Flats overlooking ‘toxic trains’: what risk is Eindhoven taking?

Safety risks railways
Photo credit: Amvest/Studio040

The Dutch railway network is one of the safest on earth. But it is also one of the busiest, and this density will only increase in the coming years. What does that mean for safety in the Eindhoven railway station area, where residential towers are being erected right next to the tracks? Experts are divided about the dangers and risks.

Added together, the minor mistakes on 6 March 2015 could have turned out dramatically. A goods train left Chemelot chemical park three hours later than planned to Kijfhoek marshalling yard (between Barendrecht and Zwijndrecht). Due to the delay, carrier DB Schenker requested an intermediate stop in Tilburg to change the driver. The reported train length was only tens of metres too short.

In Tilburg, the goods train came to rest on a track that was too short, as a result of which the rear carriage occupied and blocked the set of points. The switch gave a red signal to the NS passenger train that was about to enter the adjacent track. However, the driver of the passenger train did not see the red signal and collided with the goods train at approximately 45 kilometres per hour.

As a result of the collision, four passengers and the ticket inspector in the passenger train sustained minor injuries. The last tank wagon in the goods train contained the flammable and explosive gas butadiene, a raw material for synthetic rubber. Some butadiene was released, causing some police officers to become unwell.

High-rise buildings within 30 metres of the station

The railway in Tilburg is part of the Brabant route between Rotterdam and Venlo, a busy route for rail freight transport. For years, more goods trains carrying hazardous substances have been passing through the Brabant route than allowed, including Eindhoven. Nevertheless, the city council has big plans for the station area.

In the Knoop XL project, some six thousand houses will be built close to the railway line in the years to come. Part of this project involves three District-E (residential) towers, two of which are higher than 100 metres and which will be built just outside a 30-metre radius of the railway line. This is the so-called puddle fire zone, a kind of buffer zone next to the railway line. The base of the towers is still ten metres inside this area, because moving them further is not economically feasible, according to the city council. The towers are not homes, but shops and other places where people stay temporarily.

The municipality is taking all sorts of measures to guarantee safety. For example, there will be a liquid gutter between the railway and the future buildings and escape routes will be constructed. The buildings will have fire-resistant facades and radiation-resistant glazing, as well as explosion-proof stairwells and lockable ventilation systems. Buildings or activities for vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly may not be constructed or carried out in the immediate vicinity of the railway line.

Larger group risk

Nevertheless, the construction of the residential towers produces a ‘greater group risk orientation value’ than the Student Hotel, which is also built near the station. Group risk is ‘the chance 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’. In numerical terms, it is the probability that at least ten, one hundred or one thousand people will die as a result of an ‘unusual occurrence involving hazardous substances’.

“The group risk is calculated by calculating the probabilities of all conceivable and realistic accidents and adding them up”, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management says. “For an accident with ten victims, the probability may be 1 in 10 million per year, for a hundred victims 1 in a billion per year and for a thousand victims 1 in 100 billion years”. In comparison, the chance of winning the lottery is about 1 in 6 to 7 million per year.

According to the Ministry, the calculation of the group risk ‘does not provide a hard figure against which safety can be objectively measured’. It is rather a quantification for the additional measures to keep safety in order. It is a ‘guideline value’ from which the local government, although well-founded, may deviate.

Protective layer pushed aside

In the construction plans for the Student Hotel, the Municipality of Eindhoven worked with a group risk of 3.2 times the orientation value, according to last year’s case study ‘Basisnet in lokaal perspectief’ (Basisnet in local perspective). For the residential towers at District-E, however, 9.2 times the orientation value was used. The group risk will increase by more than 10 per cent due to the plans, so the municipality needs to make additional safety policies.

“The sum of the three probabilities of group risk is the orientation value”, Ira Helsloot, professor of governance of safety at Radboud University Nijmegen, explains. “If the calculated probability for one of these numbers is greater, we say that the orientation value has been exceeded that many times. In this case, we are talking about a probability of 9.2 times in 100 billion years. Even 9.2 times in 10 million years is small enough for ‘normal’ Dutch safety policy”.

Ben Ale, emeritus professor of safety and disaster management at TU Delft, is critical of the building plans. “Group risk was once the second layer of protection, after site-specific risk (an imaginary line along a railway, waterway or road, representing the chance that someone will die once in a million years as a result of an accident involving hazardous substances). The group risk was intended to prevent the construction of high-rise buildings right next to the railway, known commonly as ‘a block of flats with a view of the chlorine train’ “.

“In the meantime, it has been quietly decided not to care. Some of the buildings are now even being built within the plasma fire danger zone. Moreover, various safety measures have been proposed but will not be implemented. The expectation is that self-sufficiency and disaster control will not make a big difference”.

Top 3 safest countries for rail transport

At the same time, safety on the Dutch railways is good compared to other countries in Europe. According to the ‘Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport’ (Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, ILT), the Netherlands is in the top 3 of countries with the fewest significant rail accidents. An accident is significant if there has been at least one death and serious injury and/or at least €150,000 worth of damage.

