A white Christmas in the Netherlands? ‘Please no’
In the Netherlands, many trains may be cancelled again this winter during heavy snowfall. On the rail stretch between Maasvlakte and Kijfhoek, only half of the points heating is working properly. Where everyone is hoping for a white Christmas, the rail freight industry is wishing for the opposite, as RailGood director Hans-Willem Vroon pointed out.
The current status of the infrastructure was brought to light by State Secretary Steven van Weyenburg of Infrastructure and Water Management, in a follow-up to recommendations that were given earlier this year, when heavy snowfall disrupted the rail freight industry for weeks. The issue was put on the agenda just as the Netherlands is anticipating (probably light) snowfall end of this week.
Earlier winter disruptions
At the beginning of February this year, continuous switch failures as a result of winter weather caused train traffic to come to a virtual standstill. Shunting yards, maintenance locations and freight terminals were difficult to reach due to the limited recovery capacity. Trains with malfunctions or defects could not be transported for repair. The impact was felt for weeks, and the rail freight industry suffered significant losses.
Based on these results of the winter evaluation, ProRail, in consultation with transporters, has decided to replace 44 point heating cabinets, which contain the technical control of point heating systems. These exchange cabinets are seen as the most important logistically by transporters.
But, as appears from the letter from the State Secretary, this replacement may not be ready before the winter of 2022/2023. According to him, this is due to the fact that ProRail is dealing with the lead time in tendering, long delivery times of required parts and expansion of the scope with heating ribbons (electric point heating).
Which switches are replaced?
ProRail has a replacement project for 44 priority switch heating boxes. In addition, it has a maintenance plan for the replacement of the other boxes in the period from 2024 to 2027. Efforts have been made to get the defective switch heating boxes functional as much as possible for the winter 2021-2022, however, this was only possible on some sections of the network.
For the Kijfhoek – Zevenaar route, the switch heating is functioning properly after a few repairs, reports Van Weyenberg. The most important installations on the A15 route near Zevenaar East have now been repaired. But the installations for the port area are not in good shape. Repair was made more difficult because there was a safety warning for electrocution and these defects had to be fixed first.
There has been a lot of criticism towards the approach of ProRail. It has been criticised for mismanagement, a claim that the infrastructure manager party admitted to in the evaluation report. ProRail also promised better communication towards rail freight carriers in the event of massive disruptions. This mostly concerns the recovery of rail freight traffic after such disruptions, as the switch failures cannot be completely avoided.
“Currently, recovery plans are being drawn up for the most critical locations, after which we expect to be able to get several installations up and running from December 2021. Partly because we are dependent on the renewal project of the 44 point heating cabinets, we have to take into account that not all point heating will work next winter”, writes Van Weyenberg.
According to the State Secretary, ProRail is therefore forced to “fully commit to additional control measures”. “To do this, together with carriers, we will investigate how the logistics options remain available as much as possible in winter weather.”
The industry is however critical. Vroon spoke on Linkedin of “many lame excuses after the umpteenth evaluation”. Especially the network around the port of Rotterdam is crucial, and it is there where the switches could not be repaired. “If there is a risk of electrocution, has the functioning of the point heating been properly checked in recent years? Was this asset really (good) in the maintenance contracts? Would the problem really only be limited to the port of Rotterdam? Isn’t that remarkable?”, he wonders.
There are approximately seven thousand switches in the Netherlands, of which approximately five thousand are equipped with point heating. In October 2021, all switch heating was inspected in a uniform manner, during which the switch heating was tested and risks with regard to operation were identified.
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