Two years ago I lived in Wim van Wegen’s newly completed single-family house in Bant, a village in Noordoostpolder. After his education in Leeuwarden, van Wegen, born and raised in Pant, returned to the village. There now, as a member of the D66 council, he committed himself to the arrival of Lelylijn, a fast train line between Randstad and the north of the country, directly via Flevopolder and Noordoostpolder. The idea is a hundred years ago – but the rail line still doesn’t exist. A more concrete attempt, under the name of the Zuiderzee Connection, failed at the beginning of this century after years of pressure, consultation, and calculations.
Van Viegen showed a map of the Dutch railway network, a hundred years ago and now. In the north, the difference between the two maps is minimal. Just like a century ago, it is a large empty plain, with only a few lines: from Zwolle to Leeuwarden, from Zwolle via Assen to Groningen, a horizontal line branching off from Bommels in the far north.
Emmen (pop. 56,000) has to make do with a regional train that runs back and forth from Zwolle twice an hour. The corridor ends at Emine – as if the world ends there. The traveler can go no further; He can only return to Zwolle.
There is no track at all in Noordoostpolder. From Bant, the nearest station is twenty-five kilometers away. Those who do not have a car or driving license (pupils, students, senior citizens and many people with low incomes) must first take a bus to Heerenveen for forty minutes in order to be able to catch a train there. The bus runs twice an hour and stops around 10:30pm. “If you go to Groningen by public transport, it will take an hour and three-quarters by public transport,” says Van Wegen. “One hour drive.”
Extension of the northern / southern line
The government announced on Monday 14 November that it will use 7.5 billion euros from the Growth Fund in the coming years to build a number of urgent infrastructure projects. More than 4 billion euros will be allocated to the extension of the north/south line from Amsterdam to Schiphol, and 1.5 billion euros will be allocated to improving the railway line between Leiden and Dordrecht. Utrecht will receive 900 million for a tram line to Nieuwegein and the Brainport region Eindhoven will receive more than 800 million for a package of public transport improvements. These are important projects for which funds are properly funded.
But there is no money for Lelylijn, Nedersaksenlijn (between Enschede and Groningen) and other very important links for less powerful regions. And it hurts. “Disappointing,” MP Neeliki Videlare called the government’s choices in a conversation with RTV Drenthe. “It’s frustrating that entire regions of this country matter less than other regions.”
At the end of October, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency presented the study access for all?, about accessibility to different places in the country. PBL found, not entirely surprisingly, that the differences within the Netherlands are significant. Those who live in the better neighborhoods of Amsterdam, Utrecht or Rotterdam can access an almost inexhaustible source of jobs, educational institutions, care facilities, etc. on foot, by bike, by public transport or by car.
Those who live on the far outskirts of a city or in a village on the edge of the country have to make do with much less. There is no station there and the bus line has been cut off, it’s a long bike ride and too far to walk. The fact that schools, general practitioners, hospitals and sports clubs are closed in towns and villages in the region due to economies of scale and cost savings makes access to facilities in those parts of the country more difficult.
High prices for trains, trams and buses, as well as petrol, exacerbate the difference between people with more and less opportunities. Research by Statistics Netherlands showed that public transport costs increased by 30 percent in the period 2009-2019. Carpooling costs rose 25 percent in the same period.
If you have to travel from hard-to-reach parts of the country for work, training or hospital, you will not only lose more time but also an increasing part of your income. “Transport poverty” or “inequality in transport”, something they already know in countries like America and England, has become a serious problem in the Netherlands.
It raises the question of what we want to do with our country’s transportation choices. The construction of a wide and high-quality railway network in the second half of the 19th century was not only very beneficial, but also a symbol of prosperity and progress. You can switch from a horse carriage to a machine that takes you from one city to another in no time at all. This not only shortened the travel time but also reduced the emotional distance between different parts of the country. New social and commercial networks emerged that transcended the boundaries of the village, city, or even region. At the local level, horse-drawn trams were introduced, later replaced by electric trams, which transported urban and rural residents quickly and inexpensively to other places.