In addition, only 2% of the hazardous substances are transported by rail each year. According to the Dutch Safety Board, this concerns four to five million tons of hazardous substances, approximately 400 tank wagons per working day. The vast majority of hazardous substances, more than 90%, are transported by pipeline and via waterways.

Transport by rail almost always goes smoothly. Between 2005 and 2015, there were five collisions with goods trains. Three of these took place in a marshalling yard, two on the main railway network. Two collisions resulted in the release of hazardous substances: in Tilburg in 2015 and at Kijfhoek marshalling yard in 2011. A major fire occurred there and a considerable amount of ethanol leaked out.

‘Zero risk is impossible to explain’

The transport of hazardous substances by rail is extremely safe, says Peter Robbe, programme manager for environmental effects and external safety at ProRail. Tank wagons have all kinds of safety mechanisms, the track is equipped with automatic braking systems, and trains are assembled in such a way as to minimise the risk of an explosion involving a combustible gas.

Moreover, the probability of something going wrong is so small that it is very difficult to calculate. “You have to divide the number of incidents involving casualties by the number of train kilometres travelled with hazardous substances”, Robbe says. “Because there have been no such incidents in the Netherlands, the risk would be zero. That is inexplicable”. That’s why the current calculation models are based on incidents in the US from decades ago, although they cannot simply be translated to the Dutch situation now.

The longer things go well, the smaller the chance that something will go wrong. “In extremely rare situations, such as a major flood, a strong earthquake or a pandemic, the risk is always difficult to calculate. It is much easier with common situations, such as traffic accidents.”

Disaster scenario: unlikely

The disaster scenarios calculated by the Brabant Southeast Safety Region show a similar picture. The organisation considers the probability of an accident in the rail tunnel near Best, which is longer than 250 metres, improbable. Two of the three scenarios calculated involve hazardous substances. The likelihood of an accident involving the storage of hazardous substances is also labeled ‘improbable’. An incident in rail traffic, on the other hand, is ‘probable’, but that includes all passenger trains and goods trains without hazardous substances. The risk of a pandemic was also labelled ‘probable’ in this 2019 overview.

In a separate study for the Municipality of Eindhoven, three scenarios were calculated at the central station: an accident with a passenger train, an explosion of a tank wagon containing LPG and the release of a toxic cloud. The latter two are ‘worst case scenarios’ and are labelled ‘unlikely’: “The likelihood of a train disaster involving the release of a toxic cloud is small, but not inconceivable. There have been many ‘near misses’ that could have led to a disaster on the railways. There are no concrete indications but a train disaster in the centre of Eindhoven is considered somewhat conceivable”.

Helsloot therefore sees no problems in building closer to the railway. “The transport of hazardous substances (also by rail) is much safer than most of the daily risks we accept, such as the chance of dying from a lightning strike. We cannot make a meaningful calculation for the risk of a train accident involving hazardous materials, because – fortunately – there have been too few accidents”.

Ale notes that the probability of dying from lightning strikes is actually ten times smaller than the probability of dying from a hazardous materials accident on the railway. “Saying that a probability cannot be calculated properly is the usual way out if you don’t like the outcome. Helsloot once accused me, in a publication, of being a blinkered professional idiot who wants to spend vast sums of money on safety. In his own words, he wants to offer a counterweight to this”.

Risk society

Yet the consequences if things really go wrong are difficult to oversee. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck coined the term ‘risk society’ in 1986. The increased complexity of both technology and the social systems in which it is embedded make it increasingly difficult to assess the risks (and consequences) of an accident.

Beck’s theory was almost immediately illustrated by the accident with the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. He also observed that incidents are often the result of a chain of (human) errors involving various parties. There is not always one person with final responsibility, but rather several persons with partial responsibility.

This also applies to the accident in Tilburg. Separately, the errors made by the DB Schenker employees and the NS driver would never have been fatal, the Safety Board concluded in 2016. However, the summing up of the two incidents resulted in a situation that could have had far worse consequences.

Robbe believes, on the contrary, that the incident mainly demonstrates how robust the safety provisions and procedures are. “There were six safety shields that prevented anything from happening. Some of these shells come from ProRail, some from the carriers and shippers. The last layer is the strength of the tank wagon, and it held. There was only a minimal drip leak, the contents of a coffee cup”.

According to Ale, most accidents fortunately end well. “But things can also go spectacularly wrong. That is why safety people always point out the group risk and project and other developers the site-specific risk. The current view, however, is that spending money on safety is a waste of money. That suits many in the Netherlands”.

Avoidable risks

The ‘Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid’ (safety investigation board) also concluded in 2016 that railway companies take unnecessary risks in the transport of hazardous substances. The incident in Tilburg arose in part because transport company DB Schenker (now DB Cargo) changed its agreements at the last minute. A similar incident occurred at the Venlo railway yard, where a container train from Germany collided with a stationary goods train in 2019. The council recommended to include in contracts with transporters that they must avoid ‘risk-increasing decisions’ in the transport of hazardous substances.

The Board also recommended that freight trains with dangerous substances be assembled in such a way that the last car does not contain any dangerous substances, in order to reduce the risk of leakage in the event of a collision. The freight train in Tilburg had butadiene in the last car, while there were also cars without hazardous substances. Those could have been arranged much better to be the last cars.

