Freight trains still stuck in the Netherlands (with updates)

In the port of Rotterdam, rail freight traffic has resumed gradually. Currently, main parts of the network are accessible. However, emplacement yard Kijfhoek is still partially unavailable. Moreover, the low temperatures over the weekend could lead to new problems. This is the situation on Friday afternoon, according to infrastructure manager ProRail.

“Many sidings in the port of Rotterdam are currently accessible again thanks to the hard work. The main routes to and from the Belgian and German borders are free. The main traffic on the Harbour Line is not experiencing any obstacles either. The restrictions on Botlek, Pernis and Waalhaven South are over. Teams are working hard at the Kijfhoek yard. Hill and shunting are now possible again to a limited extent”, wrote ProRail on Friday afternoon.

It published an updates map of the accessible locations in the port of Rotterdam on its website. This map was apparently different from the earlier version, published on Thursday.

Map of accessible Harbour Line on Friday afternoon

From 125 to 4 trains per day

ProRail also published some figures on the number of trains accessing the port of Rotterdam. “On an average day, about 125 freight trains run to and from the port of Rotterdam. Unfortunately, this changed due to the enormous snowfall last weekend. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday there were only two to three freight trains a day due to the problems on the track”, the infra manager said.

Looking at the graphic published on Friday, it looks like traffic started picking up on Wednesday, when 51 trains were operated in and out the port. On Thursday, this number was 82.

Number of trains in and out of Rotterdam this week

Earlier story (Friday morning)

Today is the sixth day that rail freight is at an almost complete standstill in the Netherlands. Although passenger traffic has resumed to a good extent, railway undertakings have only been able to operate a handful of trains in and out of the country. The biggest problem is in the harbour area of Rotterdam. Dutch political party PVV has asked the government for a response on how this is possible.

RailFreight.com went into the harbour to take a look at the situation. Watch RailFreight Live this afternoon for the video report. The show starts at 1pm CEST. 

Still disrupted

“Although the situation on the railways is slowly improving in the rest of the Netherlands, this is unfortunately not yet the case in the port of Rotterdam. Especially at emplacement yard Kijfhoek, we are dealing with many (re) frozen switches. At the moment, several breakdown teams from various contractors are at work, so that the yard can be made operative bit by bit” writes ProRail in its live blog on Thursday evening.

Kijfhoek is not the only place where traffic is restricted. In other places in the port of Rotterdam, many switches are currently not functioning due to the winter weather, and many railway yards and companies are difficult or impossible to reach. Traffic is not completely at standstill though. Several trains do depart and arrive. On Friday morning, Hupac announced the departure of a train from Rotterdam Waalhaven to Busto Arsizio in Italy. “The corridor to Italy is opening up again”, the intermodal operator wrote on Linkedin.

Map of available network on Thursday 11 February. In red: not accessible. In yellow, partially accessible. In green: accessible.

Outdated system

Member of Parliament Roy van Aalst (PVV) asked questions to State Secretary of Infrastructure and Water on Thursday 11 February, wondering if she was aware of the current ‘chaos’ in the port of Rotterdam. He asked why the switches of the Harbour Line are outdated, especially as they have been part of a renovation process in the port area. ProRail could have invested in for example the WIRAS switch, which is more resistant to cold temperatures.

Indeed, the WIRAS switch (WInterproof RAilway Switch) is an available option for the Netherlands. It has has been developed by the Technical University (TU) Delft, and has been on the shelves for the last ten years. The mechanical engineer developed the switch in such a way that switch heating is no longer required. Because the switch is equipped with vertically moving switch tongues instead of horizontal ones, snow and ice can no longer fall between them. As a result, the winter weather no longer has a negative influence on the functioning of the points. In addition, energy can be saved because point heating is no longer required.

Although a response is yet to be given, the infrastructure manager mentioned that it is doing everything it can to resume traffic at the moment. “Rail freight transport is an essential link in, among other things, the supply of shops and factories in the Netherlands and Europe. At the moment, not all trains can reach their final destination and we deeply regret that. We are doing everything we can to make the tracks snow and ice-free, so that the train service can proceed normally again.”

Earlier story (Thursday 11 February)

Today is the fifth day that rail freight is at an almost complete standstill in the Netherlands. Although passenger traffic has resumed to a good extent, railway undertakings have only been able to operate a handful of trains in and out of the country. The biggest problem is in the harbour area of Rotterdam.

“This morning passenger trains started running according to plan. The severe cold last night does hinder the effort to make railways available for freight transport. Switches are freezing again. Today we look at how we can move on in this regard”, ProRail said on Thursday morning.

Operational or not?

The updates on which areas are accessible are confusing, as they are subject to change or incorrect. On Wednesday afternoon, for example, the main route of the Harbour Line was declared operative, just as the terminals APMT, EMO, LWR, RWG, Maasvlakte east, Europoort, CTT and RSC.

However, departing a train from Europort still proved to be impossible according to railway companies. “We receive updates on which areas are cleared, but this is not always correct. We have not been able to get a train out of Europort”, said Jolanda Plomp, CEO of LTE.

Still closed

According to ProRail, it is not yet possible to operate from Euromaxx, Theemsweg, including Lyondell and Vopak. There are serious restrictions in emplacement yard Kijfhoek, where trains can be parked, but the hill system is not functioning. Partly accessible are ECT Delta, Buitencontour Maasvlakte 2, Botlek, Pernis and Waalhaven South. That was reported on Wednesday.

“In Amsterdam, the Houtrakpolder and the Westhaven are now also accessible. A snow plow is present in Moerdijk to clear the tracks there as well”, the ProRail blog read on Wednesday afternoon.

Race against the clock

The reason why railways are not operational is mainly due to switch errors. VolkerRail is working in the port to clear the snow from the switches. “That is quite a job, because there are about a thousand in total on the harbor site. To get to the right switches as quickly as possible, VolkerRail has a total of nine snow plows at strategic locations on the harbor tracks twenty-four hours a day. There they use leaf blowers to blow the snow away from the switch blades, so that they can be used again for the train service”, explains ProRail. Their role is to test the switches by checking whether they open and close properly.

The changing weather conditions make the work a race against the clock, the contractor explains. “Switches that we cleared of snow on Sunday, we had to do again on Monday,” says Bob van der Waal, projectmanager VolkerRail. The thaw brings new challenges. The melted snow turns into ice at night, which is a lot harder to get rid of. Instead of blowing it away with a leaf blower, we now melt it down with a gas burner, which takes longer, van der Waal explains.

Losing patience

“I really do see that ProRail is working hard to resolve the matter, but my patience is now getting less. The snowstorm happened on Saturday evening, I would have understood if railways were inaccessible on Sunday. But we are now five days further, and our trains are still stuck”, says Plomp.

In her belief, the priorities should have been different. “Due to the corona crisis most people are working from home, so maybe there should have been a little less focus on passenger traffic, and a little more on rail freight. We have a vital profession and goods do need to move in and out of the harbour. Soon, the tracks will start getting congested with trains that do operate, but cannot enter the port. Then, we have a bigger problem.”

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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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