State Secretary fails to intervene with ‘toxic trains’ in region

Toxic trains
Photo credit: Alain Heeren/Studio040

For years, far more trains carrying hazardous substances have been crossing the centre of Eindhoven than is permitted under the rules. In 2019, the municipality and province sent an urgent letter to the State in vain. Why did the State Secretary not intervene, while he could have?

The ‘Basisnet’ law for the transport of dangerous goods has been causing problems since its introduction in 2015. Every year, more train freight wagons with flammable, explosive or toxic substances drive through Eindhoven than allowed. This was even the case last year, despite corona. Although the total transport of hazardous substances by rail dropped by five per cent in 2020, there were still more trains on the Brabant route (between Moerdijk and Venlo) than permitted through Basisnet.

The increase in the number of ‘toxic trains’ evokes feelings of unsafety among local residents, as Studio040 reported earlier. Moreover, Eindhoven, just like many other municipalities, wants to build residential complexes closer to the railway in the coming years. The project ‘Knoop XL‘ is crucial in this respect, for both housing construction and the (international) passenger flows in the Eindhoven station area.

However, nothing has been done with the emergency letter that Eindhoven sent to former State Secretary Stientje van Veldhoven (D66, democrats) two years ago, much to the municipality’s disappointment. Shortly before her departure last summer, Van Veldhoven gave instructions to investigate how things could be improved. It is up to her successor to do something with the results of that study.

Discomfort about rerouting

Yet the State Secretary could certainly have intervened if she had wanted to. She could have used a routing decree to (temporarily) prohibit transport on congested routes or to divert it to other routes. However, this is a politically sensitive option.

In 2017, then State Secretary Sharon Dijksma already had the costs and benefits of such a rerouting decision investigated. Researchers from SEO Economic Research in Amsterdam concluded, based on interviews with stakeholders, that it would lead to higher detour costs and lower productivity. The researchers emphasised that the estimated costs of 0.2 to 0.4% of total rail transport in the Netherlands were very uncertain.

In an internet consultation, citizens’ organisations and various local authorities were in favour of a bypass decision. Rail transport companies and (chemical) industry associations were opposed. They anticipated too many costs and hassles without safety really being at stake.

Fear of ‘unfair competition’

Van Veldhoven ultimately decided against a decision to divert the train, because she feared it would create a waterbed effect by shifting the problem to other routes. Moreover, it could earn her complaints from Brussels, as mandatory detours would force carriers to incur extra costs. That could be seen as state interference and ‘therefore’ unfair competition.

The spokesperson for the municipality of Eindhoven understands the reluctance to make a diversion decision. Nevertheless, the State Secretary is the only one who can steer freight transport in the right direction, she says. “Clear agreements must be made in advance about the best routes for the transport of hazardous substances. The national government must take structural measures so that the transport of hazardous substances takes place in the urban environment as little as possible.”

‘Polder’ over hazardous substances

The dilemma between freight transport and housing construction has been unresolved for fifteen years. In 2006, former Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management Karla Peijs wanted a framework for the transport of hazardous substances by road, rail and water. She expected a sharp increase in that transport, which would be at odds with the building plans of municipalities and provinces.

The Basisnet law had to offer a safe balance between these conflicting interests. That was no easy task. Consultation between municipalities, provinces, the (petro)chemical industry, Rijkswaterstaat and the responsible ministries took about ten years.

For each type of transport, routes have been designated in Basisnet for hazardous substances. By far the largest part of the transport is by pipeline and inland shipping. About six percent goes by motorway and by rail. The latter gave rise to the most discussion from the outset. Transport by rail is visible, tangible and audible, and often passes right through city centres and residential areas.

For example, residents of Hofstraat in Eindhoven suffered from noise and vibration caused by goods trains for years. In 2018, their houses were modified, which reduced the nuisance. However, according to the municipality, local residents are still concerned about the risks of increasing goods transport, including hazardous substances.

Shifting responsibility

To ensure a safe balance between transport and construction, Basisnet relies heavily on risk calculations. The site-specific risk is an imaginary line along the railway (or water or road) that represents the probability that someone will die once in a million years as a result of an accident involving hazardous substances. No homes may be built within that line. In many places in Basisnet this is one metre from the middle of the track.

Group risk is the probability per transport kilometre per year that a group of ten or more people in the vicinity of a transport route will become fatal victims of an accident involving the transport of hazardous substances. The group risk may fluctuate due to the population density at a specific location. The scope of transport (the quantity of hazardous substances) also plays a role in calculating the group risk.

By working with risk calculations, an upper limit on the number of transports in Basisnet seemed unnecessary, as it was assumed that rail transport would become increasingly safe. The risk ceiling would encourage transport companies to take extra safety measures, leaving room for the growth in freight transport. Since the government would adjust the calculation method for risks every five years, the effects of additional safety measures could be included on a regular basis. The safer the railways and rail wagons, the more hazardous substances they could transport, was the idea.

Communicating vessels

The contradiction is that in Basisnet reference quantities are also established per route. On the railways, these refer to numbers of tank wagons (goods wagons for a liquid or gaseous load) with various types of hazardous substances. Reference quantities are not intended as maximum quantities, but are often understood and used as such.

In theory, a too high reference quantity of one substance category on a route can be compensated by a lower quantity of another substance category. A surplus of combustible liquids can, as it were, be set off against a ‘shortage’ of explosive gases, as long as the sum remains under the risk ceiling. In practice, this does not usually hold true.

