This destroyed confidence in the trains in Belgium, which means it could be months before they are allowed to operate normally even if the technical problems are resolved. In the meantime, a very poor replacement service has been introduced.
This sorry tale has its origins in the decision in 2004 by Belgian National Railways (SNCB) and Netherlands Railways (NS) to buy a 250km/h train of unproven design and seemingly with more regard for price than quality. The AnsaldoBreda trains were due to be delivered by the end of 2007, but testing of the first train did not begin until 2008.
Continual problems and delays in obtaining approval for the train, which rather prophetically was originally called Albatross, meant that a motley fleet of locomotive-hauled trains had to be cobbled together in 2009 in order to launch domestic high-speed services in the Netherlands under the Fyra brand.
Testing continued with the V250 trains until they were finally approved for operation in the two countries last year, paving the way for the launch of a high-speed service linking Amsterdam and Brussels on December 9 with just days to spare. The new Fyra service was designed to replace the conventional hourly-interval service and cut the journey time by a third to 2 hours.
But almost immediately there were problems. A shortage of trains meant it was only possible to run a Fyra service every two hours, and the trains' continuing unreliability quickly resulted in delays and cancellations. In mid-January the service was suspended after accumulated frozen snow under the trains fell off damaging and dislodging several components which dropped on to the track. The Belgian National Safety Authority (DVIS) stepped in and banned the V250 trains from operating in Belgium, making the suspension permanent.
As the paths used for the conventional Amsterdam - Brussels service had already been reallocated to NS to expand domestic services, it was no longer possible to reinstate the old service. Passengers were faced with the prospect of having to pay much higher fares to travel on the already-busy Thalys high-speed service from Amsterdam to Brussels or use a series of connecting bus and rail services with greatly extended journey times.
On February 18 two round trips were introduced on the conventional network but only between Brussels and The Hague, as no paths were available north of The Hague. This means the Brussels -Amsterdam trip now takes half an hour longer than before the high-speed Fyra service was introduced. Nevertheless, services between Brussels and The Hague are due to be stepped up to eight trains per day on March 11.
Both SNCB and NS blame AnsaldoBreda for the failure of the V250 trains. AnsaldoBreda issued a public apology for the technical problems and says it is committed to solving them, but it also claims that the problems caused by the build-up of snow and ice under the trains never manifested themselves during tests prior to their entry into service.
Recriminations have started to flow across the Belgian-Dutch border. SNCB's CEO Mr Marc Descheemaecker hinted at "brutal measures" being needed to resolve the Fyra problem when he was interviewed on Belgian television in January. He also questioned the necessity of having a more frequent train service between Brussels and Amsterdam than between Brussels and Paris. However, a glance at the timetable would have told Descheemaecker that the full Fyra service plus the nine Thalys trains per day would have put the Amsterdam - Brussels service, which also serves Schiphol Airport, Rotterdam and Antwerp, on a par with the Brussels - Paris Thalys frequency. In the current situation, passengers have a far worse service than they have had since the 1960s.
As the Belgians appear to have lost complete confidence in the V250 trains and the ability of both NS and AnsaldoBreda to put things right, it will take more than technical modifications to convince them that the V250s should be allowed back on Belgian tracks.
Clearly nobody thought of a contingency plan to cover for the V250 trains, whose reliability was always in question, and it was foolhardy to switch overnight from the conventional to the high-speed service. A phased introduction would have been more prudent.
Some stark choices face NS and SNCB. Should they seek a thorough examination of the V250 trains with a view to driving up their reliability to acceptable levels, and who should carry out the work if SNCB does not have any confidence in AnsaldoBreda?
Alternatively, has the time come to ditch the V250 trains? In this case, the two railways will have to go out to tender for a new fleet of 250km/h tri-voltage emus fitted with ERTMS as well as the Dutch and Belgian signalling systems, which will take two to three years or even longer to acquire, test and put into service. Finally, who is going to foot the bill either to re-engineer the V250 trains or replace them? As I said at the beginning, what a mess.