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Amsterdam-Brussels high-speed rail link is halted

Monday - 1/21/2013, 12:13pm  ET

A Fyra high-speed train, shunted by a locomotive, right, is seen at a railroad siding in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday Jan. 21, 2013. When railroad bosses proudly unveiled their new Fyra train connecting Amsterdam and Brussels they called it the "missing link" in Europe's high-speed rail network. Now, the Italian-built trains are missing in action. Technical problems dogged the 250-kmh (155-mph) trains since they came into service last month, repeatedly delaying trips between the Dutch and Belgian capitals that were supposed to shave more than an hour off the regular intercity service the Fyra replaced. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

RAF CASERT
Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) -- It was supposed to be the perfect 21st century link between two bustling European capitals. Instead, the new high-speed Fyra line connecting Amsterdam and Brussels turned into the missing link.

One month after the maiden trip, the Italian-built trains have been taken out of service.

Technical problems dogged the sleek new trains -- which can go 250 kph (155 mph) -- almost since the day they came into service Dec. 9. That has repeatedly caused delays between the Dutch and Belgian capitals, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) apart, instead of slashing more than an hour off the regular service the Fyra trains replaced.

On Monday, the Belgian state rail company NMBS suspended its EUR63 million ($84 million) contract for three trains and gave Italy's AnsaldoBreda three months to fix the problems or face legal action for damages.

On a continent that pioneered high-speed rail a generation ago and where Thalys, Eurostar and ICE services are now household names, a failure like Fyra hurts.

After a hesitant start when only half the trains ran on time, the winter snap over the past week made sure even the train officials lost their cool.

"Last week, it was a tragedy. Hallucinatory," bristled Belgian rail chief Marc Descheemaecker. "Those trains -- pieces went flying. Doors didn't open. Doors didn't close. The steps didn't work," he told VRT network. Last Friday, Belgian officials said enough was enough and grounded Fyra on its territory.

The Dutch transport minister, meanwhile, warned Monday it could take months for Fyra trains to get back on track.

The Italian train builder, AnsaldoBreda, issued two statements last Friday -- first saying its trains were not to blame for the problems and later apologizing for the latest glitch -- a buildup of snow and ice that damaged the underside of the trains -- and pledging to do its best to resolve the problem.

Calls to AnsaldoBreda's Naples and Pistoia offices went unanswered on Monday, and emails sent to the company press office and spokesman were not returned.

AnsaldoBreda is a unit of Finmeccanica, the Italian aerospace and defense giant which is 30 percent owned by the government.

Last week, the Dutch rail network announced it is holding the Italian company responsible and is halting delivery of any more of the V250 trains until the problems are solved.

So far, nine of the 16 trains ordered in the Netherlands have been delivered.

"We want our travelers to be able to count on a reliable and stable service to Brussels," said Bert Meerstadt, director of Dutch rail company NS.

The problems have touched a nerve in Belgium where railroads are a source of national pride.

Belgium ran the first train on the European continent in 1835, and while its maiden trip was delayed by 23 minutes it was reportedly due to a faulty ceremonial starting cannon and not any kind of mechanical problem.

The intercity link from Brussels to Amsterdam that was replaced by the Fyra rarely caused problems and easily brought travelers back and forth within a day during over half a century of service.

Even before the Fyra service started in December, commuters complained that it was more expensive and travelers had to reserve seats.

Problems with reliability were initially brushed off as "teething troubles."

But on Sunday, Descheemaecker could barely contain his anger at the problems. Saying they left him "sick to the stomach."

Some commuters said they have taken to flying, others try to link up with a succession of local trains that slowly crawl along the route. The Thalys link between Paris and Amsterdam is an expensive alternative for some.

____

Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands. Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.


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