Dutch Government’s Track Access Fees Spark Industry Outcry

The Dutch government’s recent decision to impose a substantial track access fee on all railway operators using the Amsterdam-Belgium/Breda high-speed line has garnered significant attention and concern from industry stakeholders. The annual fee, amounting to approximately €170 million, is rooted in a historic agreement between the Dutch government and Dutch Railways (NS) dating back to an overpriced bid from 2001.

Background and Financial Implications

The origin of this fee lies in the Fyra concession fee, which NS proposed during the bidding process in 2001. Despite the eventual failure of the Fyra project, the Dutch government and NS settled on a fee structure in 2011 that directly influences the present-day HSL (high-speed line) charge. This charge is intended to cover the costs associated with the construction of the high-speed line and is applied proportionally to all operators based on their usage.

The financial structure of the HSL charge has seen a progressive increase in infrastructure costs, starting from €62.2 million in 2015 and escalating to €123.7 million by 2024, all expressed at 2010 price levels. Indexed annually, the fee now stands at approximately €170 million in 2024 price levels.

Regulatory and Competitive Concerns

Three primary concerns have been identified regarding the current fee structure:

  1. Compliance with EU Directive: The HSL charge appears to contravene Directive 2012/34/EU, which establishes the framework for railway track infrastructure charges. The exorbitant fee raises the possibility of making train operations over the high-speed line financially unsustainable.
  2. Disparity in Compensation: Under the directly awarded Public Service Obligation (PSO) concession for the main rail network, NS receives taxpayer compensation that offsets the high HSL charge. In contrast, other railway operators do not benefit from similar compensation, creating a disparity that disadvantages non-incumbent operators.
  3. Barrier to Market Entry: The existing fee arrangement, a remnant of agreements made during the Fyra debacle, poses significant financial barriers to potential new entrants. This situation undermines competitive neutrality and could stymie market competition.

Industry Response

Industry experts have voiced their concerns over the current fee structure. Dr. Erich Forster, President of ALLRAIL, emphasised the need for regulatory reform: “The Dutch government is called upon to abandon the HSL charge so that it ensures equal and non-discriminatory access to the high-speed line – in accordance with the EU Directive.”

The imposition of these fees raises critical questions about the balance between infrastructure funding and maintaining a competitive, fair market for all railway operators. The industry awaits further developments and potential regulatory adjustments to address these pressing concerns.