The automobile boom of the 1950s radically changed the way people viewed public transportation. Reliance on public transportation has disappeared. A new world opened up. You can travel anywhere at any time, live in a different place than where you work and drive singing along to the radio to family on the other side of the country. The car has become a symbol of prosperity and absolute freedom.
Read also: Public transport in the Netherlands is at a standstill
Naturally, this new mode of transportation also led to a new type of infrastructure: asphalt roads. Since the opening of the first motorway between Voorburg and Zoetermeer in 1937, more than three thousand kilometers of national roads have been built. These come atop 6,533 kilometers of regional roads. Therefore, the officials and politicians in The Hague were not idle. But politics went too far. Out of laziness, politicians and officials in The Hague threw the baby into the bathing water.
Certainly in the past 20 years, public transportation has become completely subordinate to the car. There is no longer a vision of the role that the train, bus and tram should play at the local, regional, national and international level.
This lack of vision and ambition is not only evident from the ongoing discussion about the usefulness and necessity of a nightline. A similar story can be told for the Nedersaksen Line, which should connect Enschede to Groningen via Emmen. This area is now a large blind spot on the train map. or Around the City, which linked the Randstad via Heerlen to the economically powerful city of Aachen, across the border with Germany. HSL East, which connects Arnhem and Utrecht via fast track with Amsterdam in the west and Cologne and Frankfurt in the east, was not built. There is no station in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen at all. Residents there are forced to get into the car, and to access the western Scheldt Tunnel, the only road linking Zeeuws-Vlaanderen with the rest of the country, they also have to pay a toll.
The Netherlands is also a huge hole in the European train map when it comes to fast international connections. The South High Speed Line – from Amsterdam via Schiphol and Rotterdam to Antwerp, Brussels, Paris and, most recently, London – forms an isolated line on a blank map.
The relative decline of the Dutch railway network cannot be seen separately from the rapid rise in cheap air travel and the central position of Schiphol in national politics. Plans for international connections fell through at the same time as low-cost flights increased dramatically and the airport increasingly emerged as a national hub for international traffic. Because air use is free and the plane hardly needs any additional infrastructure other than an airport, it was easy to forget about the train for a while.
But the choices made at the time mean that there is an agonizing dearth of essential connections accessible now. Despite past commitments, the district has to apply pressure again and again – only to be told at the end of the conversation that it’s too expensive or too complicated. These are other words for lack of vision and ambition, and it is also a very one-sided approach to this issue. After all, how do you calculate the value of a good reach? Who decides whether good train and bus connections are worth the money and effort? How much do we as a society want to improve and enrich the lives of our citizens?
In practice, decisions regarding major infrastructure projects are made on the basis of social cost benefit analysis. This compares construction costs with the income that the new infrastructure will generate. It’s not just about ticket revenue, but also the broader social and economic benefits.
The result of the calculation depends on the factors taken into consideration. For now, the main focus is on concretely demonstrable economic growth and increased employment opportunities. Factors such as health, equality, justice, and a sense of being able to grow and develop yourself, chase your dreams, and be a full part of society do not play a role in these calculations. While these factors are at least as valuable to both the individual and society as a well-stocked treasury.
Missing station and the bus line also disappeared
The same applies to local and regional train and bus lines, which run less and less or are even completely cut. As quality public transport is no longer seen as an essential part of a vibrant, just and future-proof society, but only as a tradable product, calculating clear costs and benefits is the only framework for evaluation.
This approach leads to a self-reinforcing effect as attention is increasingly focused on the most profitable routes and the strongest national and regional networks, while weak villages, towns and regions with small population, facilities and economic dynamism lose more and more connections with the outside world.
The only way to counter this is to look at the value of public transportation in a completely different way. Not as a cost item, but as an indispensable factor for individual and social progress. After all, a railway line or a bus connection is not just a practical object, but also the connection between one world and another, a source of dreams, expectations and unexpected encounters.