THE start of the 2019 timetable on December 9 brought more new stations and services onto the Dutch network, providing a little more capacity in a country where passenger traffic has surged in recent years but inevitably adding to the strain on an already intensively-used infrastructure.

Over the next year the country’s 12 main line passenger operators and 28 freight operators will run a record 165 million train-km, compared with 129 million train-km in 2004. The network will play host to more than 2.2 million passenger services and there will be 8% more freight trains than last year.

Despite the growing pressure on the network, infrastructure manager ProRail has recently emerged from a period where punctuality was consistently below 90%, with the number of trains arriving at their destination within three minutes reaching 92.1% on the core network (excluding HSL South) in the first half of 2018.

However, sustaining performance at this level will be extremely difficult given the pressures on the system. With ridership forecast to grow by a further 40% over the next decade, ProRail warned last August that congestion could severely impact train performance by 2030 unless serious efforts are made to tackle bottlenecks. “I think when you are reaching 92-93% on your main lines it’s very difficult to go higher,” ProRail CEO, Mr Pier Eringa, told IRJ in an exclusive interview in Brussels in November. “Our infrastructure is performing well but it’s getting older. There’s a discussion now about the balance between maintenance of existing infrastructure assets and replacement. Running more trains inevitably means more maintenance.”

Pier Eringa, CEO of ProRail

In a country with extremely challenging ground conditions and the highest population density in Europe, ProRail is under pressure to achieve capacity gains without resorting to major civil engineering. “Of course, you can build more tracks and there are places in the Netherlands where it would be easy to do this, but in areas like the Randstad conurbation, where extra capacity is needed most, it’s going to be difficult,” Eringa explains. “Our challenge therefore is to run more trains on the existing tracks. Only 10% of travel in the Netherlands is by train and the network is already extremely busy. We want to see more people switch from cars to trains, but we have to invest in infrastructure. Not only more infrastructure but also using the existing system better.”

Eringa sees the adoption of ERTMS as a key enabler in the quest for more capacity and a foundation for further digitalisation of railway infrastructure. In January 2016, the Dutch government delayed the national rollout programme, which would have equipped most of the national network with ETCS Level 2 by 2028, to allow more time for planning. The government is expected to announce its final decision on the scope of the programme in the spring.

ProRail has partnered with British infrastructure manager Network Rail to study the longer-term potential of ERTMS through the Hybrid Level 3 project, which was launched in 2013 and led to a successful field demonstrator in 2017. Hybrid Level 3 uses existing track circuits and axle counter sections to create virtual blocks - sub-sections which can shorten the operating headway significantly without substantial investment.

ProRail started trials in December with Automatic Train Operation (ATO) on the Betuweroute dedicated freight line, which is equipped with ERTMS Level 2 and has no level crossings. ATO trials are also planned with passenger trains on regional lines in the northern province of Groningen. “ATO will help us to get more capacity and increase safety,” says Eringa. “The goal is to use technology to support the driver, not to take him out of the cab.”


While it continues to test technologies that could deliver capacity benefits in the future, ProRail is having to find other solutions to the congestion issues it faces today. With increasing traffic and more rolling stock on the network, movements to and from stabling and maintenance facilities have contributed to the congestion around stations. As land use pressures make the construction of new stabling sidings difficult in many urban areas, ProRail is adopting a carrot-and-stick approach to ensure existing capacity around depots and sidings is used as efficiently as possible. A concept dubbed “parking as a service” being developed by ProRail would incentivise train operators to take a more collaborative approach, enabling the infrastructure manager to optimise capacity usage and allocation.

ProRail’s 2020 Network Statement, which was published in December, includes new tariffs for shunting operations around stations, with operators charged by the minute for these movements. This is intended to push operators into improving train planning around stabling moves.

Another innovation is the Timetable Redesign (TTR) tool, which enables ProRail to achieve a greater degree of precision in the planning of train movements. With TTR, it expects to have more opportunities for ad hoc operation of trains without affecting the standard timetable structure. From 2020 ProRail will begin scheduling trains in six-second increments in a bid to maintain a high level of punctuality as traffic growth continues.

Track layouts have come under the spotlight in the quest for improved reliability and ProRail has instigated a programme of switch removals in a bid to boost performance. “I’m not an engineer but I say we need fewer switches because they are a weak point in our infrastructure,” Eringa says. “A lot of people don’t like this because they feel we are removing flexibility. We say you don’t need the flexibility if you make better plans that are simpler and more robust. We removed a lot of switches at Amsterdam Central last year and we’ve seen improvements in reliability and punctuality since we did that.”

Level crossings have again come under intense scrutiny in the Netherlands following a collision between a train and an electric cart at Oss near Nijmegen on September 20, which led to the death of four children. Just weeks before the tragedy the Dutch Research Council for Safety (OVV) warned that the high number of level crossings remaining in the Netherlands was not compatible with the intensity of service on the core network and called on the government to halve the number of crossings within a decade.

Netherlands ungated level crossing

In November state secretary to the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure, Mrs Stientje van Velthoven, told parliament  that the programme to phase out all remaining ungated level crossings on the national network will be completed within five years instead of 10. In recent years ProRail has made progress in reducing the number of ungated level crossings but 135 remain in use. The Ministry of Infrastructure has made €60m available to accelerate the closure plan and upgrade safety measures at those crossings that cannot be closed.

