NS can look back on 2017 with a suitably modest degree of pride. In addition to the good results, 2017 was once again a year in which we invested in our passengers. We also see the challenges: keeping the Netherlands accessible, good public transport in the regions and services on the High-Speed Line (HSL).
The Netherlands is becoming increasingly urbanised, traffic congestion records are broken almost every week, the tracks are overcrowded during peak hours and Schiphol Airport is getting ever busier. The entire mobility sector – whether it’s cars, bikes, buses, metro or trains – is feeling how urgently the Netherlands needs to be offered the infrastructural space that it deserves in this period of economic growth. NS has an important role and responsibilities in keeping the Netherlands accessible and in motion. Our key focal point is the main Dutch rail network. But our customers don't travel by train exclusively: it's just part of the overall door-to-door journey. And we want to play a prominent role there too.
On the right track
NS has a franchise for the Dutch main rail network until 2025 and the government will be weighing up progress so far in the midterm review in 2019. Our performance in 2017 on the twelve franchise KPIs shows that we are on the right track, even if the services on the HSL will continue to demand our full attention over the coming years. Together with ProRail and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, we are implementing numerous improvement measures on that line. It is very important to NS that the HSL should be a success. We are going to keep working at that.
Our focus on the main rail network and the good performance on it do not mean we will not help think about public transport in the regions. Passengers in the regions do not always get an optimum product, even though the vast majority of people have journeys of less than 30 kilometres. There are bottlenecks in the regions, including ones in the infrastructure; there are issues on the table about the best approach to door-to-door travel and there is a mish-mash of franchise agreements. NS wants to be more mindful of this and is aiming to play a key role in multimodal transport – train, bus and public transport bicycle – together with its partners. Smart solutions will let us improve public transport. In the spring of 2018 I will be visiting all the provincial authority representatives who have traffic and transport in their portfolios to hear what they have to say. More tailored solutions in the regions are also important to NS.
But we have to get away from the ideological debate about market forces on the railways. The debate has to be about the fact that any further fragmentation is only going to add to the complexity of the network. In Japan, each type of train has its own tracks. In the Netherlands, though, there is a network of tracks over a hundred years old on which NS delivers world-class performance every day. That does not give us licence to stop making improvements, but we should be looking at the cohesion, the quality and the efficiency of the main rail network. NS wants to be able to maintain that network and perform well, showing that this is what is best for passengers and for the Netherlands. When we said farewell to the Zwolle-Enschede and Zwolle-Kampen lines in December 2017, we lost two nice routes. Fortunately we’re still allowed to play the regional game and NS will be bidding again in future for regional lines.
Improvements for passengers
We introduced numerous new services and products in 2017 that make travelling by train more attractive. For instance, we started a trial on 6 September running six Intercity trains an hour between Amsterdam and Eindhoven in order to handle the expected passenger growth. An important innovation. This pleases substantial groups of passengers, but there are small groups who will be disadvantaged. It is worth noting the huge degree of involvement both in the spotlights and behind the scenes that made this trial a success. The NS staff achieved this with a great deal of dedication, something I’m very proud of. During the first day of the trial, I came across a driver who had come in from Zwolle on his day off to see how it was going. The trial was a success and from the 2018 timetable onwards there will be an Intercity every ten minutes on this route, the busiest in the country.
Our introduction of new trains has been a visible quality improvement. The trains provide more seating capacity. The FLIRT trains have started running on the Dutch rail system. Passengers are pleased that there are toilets once again in the Sprinter trains and that the sills have disappeared. There was healthy interest in our mock-ups of the Intercity New Generation and Sprinter New Generation. We also saw Dutch people’s great interest in railway matters at the open days that we organised in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Watergraafsmeer workshops. Thousands of people came to look: fathers, mothers, children... It made me think of how I used to go to Schiphol as a child, spotting the latest planes. I just had to see them!
We did our very best again in 2017 every day to offer the best and most sustainable transport possible. It’s no coincidence that we have been running entirely on green power in the Netherlands since 1 January 2017. At the same time, we are working on the ‘mobility of the future’. It therefore remains important to stay informed about the developments in both mobility needs and technological progress, and to be able to translate those into attractive products. NS develops a great deal itself, but we also look closely at how the customers are developing. You have to keep pace with them. People change the world. Whether it’s people swapping their cars for an electric bike for transporting their kids, or making the switch from mobility solutions being ‘available’ rather than ‘owned’: it all impacts how people move about. Companies like Uber show how quickly you can develop services, with variations in the transport during the journey: instead of taking two people to the same point, it can be four people to different destinations.
I believe in cohesion, in investments that genuinely mean progress. That can undoubtedly mean the train, but also sometimes cars, light rail, bus transport or bicycles. Or maybe there are occasions when it’s better to put money into the surrounding area, like bike parking at the stations.
Stations are urban icons and a renovated station returns something valuable to the city. Just take a look at Den Haag CS, Amsterdam Centraal, Arnhem Centraal, Delft, Breda, Rotterdam Centraal – every one of them a jewel. Good facilities are part of that. At the stations, NS looks for the right balance between innovation and products that suit the passengers. Thanks in part to the input from our Works Councils, we were able to adapt our retail strategy a little last year. We are continuing to offer some things ourselves – snacks, drinks, day-to-day shopping – and leaving the rest to the market. AH to go, Kiosk, Stationshuiskamer, Railcatering and Julia’s are remaining within NS. In addition, NS is still making sure that the stations are clean and safe.
