How to not run a high speed train service

12 Jan 2013 | 1098 words | infrastructure travel railways stupidity

Earlier this week i had the ‘pleasure’ of travelling down to Brussels using the new so called ‘Fyra‘ service by NS Hispeed for the first time (the service is operational since 9 december 2012). While the Fyra is making news mainly for the unreliability of the service (said to be somewhere between 55% and 75% on-time performance in the last week, with 5% of the trains ‘never making it to Brussels at all1 both journeys where perfectly on time. Still the entire experience really sucked. Here are a couple of suggestions what not to do when running a high speed rail service:

#1 come up with a crazy ticketing system that requires you to have a reservation when travelling on one sector (Rotterdam -> Antwerp) but not on the other (Amsterdam -> Schiphol). There were at least 2 groups of passengers in my immediate vicinity who were almost thrown of the train, because they had in fact a reservation for another train (2 hours later), neither of them were aware of this transgression. Threatening to throw people, who have paid for a ticket, off a half empty train just because they did not manage to understand the needlessly complex ticketing system is about the most stupid thing you can do to build a loyal customer base.

More generally the entire Fyra ticketing experience sucks. Apparently some idiot in the marketing department decided that it is somehow desirable to try to emulate airline ticketing practices because air travel is such a pleasure these days. Which of course it is not. One of the nicest things of train travel is the fact that you can just buy a ticket and board a train whenever it suits you, something NS hissed seems to be determined to help out of the world.

On both of my journeys there was a lot of completely unnecessary commotion because people were sitting on other people’s reserved seats and had to stand up only to figure out that someone was sitting on their seat and so on…

#2 Runs the trains on a completely useless time-table. Before the Fyra we already had the Thalys high speed service on the same route. Problem with the Thalys was that it did not run really frequently. So what would a sane person responsible for the Fyra time table do? you would expect them to schedule in the Fyra trains in between the Thalys trains so that passengers have more choice in arrival times. Except the Fyra time-table is off course not made by a sane person: Say you need to be in Brussels at 0900/0930h (not an entirely uncommon time for meetings to start) in which case you have the choice between trains arriving at 0742, 0808 and 0942:

Fyra timetable

#3 Have long scheduled stops along the way. One would assume that the advantage of a high speed train over other trains is that they get you to your destination faster. One thing that certainly does not contribute to getting from Amsterdam to Bruxelles as quickly as possible is making scheduled stops of 5 minutes in Rotterdam (2 minutes would be plenty to let people get on and off the train).

Now spending 3 unnecessary minutes on the train would not be so bad if the trains where not so goddam awful. It is not only that they are extremely ugly from the outside but rather that they are feeling extremely cheap;

#4 Make sure that 1/3 of the window seats face a cheap plastic wall panel instead of the window. The entire 2nd class interior of the trains is made out of cheap plastic, which gives the trains a super cheap feeling. It this is the worst if you are assigned (though the stupid reservation requirement mentioned above) a window seat which actually turns out to be a cheap plastic wall seat. Guess that is what you get when you take a train with relatively small windows and cram it full with seats.

Fyra window seat

#5 Have no power sockets and no wifi on board. I mean seriously NS hispeed, how is this even possible2? this is 2013 and you think that power plugs are something that only needs to be installed in 1st class? This is the dumbest attempt at an up-sell i have encountered in a long time. Hell, this is probably bad for our national competitiveness: While the Dutch arrive in Brussels with half empty batteries, the French, the British and the Germans arrive with their devices fully charged.

Also no wifi is a pretty stupid move, although fortunately you can organise your own connectivity, which is not really an option for power (one might consider bringing an extension cord to tap power from the toilets which do have power outlets for electric shavers, something i can’t imagine anyone using but apparently NS hispeed things that shaving yourself on the train is more important than charging your laptop).

The only hopeful thing is that the trains seem to be of such shitty quality that they will most likely not last very long (both cars i was travelling in had roof panels that made creaking noises every time we entered or exited a tunnel). If i was NS hispeed i would order new trains today. In the meanwhile i will be taking the Thalys

Update 1 June 2013: Turns out that the roof panels did come off. Yesterdays presentation by the Belgian railways company about the reasons why they are cancelling their Fyra order contains this image:

Fyra roof panel coming off

While the Belgians have cancelled their Fyras and are promising us more frequent Thalys services, NS has still not realised that they will need to order new trains.

  1. Which of course makes you wonder where it is they are ending up then. Some black hole in Brabant? Or do they simply disappear as the Buenos Aires subway train in ‘Moebius’↩︎

  2. And no, the fact that the trains were tendered is not an excuse for this as the train manger on the way to brussels suggested. In a tender you get what you write into a tender specification and apparently some idiot at the NS thought that having power plugs in first class only would be just fine. Guess the people writing tender specifications didn’t spend significant amounts of time on board of trains back then. Every half intelligent person could have figured that laptops and phones would become a big thing and that one of the great competitive advantages of trains is that you can work on your devices while charging them. ↩︎