Image: PortShuttle Rotterdam

Bad management cause of rail infra problems port of Rotterdam

An investigation report with clear recommendations and concrete points for improvement to tackle the infrastructure problems in Rotterdam’s Harbour Line has been presented to the Dutch government. Infrastructure manager ProRail fully embraces the report and has a short- and long-term plan to restore the rail freight line to Europe’s largest port. Is this what the railway undertakings wanted?

It is recognition of a problem that has been playing parts for several years. Rail freight carriers and their customers have been experiencing hindrance and economic damage as a result of the frequent disruptions of the railway infrastructure in the port of Rotterdam, abrupt closures of freight tracks, abrupt repairs to these tracks and operational restrictions caused by environmental permit issues of ProRail, as is summarised by lobby group RailGood.

Mismanagement

The independent research report, carried out by Crisislab and commissioned by ProRail and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management finds that PorRail postponed long-term maintenance and investments. Management was fragmented and therefore ineffective. According to the report, ProRail is designed to operate in a structured manner (management), but not to deal with deviations (management) that always occur in practice.

“We recognize and acknowledge the causes and conclusions mentioned in the report. These insights will help to improve structurally”, said ProRail  in response to the investigation report. The infrastructure manager acknowledges over the past ten to fifteen years it has indeed paid more attention to the passenger network than to the freight rail. We didn’t really do well with the passenger network three years ago, so we focussed on that. We didn’t forget rail freight, but did not focus enough. We are listening now”, COO Ans Rietstra said in a show of RailFreight Live on 12 June

The Crisislab report outlines that ProRail’s way of working suits passenger transport, but not freight transport. Freight transport is different because, among other things, many more carriers have to be served than in passenger transport, based on a completely different type of timetable and operational control. Because of that, freight infrastructure requires a different type of maintenance.

Short and long term solutions

ProRail wants to quickly and structurally improve the performance of Rotterdam’s port lines. In the short term, the maintenance backlog should be cleared up. This includes the repair of 100 malfunctioning points that have been defined by the infrastructure manager. By the first of April, the operational restrictions at the Waalhaven railway yard, caused by a non-functioning fire extinguishing system, should be lifted. This will allow shunting of wagons with dangerous goods once again.

In order to achieve a structural improvement in the performance of the company, it has revised its problem-solving mechanism. In March this year a programme manager was appointed. He directly reports to ProRail’s COO and works together with the rail freight carriers, Port of Rotterdam, municipalities and the regional safety and environmental authorities. In this way, the orgisation hopes to signal problems on the network more efficiently.

Confident about improvement

“ProRail and the Ministry of I&W want the state of the Rotterdam harbor railways to be fully in order and organisational improvements to be implemented within four years”, RailGood writes. Although the commitment of ProRail had already been made, the Crisislab investigation report leads the way on how to achieve this ambition. “It is good that ProRail has now started a fundamental change of course, which requires long-term perseverance and investments”, RailGood says.

“DB Cargo the Netherlands also responds positively to these developments. “The combination of the results and recommendations of the independent survey and a thoroughly working steering group gives DB Cargo sufficient confidence in improvement at the moment.” The rail freight operator called the response of ProRail ‘adequate’.

Damage suffered

However, railway undertakings are not yet done discussing the damages they have suffered. According to RailGood director Hans-Willem Vroon, these damages could be about six million per year. In 2019 and 2020, ProRail offered two compensation schemes to rail freight operators for the sudden unavailability of tracks and the operational restrictions at Waalhaven South railway yard.

“These compensations are far insufficient to offset the losses suffered by the rail freight carriers and their customers. For 2021 and beyond, no arrangements have yet been agreed to offset the losses incurred. In the short term, ProRail must agree with the rail freight carriers on how these losses will be fully compensated”, RailGood writes.

ProRail’s COO Ans Rietstra said in the show of RailFreight Live on 12 June that compensation of losses is a responsibility of the ministry. “I do understand what the railway undertakings are saying, but am not able to solve that problem”, she said.

Loss of confidence

According to DB Cargo, the biggest damage cannot be expressed in monetary terms and has to do with the loss of confidence in the rail modality in the port of Rotterdam. Railway undertakings have lost business, as customers leached out to other ports or other modalities. This is business that may not return, they have claimed.

“That is why DB Cargo advocates targeted communication with the Rotterdam port community in which the honest story is told. But above all, this should offer the prospect of improvement in order to restore damaged confidence.”

In the same show on 12 June, Rietstra said about this reputation damage: “It is not all bad. A lot of money in being invested in the Harbour Line, for example with the replacement of the Calanbrug and the building of the Theemswegtrace. However, we are working on better publicity campaigns, in which we aim to improve this situation.”

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Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailFreight.com, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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