Code red snowstorm bends Dutch rail freight traffic

Rail freight traffic in the Netherlands has come to a complete standstill due to extreme winter conditions. Switches are buried in snow, and preventive measures taken have proven to be insufficient to deal with what is known to be the most challenging weather for rail in the last fifteen years.

Since yesterday, we managed to move one train from the terminal to the emplacement in the port of Rotterdam, said Jolanda Plomp, CEO of LTE Netherlands. “Nothing is moving. All we can do is wait.” She says this on Monday morning, when passenger traffic has partially resumed, although gradually and surely not everywhere.

A little later, in the afternoon, DB Cargo the Netherlands sends out a statement: the weather conditions have not improved compared to early this morning. The combination of strong wind, snow and severe frost is currently causing a very large number of infrastructure disruptions. This multitude of disruptions makes it impossible to deliver a reliable product. DB Cargo Nederland therefore does not consider it justified to start up the train service under these circumstances. Terminals and sidings will therefore not be served today.

Snow too thick for heating

On Saturday evening snow started covering the Netherlands. It was paired with harsh winds and temperatures reaching -6 degrees Celsius. This all continued until Sunday afternoon. As a result, a thick layer of snow and ice covered railway tracks and switches in most of the country. The switches soon proved to be non-functional, and all train traffic was suspended on Sunday.

Although switches in the Netherlands contain a heating system, the layer of snow was too thick, commented infrastructure manager ProRail. Around 400 workers had been active all night to remove the snow at several locations, but this was as emptying the ocean with a thimble, said ProRail director John Voppen on national television Sunday evening. “Snow was blown back into the switches within the shortest time.”

Losses that run into tonnes

Now that snowfall has stopped, repair works seem a little easier. Yet, the infrastructure will not be fully operational until at least Tuesday, maybe even Wednesday, said ProRail. This is a bitter pill for the rail freight industry, which quickly suffers losses ‘running into tonnes’ after two days of no movement, said Plomp. Whereas passenger traffic is already thinned out in light of the ongoing corona crisis, rail freight traffic must move on.

This is why especially the rail freight sector is disappointed in the response of the infrastructure manager. “Luckily, roads and rivers were open for traffic, but these are competing modalities”, said Hans-Willem Vroon from lobby organisation RailGood. “It would be good if anno 2021, rail freight could continue in winter, heat and storm. This is not a normal response to winter conditions, this is quite unique!”

Criticism

Vroon and others in the industry compare the situation in the Netherlands with other countries, which are better equipped to deal with harsh winter conditions. “Of course it is a snowy day, of course something can be disturbed. However, Dutch rail transport has come to a complete standstill, mainly due to frozen switches and inadequate rail management. And, there is no forecast when freight transport can start running again. In Germany, where much more snow has fallen, (freight) trains are running – despite the failure of parts of DB Fehrnverkehr. What are Switzerland, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, the US and Canada doing better than the Netherlands?”

The biggest difference between the Netherlands and other countries, according to experts, lies mainly in the large number of switches in the track, approximately 6,000. A single track causes fewer problems with snow and ice than a complicated rail network like the one in the Netherlands with many switches. An explanation about this from ProRail area manager Alf Smolders leads to discussion on Linkedin. Why has ProRail not put the switches in a permanent position on the main routes connecting the main routes?

Balance

ProRail spokesperson Aldert Baas says that switches have indeed been secured as a precaution. “In some crucial places, switches have indeed been set in a fixed position, but that is not possible everywhere. After all, you also rule out possibilities to let train traffic continue. We are therefore always looking for a balance between preventing disruptions and excluding trains and routes.”

Moreover, the choice for the most relevant route would likely be that of the passenger route, something that does not necessarily benefit the rail freight operator. “I hate to say this, but passenger traffic always gets the priority. ProRail is working hard to relieve the tracks, I am sure, but we have not seen any person removing snow from the Harbour Line in the port of Rotterdam, which is crucial for freight transport”, says Plomp.

Snow plows on main yards

In the meantime, she has had to keep 20 train drivers and wagon operators home, and continuously inform the customers that trains are still stranded. “Fix switches on the main routes and have snow plows on the main freight yards (Maasvlakte, Kijfhoek). Then you should be able to get going. Apparently ProRail has not been able to facilitate this all day long. The carriers and their customers really understand a single short disruption, but not the situation as it is now”, comments Leonart de Pater from Kombirail Europe.

DB Cargo the Netherlands aims for a safe resumption of train services on Tuesday. “This is only possible when the weather conditions do not deteriorate further and most disruptions in the infrastructure have been resolved. Incidentally, the start-up will take place in different phases so that the manageability of the train process can be guaranteed. However, it is already clear that there will continue to be disruptions to rail freight services for the rest of the week at least. Delays are to be expected.”

Author: Majorie van Leijen

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

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