May 16, 2018

HSL South finally fulfils its potential

Written by  Quintus Vosman
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The opening of the Amsterdam - Rotterdam - Antwerp HSL South high-speed line in 2009 failed to live up to expectations with the collapse of the Amsterdam - Brussels Fyra high-speed service in 2012, leaving Thalys as the sole operator. However, with the recent introduction of new services, the line is busy and, as Quintus Vosman reports, now requires investment to improve reliability.

OPTIMISM at the opening of the 125km HSL South high-speed linking Schiphol Airport, south of Amsterdam, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands with Antwerp in Belgium was short lived. While Thalys was able to capitalise on the inauguration of the new line by reducing the journey time of its Amsterdam - Brussels - Paris services to 3h 18min, the introduction of the Amsterdam - Brussels Fyra service was marred by extensive teething problems with the V250 trains supplied by AnsaldoBreda.

Benelux1Netherlands Railway (NS) was forced to operate the Fyra service with conventional 160km/h locomotive-hauled trains as a stopgap when HSL South opened and only within the Netherlands. When the V250s were finally approved for operation in 2012, they were only in service for 40 days before being withdrawn permanently due to technical problems.

Thalys introduced a few extra Amsterdam - Brussels trains and a new twice-daily Amsterdam - Brussels - Lille service to help bridge the gap, with Amsterdam - Brussels inter-city services reverting to the conventional network. As a result, hardly any Netherlands - Belgium services used the high-speed infrastructure apart from Thalys.

Fast forward to April 2018 and HSL South is finally starting to fulfil its potential with the launch of Eurostar between London and Amsterdam, albeit only twice a day and in one direction only (see panel below), and the rerouting of the conventional Amsterdam - Brussels inter-city service onto the high-speed line, with more high-speed services planned for introduction next year.

Rerouting of the hourly-interval Amsterdam - Brussels inter-city service onto HSL South means that Leiden, The Hague, and Dordrecht have lost their through service to Antwerp and Brussels. On the plus side, the rerouted service calls at Breda and Noorderkempen in Belgium. However, in order to call at Breda the trains have to reverse direction there, which adds 8 minutes to the journey time. While rerouting the Amsterdam - Brussels inter-city service via HSL South has reduced the journey time from 3h 23min to 2h 53min, this is still two minutes slower than the original pre-Fyra Benelux inter-city service.

To placate the Dutch parliament, four trains a day run between The Hague and Brussels to aid Dutch politicians and civil servants visiting Belgian and European Union offices. The Hague is not only the seat of the Dutch government, but is also the second most important location for the United Nations in Europe after Geneva.

The inter-city trains are operated with modernised ICRm coaches belonging to NS which are more than 30-years-old. Each of the 14 trains needed to operate the service is formed of seven coaches and a Traxx multi-system locomotive at each end.

Initially it was planned to operate the seven-coach trains in push-pull mode, using a single Traxx locomotive and an ICR driving trailer adapted for operation with Traxx locomotives and equipped with ETCS Level 2. However, modification of the driving trailers proved problematic and the plan was abandoned.

Thalys and NS will introduce a new twice-daily direct service between the Netherlands and France in April 2019, running from Amsterdam via Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Marne-la-Vallée, which serves Disneyland Paris and offers connections with domestic TGV services in France. The Amsterdam - Marne-la-Vallée journey time will be 3h 41min.

This will increase the number of Thalys trains serving Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp to 14 per day, with 10 heading to Paris, two to Marne-la-Vallée and two to Brussels. However, the twice-daily service between Amsterdam Central and Lille will be withdrawn, forcing passengers travelling between the Netherlands and Lille to change trains in Brussels.

In 2015, the Dutch government decided to incorporate HSL South into the core network concession granted to NS. As a result, the inter-city service between The Hague Central and Eindhoven now runs over the southern section of HSL South between Rotterdam and Breda.

HSL South is currently used by 246 trains per day operated by NS, Thalys and Eurostar. Performance on the line is worse than on the conventional network, despite major improvements in recent years. Both the CEO of NS, Mr Roger van Boxtel, and the CEO of Dutch infrastructure manager Prorail, Mr Pier Eringa, have urged the Dutch government to invest in HSL South as they believe the present level of performance is the best that can currently be achieved.

Shortcomings

Improvements proposed following independent research commissioned by NS and Prorail are now being discussed with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure. These focus on aspects of train operation such as punctuality and staff training as well as investment in the infrastructure to resolve shortcomings, such as the design and location of some interfaces between the conventional network and the high-speed line, and to upgrade ETCS Level 2 to Baseline 3, release 2 earlier than planned.

Mindful of the Fyra fiasco, the report strongly recommends careful preparation for the introduction of the new NS ICNG 200km/h trains being supplied by Alstom and a focus on wheel-rail integration, which is currently a problem with the Traxx locomotives which are causing increased wear.

There is an encouraging sign that the Dutch government is listening. Mrs Stientje van Veldhoven, secretary of state with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and responsible for railway affairs, has earmarked €60m to support improvements of the HSL-South infrastructure and train operations. This would be a step in the right direction to correct some of HSL South’s current deficiencies.

 

Eurostar expansion makes slow progress

THE introduction of the first Eurostar service between Amsterdam and London on April 4 2018, has taken several years to realise, and is only the first step towards operating a commercially-sustainable service.

Eurostar is currently restricted to running just two trains a day and only in one direction from London via Brussels to Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Eurostar operates the two trains on the return trip between Amsterdam and Brussels as a separate service which does not connect well with its trains to London.

Eurostar cannot operate a through Amsterdam - London service until an agreement has been reached between the Dutch and British governments to conduct passport control and security checks in the two Dutch cities although special facilities have been built at the two central stations.

Eurostar is also unable to call at either Antwerp Central or Amsterdam Schiphol Airport as providing customs, immigration and security facilities at these busy stations has been deemed too difficult.

NS has trained a group of about 45 drivers and train managers to operate the Eurostar services between Brussels and Amsterdam, while the Dutch government plans to recruit extra customs and immigration officers.

At present, passengers travelling from the Netherlands to London are encouraged to use a connecting Thalys to Brussels, where they can pass through security and immigration before boarding a Eurostar train to Britain. This results in a journey time of 4h 40min from Amsterdam to London compared with 3h 41min on the through train in the reverse direction.

Eurostar hopes to receive approval from the two governments to introduce the Amsterdam - London service in December 2019. If that happens, it plans to add a third daily round trip.

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