Fyra: the €11bn Dutch political train wreck

Staatssecretaris Wilma Mansveld//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Photo: Roel Wijnants via Flickr

The high-speed departure of junior transport minister Wilma Mansveld was a rare piece of decisive action during the long-running Fyra saga. We now know that the derailed Amsterdam-Brussels train service, which took 15 years to realise and five months to fall apart, has cost the Dutch state €11bn, equivalent to €1,500 for every household in the Netherlands. Successive governments committed a string of blunders that allowed costs and delays to stack up, while failing to check that the trains were up to standard. The legacy is a barely used high-speed rail line that continues to drain the public finances. The Albatros could not have been more aptly named.

Mansveld’s head was on the block from the moment Madeleine van Toorenburg’s inquiry concluded that the minister had “wrongly informed” Parliament about the transport inspectorate’s regulatory powers. A deadly political sin, agreed the Dutch media, which had been agitating for her resignation for weeks. Once Mansveld had fallen on her sword, the tone changed almost instantly: her self-sacrifice was “impeccable” and worthy of respect, wrote NRC. The most significant line of Mansveld’s statement was the one that read: “It is my democratic duty to take responsibility, through my resignation, for any mistakes my predecessors made”. Translation: It wasn’t my fault, but the rules say I have to quit. Her rehabilitation will not be long delayed.

The danger is that Mansveld’s departure will obscure the more important issues arising out of the Fyra fiasco. Parliament has reasserted its primacy, on paper at least, as the forum for holding ministers to account. The media has its scalp, and will hold up the minister’s downfall as a model of effective press scrutiny. And the government will say it responded swiftly and appropriately to Van Toorenburg’s response by jettisoning the minister responsible. More senior colleagues such as infrastructure minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen and finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who were both criticised in the report, will hope that the circus now moves on, and no doubt call for the next transport minister to be given breathing space. But as Mansveld herself said: “The most important question is what lessons we can learn for the future. And that is a debate we need to have.”

Nobody emerged from the Fyra inquiry unscathed. Schultz was found to have cut secret deals with the Belgian rail operator to replace the service between The Hague and Brussels, but Parliament was only told afterwards. Her predecessor, Camiel Eurlings, was downright evasive, claiming to have forgotten a conversation about a €1.4 bn ‘super-dividend’ (or bung, in common parlance) to keep the High Speed Alliance train operator afloat. Dijsselbloem was reproached for failing to furnish MPs with enough information to do their job. All of these, arguably, were greater breaches of protocol, and had a more deleterious impact, than the offence for which Mansveld carried the can, and strengthen the impression that the junior minister took the hit for the team.

The report’s most damning revelation was the utter lack of scrutiny from those who were supposed to secure a safe, comfortable and good value service on behalf of the paying public. The Fyra trains were delivered five years too late and with serious doubts about their reliability. Shockingly, the Dutch transport inspectorate (ILT) did not set foot inside a single train at the yard or accompany a test ride, passing the vehicles solely on the basis of the manufacturer’s paperwork. The commission was scathing, concluding that the ILT had performed its role in an “unacceptably minimalistic” fashion. Time and again costs escalated for no clear reason, starting with the Dutch rail operator NS putting down a wildly inflated bid of €178m to run the high-speed line, in order to drive away the competition. When the only competitor to the Italian manufacturer AnsaldoBreda withdrew from the race to build the trains, it left a huge accountability gap, since the two main companies involved could enjoy commercial confidentiality in the absence of any competition. Neither public scrutiny nor the market could check its excesses, while the risk was carried entirely by the taxpayer.

The Dutch Parliament was not spared criticism either. No less than 56 MPs studied the Fyra project during its lifetime, but none of their enquiries managed to uncover the serious shortcomings that led to its downfall. The Lower House voiced concerns but nobody pulled the communication cord. Dijsselbloem admitted, almost casually, the day after the inquiry, that his readiness to share unfavourable information “could have been better”. That brings us to perhaps the most troubling question raised by the Fyra scandal: if ministers can bypass Parliament so routinely, and MPs are so complicit in their own exclusion, what is the worth of Parliamentary scrutiny? The Fyra inquiry has exposed some harsh truths about the ineffectiveness of this process when public services are compromised by quasi-commercial interests. Chronic weaknesses in the political system forced the Dutch public to fork out an inordinate sum for a third-class train set that arrived broken in the box. In that context, the cabinet probably felt that the sacrifice of a junior minister was a small price to pay. But it should not be the end of the line.

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