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The Fyra fiasco


Friday 18 January 2013

Fyra, the new high-speed train launched by the Belgian and Dutch national railways has quickly turned into a nightmare, both for the companies involved and the passengers they had hoped to carry.

Since its launch in December, the new high-speed service between Brussels and Amsterdam has been beset with massive delays and frequent cancellations. Yesterday afternoon all Fyra trains were cancelled, and the trains remain grounded today. Belgian newspaper La Libre is reporting that the Belgian rail safety agency (SSCIF) has halted all Fyra trains until further notice over safety concerns, after they found a train part on the tracks. It looks like someone is going to get fyred.

The situation is being made all the worst by the fact that the Belgian and Dutch train operators, SNCB and NS, ended the existing low-speed Benelux train service between the two countries when the Fyra was launched on 9 December. This has left passengers stranded: no working Fyra trains and no slow-service alternative. This leaves the expensive high-speed Thalys trains as the only reliable way to get between the Netherlands and Belgium without a car.

Belgian newspaper De Standaard is reporting that the Belgian parliament is planning to haul the bosses of SNCB and NS in front of a joint committee to demand answers. They are demanding that the low-speed Benelux trains be put back into service. "The SNCB travellers cannot be left in the cold,” Belgian senator Etienne Schouppe, who is also an ex-CEO of SNCB, told the paper. “The service has never been so bad. Moreover, it is outrageous that the traveller has no alternative."

The campaign group World Carfree Network says the situation in the low countries is endemic of what is happening across Europe. A report released in December found that local cross-border rail service is being scrapped across Europe, to be replaced by theoretical high-speed rail service which is either not yet functioning or far too expensive for the average traveller.

As someone without a car, I can say the situation is particularly vexing. Last weekend I was waiting for a local train to Antwerp at Brussels' Gare du Nord station, but it was delayed by a Fyra train occupying the track. The Fyra train was already 40 minutes delayed. When the Fyra train finally started to leave the station, it stopped again after going only five metres. Apparently someone had touched a door. The train then remained at the station for at least another 15 minutes. It was still sitting there as our local train pulled away to Antwerp.

What is perhaps most telling is that I could see that the Fyra train was almost completely empty. Word of its poor performance has likely already reached potential travellers, who are booking Thalys tickets instead because they don't want to take the risk of a cancelled or delayed train. Or perhaps they've opted to just take a car.

This is a result the Car Free Network would not be too pleased with. I suspect that EU policy makers aren't too thrilled about this fiasco either.

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