For the second year in a row, ProRail is the most frequently punished company in the port of Rotterdam for violating environmental laws. In 2021, ProRail has so far been imposed twelve times with an order subject to a penalty or a fine due to dangerous situations. That is more often than in 2020, when this happened nine times, and much more than at the other 26,000 companies where the regional regulator DCMR carries out checks. Other companies receive an order subject to a penalty or a fine at most twice a year. This is apparent from figures from DCMR Milieudienst Rijnmond.
It is striking that there is no improvement. ProRail, of which the state is the sole shareholder, has been subject to fines and charges subject to periodic penalty payments (threats of a fine if a violation is not resolved) since 2017 by the environmental service. Still, the company continues to perform poorly. Daan Molenaar, Director of Supervision and Enforcement at DCMR: “We have seen that ProRail focuses strongly on rail safety, the safety of the environment is more of a blind spot.”
ProRail manages five sidings in the port – Botlek, Kijfhoek, Waalhaven, Europoort and Pernis – where trains with chemical substances run regularly. As in 2020, fire safety was lacking in the past year and unauthorized persons can sometimes enter the site uncontrolled. ProRail also works at sidings in Waalhaven and Botlek with unapproved cooling installations and storage tanks that are struggling with overdue maintenance. Fuel stations sometimes do not meet the requirements, which means that substances can leak out, according to inspections by DCMR and the Rotterdam-Rijnmond Safety Region.
The grass on the yards is also often unmown. That is dangerous, emphasizes Molenaar. “If tall grass catches fire, a wagon can catch fire. That can have major consequences.”
It has been known for some time that there is a lot of overdue maintenance on the ProRail sites in the port, where no passenger trains run. In recent years, ProRail has regularly had to shut down train traffic in the port due to disruptions. The low point: the closure of one of the yards for trains with chemical substances for more than a year in 2019 and 2020, because the fire extinguishing water supply and accessibility for emergency services were not in order. A small fire, says Molenaar, “can then escalate into a major chemical incident.” Freight carriers were the victims and had to divert to other shunting yards.
The poor condition of the sites is due to a combination of factors. ProRail, according to a report by Ira Helsloot, professor of Safety Boards at Radboud University last year, has paid too little attention to rail in the port in recent years because it focused on passenger lines. Also, relatively little attention was paid within ProRail to the safety of the environment, and the team working on the Havenspoorlijn was overloaded for a long time.
Molenaar of DCMR is surprised that it takes the company so long to get things in order. “We have been working for four years now. This is taking more time than I anticipated. There are always new things emerging.”
Some interventions that have to be done are not very complicated in his opinion. “At the Waalhaven, it was not possible for a long time to make the extinguishing installation in such a way that it meets the standards. But it’s not rocket science, it’s about building a few pumps and pipes.”
Another example: ProRail has meanwhile hired security to better guard the sites and close the fences. When inspectors subsequently visit ProRail, the gate is still open, says Molenaar.
According to Molenaar, there are ‘no environmental criminals or anything’ at ProRail who consciously do not take the rules too closely, but ‘it is a very complicated organization where things are difficult to get done’. In order to force ProRail to make improvements, a consultation group has been set up under the leadership of the environmental alderman of the municipality of Rotterdam, with the management of ProRail, the environmental service and the mayor of Barendrecht. “We meet once every two or three months and we put a knife to the throat at ProRail or give them a compliment that things are going well.”
ProRail acknowledges through a spokesperson that things have not gone well in the past. According to the spokesperson, hard work is being done on improvement, but “to see all the effects of this, more time is needed and not every improvement is immediately visible to the outside world. (…) some problems are more unruly than others and cannot be solved immediately.”
In the 2020 report, the researchers suggest that the requirements for shunting yards may be too high. Molenaar of DCMR disagrees. “We do indeed set higher standards in Rotterdam than in the rest of the Netherlands.” As far as he is concerned, the rules in the rest of the country should be tightened up. “We have more insight here in the region into what the risks really are.” This is due to years of experience in supervising companies that work with chemical substances, says Molenaar.
Molenaar acknowledges that ProRail sometimes has to deal with conflicting legislation. The spokesperson for ProRail: “One regulation states that we must mow everything short, other regulations state that we are not allowed to prune protected plants.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 24, 2021
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