In 2018, for example, there were 2.5 to 3.5 times as many trains carrying flammable gas as permitted in and around Eindhoven, and one and a half times as many carrying flammable liquid. This was reported by Studio040 two years ago. Between Eindhoven and Venlo, more ammonia and toxic liquids were transported than was laid down in the reference quantities. So there was no compensation at all between different substance categories. The result: the risk ceiling was exceeded.

Artificially low risk ceiling

Yet this does not immediately mean that safety is at stake. In her Parliamentary Letter of 14 July, State Secretary Van Veldhoven wrote that although the risk ceiling had again been exceeded at various places along the Brabant route in 2020, there were no homes at those locations. In other words: the site-specific risk was not the problem, but the reference quantities.

However, that problem had already been foreseen before the introduction of Basisnet. “Without additional policy, the risk standards were already greatly exceeded on some routes to begin with, and there was already no room for the growth of transport and new construction,” wrote Pehr Teulings, secretary of the ‘Commissie Transport Gevaarlijke Goederen’ (dangerous goods transport committee), in 2013 in trade journal ‘Gevaarlijke Lading (dangerous cargo).

Researchers from consultancy firms Berenschot and Antea also concluded in 2017 that the risk ceilings had been formulated too narrowly in advance. One of the assumptions in the calculations was that the Betuwe Route (between Rotterdam and the Ruhr) would be used optimally. The risk ceilings on the other sections (including the Brabant route) were therefore kept artificially low. Between Venlo and Eindhoven, for instance, the reference numbers are zero for some substance categories. One train carrying these substances per year is then officially already one too many.

However, work on the German side of the track began simultaneously at the time of introduction of Basisnet. Capacity on the Betuweroute proved to be much lower than expected (and this will continue for years). The exceeding of standards on other sections could therefore have been foreseen.

Moreover, the forecasts for freight transport growth were lower than actual growth. The risk ceilings were partly based on these forecasts. Especially the growth of LPG transport had not been foreseen. Teulings already pointed this out in 2013. The development of LNG (liquified natural gas) had been poorly taken into account. “Indeed, the first sounds seem to show a situation in which with the widespread entry of LNG, the risk ceilings will soon be reached”.

Gambling with group risk

Exceedances of the reference quantities may not have a direct effect on the individual risk, but they can certainly increase the group risk. Whether this has been the case in recent years is unclear. Group risk calculations are time-consuming, as population densities can vary greatly at locations along railway lines. Group risk is therefore not included in the annual Basisnet monitoring reports.

“Although the safety standards for location-specific risk are not at issue according to your analyses, group risk has been significantly exceeded”, John Jorritsma wrote as chairman of the Safety Region Brabant-Zuidoost in 2019 to then State Secretary Van Veldhoven. “This safety value was not only introduced to prevent large concentrations of people from being exposed to an excessive safety risk, but also provides a direct indication of the social disruption in the event of a disaster or accident with hazardous substances on the railways.

“The planned intensification of the transport of hazardous substances focuses in particular on substances such as LPG, chlorine and ammonia. The impact of an accident with these types of substances in these quantities is immense. In the event of such accidents, it is virtually impossible to take repressive measures to limit the effects”.

Shifting responsibility

After more than fifteen years of preparation, consultation and monitoring, Basisnet is still not working as expected. The collaborative structure between the government, ProRail and the chemical companies has made enforcement too non-committal. Shared responsibility all too often means no responsibility.

Nevertheless, the government is ultimately responsible for the safety of the transport of hazardous substances. In recent years, it has shifted this responsibility onto chemical and rail companies. They are encouraged to find a solution together, but do little to reduce the exceedances of standards.

For instance, chemical companies can limit ad hoc requests for loads of hazardous substances as much as possible and drive according to the timetable established in advance. They can also choose the Betuwe Route as their preferred route. This does not happen often, certainly because the market for the transport of hazardous substances is increasingly taking on the characteristics of a so-called spot market, in which immediate delivery is key.

ProRail can declare a route congested and give one type of transport priority over another. Although there are a few cases each year of clashing timetables (which are resolved through mediation), ProRail has not (yet) issued a structural overload statement. The rail network manager distributes the available capacity well in advance each year, after the transport operators have indicated their expected transport. In this sense ProRail could have foreseen the exceeding of the risk ceiling on the Brabant route in advance.

Municipalities are at a disadvantage

Only the State Secretary could have chosen a different track. She could have raised the risk ceilings on certain sections (which she would have had to do by submitting this to the Lower House). She could also have spread transport better or forced a diversion via the Betuwe line. She did not take advantage of either option, leaving citizens with feelings of insecurity.

The State Secretary sought advice from consultants Berenschot, among others. They studied the bottlenecks of Basisnet in 2017 and reported that the focus of the law is not so much on ‘filling the risk ceiling as much as possible with transport movements, but on keeping chemical complexes at home and abroad accessible within the established risk ceiling’. If anything has become clear in the past five years, it is that in order to keep the chemical complexes within reach at home and abroad, the risk ceilings on the Brabant route must be structurally exceeded.

This story was made possible by the Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek. Dtv, Omroep Venlo, Studio040 and WOS Media work together on local investigative journalism.

Source: Studio040

Translated by: Bob


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