Over a month on from the deaths of four children at a level railway crossing in the sleepy Dutch city of Oss, there are still serious questions to be asked of the Ministry of Infrastructure.
On September 20 2018, four young children travelling from their nursery were struck by a train when their “stint” failed to stop at a level crossing. For days after the crash, people were still travelling from miles away to visit the site, with the sole purpose of paying their respects. The area dedicated to the victims was covered with flowers, and mourners walked up and down the road wondering how this tragedy came to be. To this day, there are still no answers. Investigations into the incident are still ongoing, but two factors seemingly contributed, stints and level crossings in The Netherlands.
The investigation has primarily raised questions surrounding child transportation methods in the Netherlands. Specifically stints, electric-powered wagons driven by a standing driver with space to carry medium-sized loads. Formerly used to transport goods, they have been used since 2011 to transport children to and from day-care centres.
In a telephone interview with The Stand a week after the incident, the then-spokesperson for the Minister of Infrastructure, who oversees the use of stints, Emrys Dijkhuis-Reuvers, (who is no longer in this position) stated, “We sent a letter to parliament stating that we don’t have information that would force us to forbid the stint, it has been accepted on our roads since 2011, and we don’t have information now at would indicate otherwise” she explained.
This policy was reversed on the 1/10/2018, when Minister Van Nieuwenhuizen ordered stints be taken off the road. This backtracking raises new concerns about the safety of stints, their involvement in the events in Oss and general confusion in the ministry overall.
Edwin Renzen, the owner and founder of the stint slated the decision as “premature”. Speaking to Dutch news organisations, NOS, he doubled down on comments made The Stand, stating, “No research has been carried out on the wreck, they are based on a working hypothesis, but that should not be a reason to prohibit immediately all stints on the public road.”
He had previously explained to The Stand that stints are fitted with three separate brakes, including an emergency brake, emphasising that the main break is connected to the throttle, so letting go of the throttle would bring it to a stop. He also found fault with the idea of electrical interference that was sighted as the cause in the early investigations into the incident.
“If there was radiation going on, I think every person with a pacemaker would die immediately over there”. He said. “To think there was enough radiation to take over the vehicle that has driven for over one and half years across the same track almost sounds like wishful thinking. Why would it only be the throttle? Why were the lights not flashing when they are all wired to the same system?” It is Mr Renzen’s belief that the “The commercial parties are looking for someone to blame.”
While he admitted that there have been some incidents with stints in the past due to gradual wear and tear, he believes the accident cannot be solely blamed on the stint itself. Noting that since stints have been legalised on Dutch roads, the amount of money paid out for insurance claims due to injured children is zero.
Meanwhile, questions also remain over the safety of level crossings within the Netherlands, a longstanding issue in the country.
A report from July 2018 by the Dutch Safety Board (DBS), established that level crossings in The Netherlands were fundamentally unsafe prior to the tragic incident in Oss. The report highlighted issues with both guarded, such as the one in Oss, and unguarded level crossings in The Netherlands. The report followed on from another report published 15 years earlier raising similar issues.
A member of the DBS, Marjolein van Asselt, who oversaw the report, spoke to The Stand discussing these new findings in relation to the previous ones. “The Ministry should have taken the lesson from that first investigation and they didn’t. Maybe due to time, money, or other choices in policy.” She explained. “The parties involved in railroad crossings should have safety at the top of their minds because 11 dead (per year on railway crossings) is not something to deny.”
The Oss crossing is certainly a busy one, located adjacent to the Oss South train station, serving as the middle point between Oss and nearby stations such as Arnhem and S’Hertegenbosch, with around 5-10 trains passing every hour.
René Vegter, a spokesman for ProRail, who looks after the maintenance of Oss railroads defended the level crossing at Oss, saying, “The level crossing functioned the way it should be, we drew that conclusion almost immediately. There doesn’t seem to be an issue on that part.”
However, despite the Oss level crossing being the site of one of the most deadly rail incidents in Dutch history, he also stated that “it was not a big priority on our list and was not known as a very dangerous one.” When questioned about how the Stint managed to go underneath the barrier, as it reportedly did, he mentioned that while “at some locations in the Netherlands we do have something below the barrier to avoid people drive under, that’s not always the case.”
Mr Vegter went on to confirm that the situation with level crossings in the Netherlands is not ideal. “We have a saying here at ProRail that ‘the safest level crossing is no level crossing.’ We would like to get rid of them, but you have to be realistic as it takes a lot of money.” He stated. “We don’t have money on our own, everything we do is paid by the government, so what we can do about safety is limited to how much money we get from the government.”
Vegter declined to comment on the fact that the DBS report identifies the Ministry of Infrastructure as chiefly responsible for the maintenance of level crossings.
While a substantial sum of around €400 million has already been spent on renovating level crossing since 1999, it has seemingly not been enough. According to information provided by Carlijn Van Donselaar, the spokeswoman for railroads in the Netherlands, a further €200 million from the government budget has since been announced to be invested before 2028 to eliminate the remaining issues. However, this figure was announced just two weeks prior to the publication of DBS’s report, which was far too late for the victims in Oss.
While the incident in Oss remains under investigation from several parties, including the Dutch Safety Board and Pro Rail themselves, it seems there are still more questions to be asked of the Ministry of Infrastructure. This new information about stints combined with the on-going doubts over the level crossing points the finger of liability to those responsible for ensuring a harmonious flow of traffic within the Netherlands.