Dutch high-speed train dream runs off the rails

Hundreds of millions of euros worth of trains standing idle outside Amsterdam testify to a dream of a Dutch high-speed rail link with Brussels has gone dramatically off the rails.

The dream was to have a regular service of trains running at 250 kph (156 mph) to link Amsterdam with Brussels rivalling the likes of France's TGV or the Eurostar under the Channel.

But the 16 engines plus carriages to carry up to 500 people on the lucrative 200-kilometre (125-mile) line, have been beset by delays and technical problems.

Launched with great fanfare on December 9 last year, Dutch Rail (NS) pulled the plug on its Fyra high-speed service barely a month later on January 17, after a raft of technical malfunctions and problems delayed departures.

Today more expensive Thalys trains, owned by a Franco-Belgian-German rail consortium, are the only rolling stock using the high speed tracks.

After a lengthy investigation, the NS last week announced they wanted to ditch the Fyra, or V250, trains manufactured by AnsaldoBreda, a subsidiary of Italian aerospace and defence giant Finmeccanica.

The move followed a similar move days earlier by Belgian rail authorities, who had bought three of the trains.

Results of a Belgian investigation, published extensively in the Dutch press, uncovered software and braking problems, loosening doors, pieces of metal strip peeling off the roof, damage to hydraulic and electrical cables and rust after only a few kilometres on the tracks.

The last straw came with the discovery of a metal bottom plate next to the tracks which fell off a passing Fyra, prompting NS to suspend the service and launch a full-scale investigation.

Based on its own probe, "the NS has come to the conclusion that continuing with the V250 would be irresponsible and not desirable for travellers," it said.

On Friday, the Dutch government backed the state-owned NS's decision with Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher saying "we cannot conclude differently than the NS."

Experts have called on the government to look at the origins of the fiasco, rather than the ignominious result.

"The problems started long before the Fyra was forced to a standstill in January," Rob Goverde, a rail expert at Delft's Technical University told AFP.

"A lot of mistakes had been made in the past," he said.

As early as 1993, the Dutch government eyed plans to run a high-speed rail service through the Netherlands as a showcase project on par with its French and German counterparts.

The service would have two components: high speed tracks fitted out with technology allowing trains to run at 300 kph and the high-speed trains themselves.

The concession to build the multi-billion-euro track was handed to a Dutch consortium consisting of NS and national airline carrier KLM in 2001, while AnsaldoBreda got the deal in 2004 to build the trains.

The Dutch government thought it had gotten a bargain when AnsaldoBreda offered to deliver 16 Fyra trains at 20 million euros ($26 million) a piece by 2007, to be ready to put in service by 2009.

"They wanted cheap rolling stock" and selected a manufacturer "without any proven knowledge of building high-speed trains," Goverde said.

Meanwhile AnsaldoBreda furiously denied they were at fault.

Company director Maurizia Manfellotto called the Dutch and Belgian rail authorities' accusations "baseless and unfounded" at a press conference in Naples, accusing them of pushing the trains too far in poor weather conditions, leading to major damage.

With a long legal fight spanning three European Union countries in the offing, NS scrambled to find a solution for thousands of frustrated rail travellers.

The rail operator said for a start it will increase the frequency of the Thalys and normal trains running between Amsterdam and Brussels.

Another option is to order trains from another manufacturer, a process likely to take years.

"In the meantime, it's a disaster for many travellers between the Netherlands and Belgium," Goverde said.

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