We all assume that developments in transport go towards better travel time, more direct connection, increased comfort and reliability..
Well, that’s not always the case.
I am now referring to the Benelux train. In about 10 years of experiences with that train I have seen this link connecting the Netherlands with Belgium running, changing route, getting canceled, substituted by a high speed service, getting re-established, first with longer travel time, then re-installed almost as the original, getting new stations… and future sees even more developments. Meanwhile the two capitals got about half an hour farther away.
What is the story behind it?
The benelux train started in the late 50s, and actually the “lux” part never went more beyond staying in the name of the service.
It provided a hourly connection between Belgium and the Netherlands, somehow integrated the offer in the dutch network for reaching direction of Vlissingen. The route was changed a few times first when the Schiphol tunnel was open in the 80s, and then witnessed the works at the station in Antwerp. But what is more interesting is the travel time.
Comparing the distance Amsterdam-Brussels (that I assume did not get any shorter or longer), the travel time fluctuated quite a lot.
Before 2011, it took about 2h 44 minutes to get from Amsterdam to Brussels.
Meanwhile, that train series was famous for having a terrible delay record. Politically incorrect explanations would connect it to the fact that it was not part of NS, and thus not considered in the service obligations; other sources of delays might be the crossing border behavior (different systems, drivers,…) and the fact to cross the congested node of Brussels. This lead to enlarging the travel time by some more buffers, for a travel time of 2h 56 minutes between the two capitals, in 2012.
When the HSL-zuid line was ready in 2013, NMBS and NS had the possibility to cancel completely the service, replacing it by high speed trains Thalys, TGV and the new Fyra connecting the two capitals in very short time. On the other hand, the high speed services came with obligatory reservation, and even the sheer capacity of the link was possibly not enough to carry all the passengers. At that time, 20.000 people signed an online petition; i remember i signed a written one, as a regular user of that train. But still that was not enough to make the two railway companies change idea.
What was instead instrumental in making them change idea was the Fyra-debâcle, the fact that after 39 days of service the promised high speed service was actually no service at all.
The city of the Hague took initiative and re-started a Benelux train first with very low frequency (twice a day), then improved to 8 services per day in march 2013. The train looked exactly a temporary service planned in some spare parts of the timetable, and the travel time was quite long, longer than before the Fyra-era, at about 2h 24 min for the Hague-Brussels – it was 2h 3 minutes two years before.
The year afterwards, in 2014, it was actually possible to have back a reasonable service, 12 times day with a similar travel time .
Now 2015 sees the re-establishment of the hourly intercity Amsterdam-Brussels, with an extra stop in airport brussel luchtahven, thus providing a real alternative to connect two airports, schiphol and brussel, too close to make any scheduled flight. This is also related to the financing of the Diabolo project, the rail link servicing the airport, which requires a maximum amount of passengers paying the fee to pay back the private investors. This extra stop, and more adjustments in the Belgian part of the network increased the travel time to 3h 21 minutes, more than half an hour more than 2011.. Of course, there are faster services connecting the two cities.. and keeping a longer travel time is in a sense a way to differentiate demand.
Future developments are the inclusion of running on the high speed network, and stopping at the station of Breda, and skipping the stops along the traditional line in Dordrecht and Roosendaal.
That will not come with a faster travel time, as the expected travel time would be 20 minutes longer.
Plans are also to open another service linking The Hague with Brussels.
The very long term development in the concession that NS just got for another 10 years, sketches a connection with Brussels around 194 minutes travel time.. half an hour longer than it was 10 years ago!
Even at its fastest times, the total travel time and high costs are barely comparable with a car trip (which, on the other hand, suffers from recurrent congestion in Antwerp and Brussels), providing an interesting case for people interested in modal choice!
But of course the pleasure to sit down relax and spend time (writing for instance this blog post) is something that should not be done in a car!