Members of the Dutch national parliament joined their Belgian colleagues in Brussels on Monday (28 January) to interrogate railway bosses about the spectacular collapse of the high-speed Fyra train service between the two countries that had been launched on 9 December. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Dutch MPs decided to drive rather than take the train. “I don't want to run the risk of arriving late,” one Socialist MP told a Dutch news website.
Actually, there is now no direct train between The Hague and Brussels that the MPs could have taken. On the same day that the two national rail companies launched the Fyra service between Brussels and Amsterdam, they ended the low-speed train service that had connected the two countries for 50 years. (It was known as the Benelux service though it was never extended to Luxembourg.) Although this train took an hour longer than the high-speed Thalys for the journey between Brussels and Amsterdam, it was cheaper and required no advance reservation. It also served Rozendaal and The Hague, which are not served by the Thalys.
It appears that the fondly remembered Benelux train was scrapped too quickly. After its launch, Fyra was plagued by a month of near-constant delays and cancellations until on 17 January the Belgian rail safety agency shut it down. Appearing before the MPs on Monday, both national train operators blamed Italian trainmaker AnsaldoBreda for providing faulty trains. The Fyra service will not be restored for months, leaving the Thalys as the only direct rail link between Belgium and the Netherlands.
Sadly, this situation is symptomatic of something happening all over Europe – the scrapping of ‘classic' cross-border train services in favour of high-speed services that are more expensive – and sometimes not yet operational.
Last month the World Car-Free Network wrote an open letter to the European Commission expressing alarm at the situation. The letter listed a staggering number of cross-border routes that have been lost over the past few years. In addition to the Benelux service, December also saw the end of train routes between Barcelona and Zurich, Barcelona and Milan and Bucharest and Belgrade.
Direct trains between Lisbon and Madrid were axed last October, which was also when the ferry-train route between Berlin and Malmo stopped. Routes between Vienna-Sofia, Berlin-Kiev and Paris-Rome were also cut in 2012, to name a few. Last year Greece ended all of its international train
services, under pressure from its troika of international creditors.
These are just the recent examples. Rail enthusiasts in Brussels will remember how the ‘classic' train service to Paris was eliminated when the Thalys service began. There is no longer a low-speed direct train from Brussels to either Lille or Cologne. Although it was promised that competition on these two routes would bring lower prices for high-speed services, in practice the prices remain higher than the old ‘local' train.
Yet the World Car-Free Network's letter does not appear to have made it to the desk of Siim Kallas, the European commissioner for transport. At a press conference last week, when asked about the Fyra situation and how it fits into a broader problem of disappearing cross-border train routes, the commissioner appeared blissfully unaware of any problems.
“I don't have this type of information that high-speed trains will eliminate other types of trains,” he said. “The network of classic trains exists everywhere; so far we don't have to deal with this type of problem.”
Kallas has declared himself committed to increasing cross-border transport. He knows that Europe's cross-border connections are already low in number and plagued with expensive inefficiencies. He ought then to know that the few cross-border rail connections that have been operating are now being withdrawn.
It is easy to see why this is happening. Both governments and train companies are having their budgets squeezed, and promises to preserve loss-making cross-border services do not win many votes. High-speed trains are deemed to be the best hope of profitable services that can compete with air or road travel.
However, that goal has yet to be realised. Europe still lacks a decent network of high-speed international trains. In the meantime, the slower-paced links between EU member states are being eroded. One of the very practical effects of Europe's economic difficulties is that the integration of European transport is in retreat.