The smaller stations are also very important for local residents, and so they matter to NS too. Together with ProRail, we have brought life back into smaller stations in 2017 as well. It does so much good for the local community. In the next short while, we will be tackling Harderwijk, Assen, Apeldoorn, Driebergen-Zeist and Maastricht.
The success of the bike
The station is one link in the door-to-door journey. NS has an important role in the overall journey. Take the bicycle: nearly half of all people cycle to the station. We help these passengers by providing facilities such as good bicycle parking. In Utrecht, we opened the first part of a new bicycle storage facility. When all of it is in use, by the end of 2018, it will in fact be that largest such facility in the world. The bike is also important for the last mile – look at how successful OV-fiets, the public transport bicycle, has been. It is a story that has attracted people from all over the world, as I discovered at the international bicycle congress Velocity in the spring of 2017. There are a number of locations where demand is outstripping our capabilities, though. Sometimes we have to say: "Closed due to success". We will be adding another 2,000 new bicycles to the scheme in 2018 and we are looking at a totally new plan for rental and payment. We want to cooperate with other parties. The municipalities are more than eager: they want to cut down on the bikes scattered everywhere. Cycling is healthy, and the cities want cleaner air.
Making pleasant trips possible from door to door demands flexibility. Radboud University in Nijmegen is for example going to change the lecture schedules for first-years. That will add a little more flexibility and space in the city’s public transport and on its cycle paths. Or take the province of Groningen, the door-to-door policy champion. As the tendering authority, Groningen has an overall vision for bus, train and transport for the disabled and the elderly: “You can get there too.” That shows their drive. We at NS are ready to pick up the gauntlet.
Efforts by our staff
Whether NS is a success depends on the efforts and dedication of our staff. Our colleagues were distressed by Fyra and the irregularities in Limburg, but we have pulled through. I saw at our workshop in Onnen how we are now reaping the benefits of the change that the structure of our company underwent. The linkage between running trains and maintaining them is improving step by step. Where there used to be an illuminated sign at the workshop with details of the number of train sets currently withdrawn, without any relationship to the trains being run, there are now screens saying when they have to be back in service by. That creates greater internal commitment as well as resulting in higher availability figures for the trains in service. This is how we are also attempting to keep improving the links between the planners in the offices and the people doing the operational work. In the 2017 timetable, there were occasions when the reality on paper meant that a driver in practice scarcely had time between shifts for a coffee and a comfort break. When drawing up the 2018 timetable, we were already looking to coordinate things better. We are making use of each other’s expertise, for instance.
NS staff are deeply involved with their work, the company and our future. We held constructive talks with the Works Council, about topics including NS’s strategy. The directors and the employee participation bodies have made some genuine advances in how they cooperate. I would like to thank the Works Council for the confidence they have shown. We agreed a new collective labour agreement with the unions. It contains agreements about items such as pay rises, part-time retirement and investment in healthy working.
We always pay attention to safety on the spot for our staff and passengers. We make substantial investments in that and we regularly hold what are called ‘safety walks’ at stations. Over the last year, I am pleased to say that the number of reports by staff of incidents of aggression went down and the number of times signals were passed at danger remained steady.
At the end of December, the court issued a ruling in the criminal proceedings resulting from irregularities in the tender for regional public transport in Limburg. The court cleared NS and the individuals concerned of forging documents and of bribery not involving public servants. The judge issued a clear ruling. There are things that went wrong, but there is no question of criminal offences. The public prosecutor has lodged an appeal. NS took action immediately after ‘Limburg’ and introduced measures to prevent any recurrence in the future. Last year, we continued our work to bring governance, risk and compliance structurally up to the required level and to encourage appropriate conduct within NS. The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) ruled that the NS contravened the Competitive Trading Act during the tender process and imposed a fine. By submitting a notice of objection, NS has asked the ACM to reconsider its decision.
Our subsidiary Abellio increased its share of the British rail market in 2017 by winning the West Midlands franchise, along with its partners. Abellio is now the fourth largest carrier on the railways in both the United Kingdom and Germany.
NS has both social and financial objectives. We are currently investing heavily in new trains. We had a positive financial result in 2017, but healthy business operations with sufficient returns remain a challenge. We are giving it our full attention. The financial position has to improve in the longer term, primarily by improving the results. Good operational performance, satisfied customers and committed staff are all prerequisites for this.
Keeping investing in passengers
NS can look back on 2017 with a suitably modest degree of pride. We are getting back to our best. In addition to the good results, 2017 was once again a year in which we invested in our passengers. We want to retain their trust and build upon it. We have to keep delivering top-class performance every day to serve our passengers’ interests. Train travel is like water from a tap: it’s simply got to keep flowing. NS has to make sure every day that trains run on time and that passengers are carried to their destinations. NS is sharply focused again, with its passengers central. Working closely with the other responsible parties, we are examining how the tracks can best be used, including for example looking at light rail. There are plans for mobility in the coalition agreement. Notwithstanding, the sector asked the new cabinet for €1 billion structurally for the railways, but we were only allocated €800 million as a one-off. The railways got a meagre share compared with the roads, although there is more money for the regions.
NS connects the Netherlands. We have shown over the last two years that we can do what we promised on the main rail network. In the future, we will also be making more efforts in the regions for our passengers. And this will in fact be in cooperation with other public transport companies and looking at solutions that use bicycles, buses and cars as well. After all, we have to look at the customer’s entire journey.
Finally, I would like to thank everyone at NS, the employee participation bodies, my colleagues on the Executive Board, the Supervisory Board and our shareholder for their huge efforts and dedication in 2017 and for the trust that they have shown in us.
Roger van Boxtel