On the Wrong Side of the Track – Both Sides!

We live in the so-called Achterhoek region of the Netherlands – the name literally means “back corner”. It’s predominantly farmland and countryside, and tourism is, after farming, the major industry. Many Dutch people living in the densely populated Randstad come here on holiday seeking a bit of peace and quiet, and some, like us, retire here.

As the years go by, the pressure increases on what remains of the countryside. The latest turn of the screw is the Noordtak Betuweroute. This is a proposal to lay a new railway line (the Noordtak – literally, the “North branch”) through the Achterhoek, connecting the current goods train line (the Betuweroute) at Zevenaar in the west through to the Dutch/German border in the east. At present, the Betuweroute currently goes south of Zevenaar to cross the border and connects with Emmerich and thence to Duisburg. This is the Zuidtak (the “South branch”).

The Noordtak proposal was originally the brainchild of the Port of Rotterdam Authority, who were looking to increase the flow of goods from ships unloading in Rotterdam through to German industries in the Ruhr. There was a study into the Noordtak carried out in 2012 by the engineering firm Movares on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. It looked at three alternative routes through the Achterhoek. When word got out about the two favoured alternatives, it galvanised protests from communities through which the routes passed.

As a result, two of the three alternatives have effectively been killed, leaving just one. The Port of Rotterdam Authority then joined forces with the two provincial governments in the Achterhoek and commissioned a “Quick Study” of this third alternative route. The outcome, surprise, surprise, was what the PRA wanted. According to a press release issued jointly by the PRA and the Provinces, the proposed route would be “faster, safer, and less nuisance” than the rejected routes.

But, guess what, it would pass quite close to us (it’s the route in purple in this map):

Trace Noordtak 02

We live near to the village of Heelweg, and it will be a lot worse for them. Heelweg actually consists of two hamlets, Heelweg-Oost and Heelweg-West (Heelweg-East and Heelweg-West). The Noordtak line would go straight through between them, a metaphorical stake through the heart of the community. As you might imagine, the inhabitants are not best pleased with the proposal, and we are joining forces with other action groups, such as the Gelderland’s Nature and Environment Federation, that are now springing up along the proposed route.

Now you might think that this is simply a NIMBY reaction, and to some extent you would be right; whichever route such a railway takes, it is bound to affect someone. However, we feel that some of the bigger questions need satisfactory answers. What will the overall effect on the economy of the Achterhoek be? Even the press release mentioned above is cautious about this, admitting that:

“The effect on the regional economy is difficult to estimate. Perhaps the maximum number of trains on the track (36 per 24 hours) is too small to make investment in a new goods train terminal cost-effective”.

The press release also quotes a member of the regional government as saying:

“There may well be indirect effects, such as an increase in industrial activity alongside, and in the area of the railway. This is, at this moment, not quantifiable in monetary terms.”

Frankly, I find this ridiculous. Since the goods trains won’t be stopping anywhere in the Achterhoek, why should that be attractive for firms to build facilities alongside the railway? And if they do build, they simply cause more damage to the tourist economy by destroying the very asset that makes people want to come here and spend their tourist euros.

A further question that needs to be answered is whether the Germans are wanting this new line. They have dragged their heels over connecting up with the Zuidtak, and all the signs are that they have little or no enthusiasm for connecting up with the Noordtak.

The Dutch Minister for the Environment is due to give her decision on whether she supports the Noordtak proposal in the next few days. Even if she does support it, there will have to be a further, more detailed study done on the environmental impact of such a line. I would hope that an equally long hard look would also be taken at the economic justification for such a line. Many people are far from convinced that the figures would add up.

We live in interesting times.

Addendum 18 June 2014: The Minister has spoken, and she’s not convinced that the case for the Noordtak has been sufficiently proven, or that the figures in the “Quick Study” add up. She (or her successor) will take another look in 2020 to see if anything has changed that would require starting up a detailed study… So we can chalk that one up to a Minister showing commonsense. Nice to see.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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