Colin Wakeling: We should steer clear of Dutch Railways

A Dutch 'Koploper' train.
A Dutch 'Koploper' train.

I find it difficult to share John Wylde’s enthusiasm for Dutch Railways’ presence in Britain. In 2013 they took £713 million from British taxpayers for operating their Northern Rail franchise, and, as a result, were able to send a £36 million dividend back to Holland.

British taxpayers and rail travellers are thus effectively subsidising Dutch railway operations. By comparison East Coast operators, Directly Operated Rail Services, a state concern, have returned £1 billion to the Treasury since 2009. Yet, the British government refuses to let them bid for the new East Coast franchise, whilst the Dutch, the Germans and the French can.

I doubt many travellers in the north east of England will share Mr Wylde’s enthusiasm for the Dutch operators of Northern Rail, who have been encouraged to “manage demand” by increasing fares, reducing the availability of off-peak tickets, and running clapped out trains. To cut costs, and presumably increase dividends for their Dutch masters, they further want to reduce staffing by increasing the use of driver only operation, thus removing an element of security so important for passenger confidence.

It remains to be seen how the Dutch operation of the ScotRail franchise will pan out. They may have made all kinds of promises, but how the figures stack up is another matter. I suppose the Dutch could always bale out any loss-making franchises over here, but, there again, like others before them, they could simply walk away and leave the taxpayer and travelling public to sort out the mess.

The Dutch railway system, with a degree of centralised co-ordination unknown in our fragmented transport system, must seem attractive to any visitor, but it too has its flaws.

This year the Dutch completed the introduction of a new ticketing system, the development of which has taken a decade. A bit like the London Oyster Card system, each Dutch “smart” card has to be charged with a minimum €20 deposit before it can be used for even the shortest journey. If passengers forget to check out when they reach their destination they forfeit the €20.

Hopefully Dutch Railways will be kept well clear of any high speed railway development in this country.

However, we could learn something from our continental cousins – the ability of their state railway concerns to put every obstacle possible in the way of any would-be competitors, especially if they originate outwith their borders.

But that might be beyond the imagination of our blinkered politicians.