In November, ProRail attracted criticism when it began sealing off the most dangerous ungated crossings with concrete blocks without going through the official closure procedure with the landowner. “I am getting rid of level crossings, that’s one of my duties,” Eringa says. “Between Amsterdam and Eindhoven we now have six inter-city trains an hour in each direction as well as local trains and freight. As the network gets busier, the crossings may be closed for longer than they are open and people don’t like to be kept waiting. We still have a lot of crossings with no active safety systems and we don’t like that, it’s too risky.”

As the number of trains operating on the network increases, so too does the impact on infrastructure while access to the track for maintenance becomes more difficult, meaning more work is carried out at night. ProRail typically makes around 2500 maintenance interventions on the network every year, with more than 80% of this work conducted during the hours of darkness. Eringa says this is creating challenges for its contractors, which are struggling to recruit enough staff to meet demand. “Who wants to work at night, at the weekend and in the holidays? Young people don’t like that, it’s not attractive, and it makes things more expensive for us. So should we do all the maintenance at these times? Could we work during the day as well? Passengers don’t want fewer trains and the operators don’t want less capacity, so we need to think about clever maintenance. There are a lot of lines where we have 15 minutes between trains. Is it possible to do some maintenance in those times?

“When you look at a Formula 1 pit stop it only takes seconds. Why can’t we think that way? If you have a team standing ready and a safety system in place, the team moves onto the track and they’ve done the job by the time the train is due. If we do that a few times a day we can get a lot of things done that we would normally do at night. People will say ‘how can you possibly work safely that way? There are already technologies out there that would protect the workers, and we should look at what has been done in other safety-critical sectors - a lot of things that work elsewhere would work for us on the railway.”


In and around the Randstad conurbation ProRail is working with NS on the implementation of the PHS high-frequency operation programme, which will enable 10-minute-interval inter-city services on key corridors. The concept was introduced on the Amsterdam - Utrecht - Eindhoven route in December 2017 and will be extended to the Schiphol - Nijmegen corridor in December 2021 and Breda - Eindhoven in December 2024. However, in November Eringa announced plans to take PHS a step further to enable inter-city services to run at 7.5-minute intervals.

Eringa says digitalisation will enable the network to reliably support such high-intensity operation, but he believes these measures in isolation will not be enough to satisfy projected mobility demand in the Randstad. “In the west we are going to need a denser network, whether that means heavy rail or light rail,” he explains. “ProRail is in the business of heavy rail, but maybe light rail would allow us to achieve more in some parts of the network - for example if you converted a couple of tracks between Schiphol and Amsterdam. This might be difficult for NS, but you could increase the frequency there by running lighter trains under a light rail safety regime.”

Alongside the need for more capacity within the Randstad Eringa argues that the government needs to focus on improving rail links between the conurbation and outlying regions. Longer- distance domestic services are currently limited to a maximum of 140km/h by the legacy Dutch ATB train protection system and Eringa claims this means journey times are unacceptably long.

In the coming months NS plans to carry out test runs to establish the viability of accelerating services between Amsterdam and the northern city of Groningen. This will be achieved by skipping stops and running at 160km/h on the Hanze Line, which is equipped with both ATB and ETCS Level 2, offering a 15-minute saving on the scheduled two-hour journey time. Journey times between Groningen and the Randstad have long been a source of political debate, and with 200km/h Inter-City New Generation (ICNG) trains due to enter service from 2021 onwards, NS will have the rolling stock capable of meeting these aspirations.

“People are moving into the Randstad and it’s very crowded and housing is very expensive,” Eringa says. “This is a small country, so faster inter-city trains between the north and west would make it easier for people to live and work in other parts of the Netherlands. 140km/h is fine for short distances, but when you are looking at longer distances such as Groningen - Amsterdam, which is about 200km, it means a two-hour trip. Dutch people will accept a one-hour commute but not two.

“As the infrastructure manager we have to prepare for the prospect of running trains at 200km/h. We aren’t doing this yet. It’s easy for NS to order 200km/h trains now, but when we don’t invest in infrastructure for operation at that speed, the infrastructure becomes a bottleneck. At that point NS is going to say, ‘OK, we’re ready for fast trains but ProRail isn’t.’”

Looking further afield, both NS and ProRail are pushing for improvements to international passenger services, particularly between the Netherlands and Germany. Last September, Eringa, NS CEO, Mr Roger van Boxtel, and regional politicians travelled to InnoTrans on a special Amsterdam - Berlin service, which reached the German capital in 5h 53min, 27 minutes faster than normal scheduled trains.

“My ideal is that the train becomes more important at a European level,” Eringa says. “We need faster connections between Amsterdam and Berlin - six-and-a-half hours for about 500km is ridiculous. It’s about systems, it’s about regulation, but it’s also about governments and the choices they make. If we want to make railways a success in Europe we need a central authority that says OK, we listen to every member state, but we have to work together and we have to be able to compromise to develop an interoperable international network.”

One item that is on the Dutch government’s agenda is a proposal to change ProRail’s status from a state-owned company to a public body (ZBO). Public consultation began in October and the proposals would require approval by an act of parliament. These changes would pull ProRail closer into the orbit of the Ministry of Infrastructure and by extension the government, which argues the measure would provide greater transparency in how ProRail uses public money. If the legislation is approved, the new structure could be introduced by 2021. In the meantime, ProRail continues to focus on the challenges of running one of Europe’s most intensively-used railway networks.