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Equity vs. Efficiency with transport in Northern Netherlands

The concept of transit-oriented development (TOD) strongly suggests that rail development is beneficial and necessary to create growth. However, the transport policy of the Netherlands does not focus on the expansion of existing networks to reach faraway places. Instead, it focuses on developing high-quality train network connections within the Randstad and surrounding regions. This is due to the nature of the Dutch spatial planning policy which restricted urban sprawl by regulating development in the limits of growth centres areas. Therefore, resulting in high urban density which makes it possible to attract a high number of commuters and thus, making it cost-efficient. On the other hand, regional connections in the suburbs are less cost-efficient due to its high cost of investment and low estimated ridership. However, there are social benefits to be gained from such regional connections and these warrant the needs that the plan should be reconsidered and hopefully implemented in the future.

Train connection Groningen – Stadskanaal by 2025

One piece of good news – it was announced in March 2019, that Stadskanaal would get a train connection to Groningen (The Northern Times, 2019). With its projected completion in 2025, Stadskanaal will be reachable within 34 minutes from Groningen by express trains, stopping in Hoogezand-Sappemeer and Veendam, and 41 minutes by local trains. Stadskanaal’s 32,000 residents will benefit from the future opportunity, with access to students, workers, tourists and businesses from Groningen and the region. 

This project has long been discussed among several stakeholders – rail manager ProRail, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, museum railway line STAR and train carrier Arriva. The needs and interests of all stakeholders were discussed and considered. The municipal budget allocated for this project is 67.8 million euros, which is partly funded by the budget received by the government from the cancellation of the Zuiderzee line. After its completion, the train connection between Veendam and Stadskanaal will be revived.

What about Stadskanaal – Emmen?

Unlike the confirmed Groningen – Stadskanaal connection, the Lower Saxony Line (‘Nedersaksenlijn’), which aims to connect Groningen-Stadskanaal-Emmen-Enschede and then to German states of Niedersachsen, is still up for question. With some politicians believing it to be unrealistic while others believe that it eventually be realised, this project is still a dream from reality. 

When the train connection to Stadskanaal is realised in 2025, there is still a missing link of approximately 20 kilometres between Stadskanaal and Emmen. As seen on image 1 above, Stadskanaal and Emmen are dead-ends in the networks. If the connection were to be established between these two nodes, the overall network’s connectivity would be significantly enhanced.

Image 2: Missing connection Stadskanaal – Emmen (in Red),  Source: (Dagblad van het Noorden, 2019)
*Ontbreekt = missing
Image 2: Missing connection Stadskanaal – Emmen (in Red),  Source: (Dagblad van het Noorden, 2019)
*Ontbreekt = missing

Another support for the connection is due to the desire to open up the Northern Netherlands via a different track. It is hoped that the new line will ease the bottleneck between Zwolle and Meppel, which currently is the only rail connection to the North from the Randstad and the rest of the country. Last year, there were multiple train accidents near Zwolle which completely stalled access to the Northern cities.

As discussed earlier on TOD, rail traffic is increasingly important in attracting economic activity and economic development. Also, there is a need to retain companies. Such a company is Avebe in Ter Apelkanaal which has ambition for expansion but requires a connection to railways for freight transport. The rail connection is essential, and the absence of one would result in the relocation of companies, which would take economic activities with it. Hence, there is a need to safeguard the financial interest of the region to ensure inclusive economic development for the whole country. The government should intervene to fund the planned investments in infrastructure.

Also, following the national deadline for reaching targets for energy transition and in reducing CO2 emissions by 2050, the Stadskanaal – Emmen connection has the potential to help the government reach those targets. This is because a train connection will decarbonised freight transport by reducing road freight.

However, it is claimed by Henk Brink, a member of the Executive Council of the Province of Drenthe, that the planned connection is unrealistic as the project costs way beyond what the budget of the province of Drenthe will be able to cover (OV Magazine, 2019). According to his estimates, the realisation of the railway line would cost 400 million euros. At the same time, the province of Drenthe only has 10 million to spend on infrastructure annually, which would mean saving up for 40 years. Also, he claims that the provinces of Overijssel and Groningen, which are the other stakeholders, are less enthusiastic about the project and that he was the only one pushing at it. Furthermore, he said that there was a clear answer from the central government that they are not likely to receive any financial backing.

Even so, who said we couldn’t dare to dream? Citizen participation could be a force to lobby towards this change. A petition was started in 2018 to extend the train connection from Stadskanaal to Emmen. As of today, 6 826 people have signed the petition and how many more will join?

This Girugten article was first published in GEO PROMOTION MAGAZINE, 6th of March, 2020.

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