Furthermore, all tank wagons should have buffer protection, including those without hazardous substances. After all, NS should use as many trains as possible with ‘collision capacity’ (a type of energy-absorbing crumple zone) on routes that also contain freight trains. Now the passenger train didn’t have it, so it hit the freight train harder than it should have.

Ignored recommendations

Several of these recommendations have been implemented. ProRail, for instance, has adjusted the departure procedure for passenger trains, as well as the registration of the length of goods trains. DB Cargo has adjusted the procedure so that changes can no longer be made just before departure.

However, other recommendations were not implemented. For instance, according to former State Secretary for Infrastructure and the Environment Stientje van Veldhoven (D66, democrats), the train composition and buffer security met with resistance in Brussels. Member States are not allowed to impose stricter requirements on (foreign) carriers than the European rules, in order to prevent an uneven playing field. Moreover, the costs of this recommendation would far outweigh the benefits.

Chemical companies considered the measures to be ‘above-legal’ and expensive. Instead, they called for more cooperation and agreements in the chain, particularly with railway companies. They also wanted a ‘green wave’ for trains carrying hazardous substances, to prevent them from stopping for long periods at stations. They did nothing with the advice to contractually prevent last-minute changes in the transport of hazardous substances.

The NS announced that not all passenger trains meet all possible safety requirements in the event of a collision with goods trains. The organisation pointed out that passenger trains also run on all routes designated for the transport of hazardous substances. If this were no longer permitted (or only with the select group of trains with maximum safety requirements), the current timetable would be almost impossible to implement.

(Too) busy on the railroad tracks

Although rail transport in the Netherlands is in the top three of the safest countries in Europe, this position could become difficult to maintain in the future. According to the ‘Autoriteit Consument en Markt’ (the Netherlands authority for consumers and market, ACM), the Dutch railways are the busiest in Europe. And this density will only increase.

Until 2023, the ACM expects the number of passenger kilometres to grow by 14 per cent compared to 2017. The ‘Marktvisie Ambitienetwerk Spoorgoederen’ (market vision ambition network rail freight) forecasts a 40% growth in freight transport in 2030 compared to 2019. According to the ACM, this leads to concerns about rail capacity among transporters.

According to Robbe, there are various expansion plans for the railways, so that capacity will increase in due course. Moreover, with the introduction of the ERTMS safety system, more trains can run closer together. “It is impossible to say with certainty whether all of these plans will be sufficient to facilitate growth. If they are not, some of the growth will not take place”.

Nevertheless, not all freight wagons are equally safe at present. Last year, the ILT (human environment and transport inspectorate) reported that Dutch chemical companies often use new tank wagons with the strictest safety standards. Tank wagons from other Member States, which also regularly operate in the Netherlands, ‘only’ comply with European rules, which lag behind what is technically possible.

Safety under pressure?

In the meantime, construction work at Eindhoven Central Station is scheduled to start at the end of this year. Nevertheless, according to Professor Helsloot, the feared lack of safety is not so bad. “Of course the risk of an accident increases because of more transport by rail, but the means of transport are also becoming safer and safer. Due to the lack of accidents, we simply do not know what the net effect is”.

Ale disagrees. “The frequency of train traffic is one of the factors that determines the likelihood of an accident. There is no natural law that prescribes what risk is acceptable, that is ultimately a political consideration. If the agreements were to be adhered to, that would be justifiable. In practice, however, all kinds of exceptions are made, such as first building a tunnel without provisions for the transport of hazardous substances and then transporting hazardous substances through it anyway. Building above the railway while it was first agreed not to”.

At city hall, a feeling of injustice dominates, says the case study ‘Basisnet in local perspective’: “Transport decisions are taken at national level, but the explanation and justification of (an increase in) group risk is left to local government. The feeling is that the exceeding of the risk ceiling happens to the municipality, that the solution is beyond its control and that it gets in the way of the city’s ambitions”.

From group risk to ‘area of concern’

Moreover, “the periodic reassessment of group risk fuels uncertainty”. “The municipality is informed of the actual level of the group risk afterwards, based on the realisation figures (the volume and composition of the transport of hazardous substances) of transport. But for the development of spatial plans, which often take many years and involve substantial investments, clarity in advance is important”.

The ministry points out that the municipality could also have calculated with the realised and expected transport figures. Moreover, the calculation models are regularly revised. “This means that the group risks can also be different from what the municipality has taken into account, even with the same transport figures”.

Incidentally, the group risk calculation will be abolished with the introduction of the ‘Omgevingswet’ (environment act), (late 2022 or early 2023). The figure is too complex and too difficult to explain to non-specialists. It will be replaced by focus areas that will make risks and measures easier to understand. The construction of the towers of District E will probably have started by then.

In any case, Ale has little faith in where the winds blow in his field. “In modern thinking, safety is primarily expensive and human life has become a commodity. The chance that residents will remember, five years from now, that they signed a paper saying there are risks and what they should do if things go wrong, is zero. Once an area is designated for spatial developments, they always go ahead. Money comes before safety”.

Source: Studio040

Translated by: Bob


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