frequent and direct services to Belgium from being achieved and the report argues the primary objectives of Fyra were quickly forgotten. The committee also concludes that the high-speed line from Hoofddorp (near Amsterdam Schiphol airport) to Rotterdam and the Belgian border near Breda, which was funded by the Dutch taxpayer, is not being used for its intended purpose.

The report outlines how both the Dutch state and NS prioritised their own strategic and financial interests, creating the conditions for a long and destructive conflict between the two parties. Moreover, NS failed to reach a solution with AnsaldoBreda to the technical problems plaguing the fleet of V250 high-speed trains ordered for Fyra services and the committee accuses SNCB of acting in its own interests and neglecting the goal of establishing high-quality rail links between Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Dutch parliament is also criticised for backing choices made by NS and the ministries without sufficient consideration of the consequences.The tender for the high-speed concession was poorly organised. Initially an open public tender was held to find an operator, but NS objected to this and the transport minister subsequently attempted to turn the contract into a direct award. Ultimately an open competitive tender was held for the operating contract, but NS, in its High Speed Alliance (HSA) joint venture with KLM, submitted an extremely high bid to fend off the prospect of a competitor gaining access to HSL South.

The result was an unworkable arrangement between the Dutch state and NS, in which obligations concerning both operations and finances were not - and could not - be kept. The Committee concludes that the government's decision to go ahead with a competitive tender was unwise and irresponsible.

With the poor state of Fyra services and high track access charges, HSA quickly ran into financial difficulties and was subsequently bailed out by the government, which then decided to merge the operation of services on the high-speed line into the NS core network concession. According to the report, the cost to the state was around €1bn in unfulfilled obligations from the high-speed concession.

Rolling stock

Rolling stock was a core element of the Fyra crisis. The new trains could not be based on existing products because of the unique and complex specification. AnsaldoBreda won the contract to supply the trains, but it appears the other shortlisted candidate, Alstom, was not asked the same questions in the tendering procedure. Moreover, AnsaldoBreda was able to make modifications to its bid and design after the official final deadline for submitting bids. The report states that the tendering procedure was poorly managed and NS made significant errors in the procurement.

In 2004 NS's Dublin-based leasing subsidiary NS Financial Services concluded the contract with AnsaldoBreda for the V250 fleet and delivery was scheduled for 2007. However, NS already knew the timetable for introduction was unrealistic and had concerns about quality. Nevertheless, the option to cancel the purchase contract was not exercised. The report criticises NS for failing to act responsibly as the contracting party and for poor decision-making at various stages of procurement.

In March 2012 NS decided to start Fyra operations with the new V250 high-speed trains, even though it had little experience of the new fleet and no contingency measures were put in place. NS accepted the trains even though they did not meet its requirements and after a brief period of testing - deemed too brief by the committee - the trains were delivered shortly before commercial operations were due to start. According to the report, many important requirements for operation in the Netherlands were dropped, and as soon as the fleet entered service in December 2012, technical problems began to impede operations and inconvenience passengers.

It is suggested that NS should have had a fallback option to avoid a total collapse of the Belgian- Dutch cross-border services. The Dutch Ministry of Transport is blamed for not supervising NS and failing to protect the interests of passengers.

The withdrawal of Fyra left a void for cross-border services, which meant the only options for passengers were the more expensive Thalys high-speed service, or much slower journey via the the conventional network. Again, the financial interests of NS and the Dutch state were put before the interests of passengers.

The report is critical of the decision to authorise the V250s for passenger use. "The committee is shocked by the authorisation of the Fyra trains," the report states. "The [Dutch national railway safety authority] ILT is responsible for authorisation, but checks were only based on documents, not the inspection of trains. The ILT blindly trusted the notified body Lloyd's Register Rail. The fact that Lloyd's was being paid by AnsaldoBreda makes the checks even more vulnerable." The committee states that there was too much focus on processes in the authorisation and not enough attention was given to the rolling stock itself, and suggests that the ILT needs to change the way it manages the authorisation of new trains.

The report recommends that the Dutch government should now take steps to arrange high-speed services between the Netherlands and Belgium offering reasonable fares.

 

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