De besluitvorming over het HSL-traject in Nederland. Een reconstructie / Dutch decision-making and the high-speed line. A reconstruction

We know of plenty of examples from other countries where procedures were not correctly followed (such as the French ‘grand projets’) or the projects were either less than successful or all-out disasters (from the collapse of the railway bridge over the River Tay in Scotland in 1880 to the recent damming of mud flats in Japan). But they don’t make mistakes like that in the Netherlands. Here plans are developed, adopted and implemented with common sense and reasonableness – such, at least, is the prevailing view.

But just how sensible and financially sound was the ‘open’ damming of the Oosterschelde (costing twice as much as raising the dykes in the traditional way and resulting in a ‘partially spared’ ecosystem and a high-tech dam with sluicegates requiring intensive maintenance that is nonetheless supposed to last for 100 years)? And how beneficial is it not to reclaim the Markerwaard? Has this left us ecologically valuable open water instead of new land at the edge of the Randstad? Or has it produced a shallow lake which serves primarily as a watersports area for the boat-owning Randstad elite from one to four on Sunday afternoons?
It might be as well to put aside our faith in careful planning and scrupulous decision-making and to examine instead how major projects in the Netherlands actually come about. The high-speed rail link between Paris and Amsterdam (Dutch initials HSL), and specifically the choice of route between Rotterdam and Schiphol, can serve us as an example. This project, regarded by the present coalition government as one of its major successes, is no longer the burning issue it was. Reconstructing the decision-making process in this case can provide an insight into the factors most decisive for projects of this magnitude. To avoid getting lost in the maze of route variations which developed over time, we must start by looking at the two which proved in the end to be realistic: the Bos variant and the A1 variant.


In the new policy document of 1994 on the high-speed rail link (Nieuwe HSL-Nota), on which the decision-making process is premised, the seven principles for the choice of route are again enumerated. Of these, the two planning departure-points stand out immediately: ‘to be in perfect keeping with with existing spatial structures of urban and rural areas’ and ‘avoiding further fragmentation of open spaces, natural areas, sanctuaries, ecological main structures and the like, by striving to combine the route with existing and future infrastructure and/or peripheries of urban areas’.1)
How do the two routes relate to these principles? Let us first examine the specifications of the two variants (see Map 1).
The A1 variant
route: through Rotterdam-Noord, past Schiebroek, past Vinex locations Noordrand 1 and Noordrand 2/Berkel, through the glass nursery-house area of Bleiswijk, over the A12 motorway (The Hague/Gouda/Utrecht), eastwards along the Vinex location Zoetermeer-Oost, through the Green Heart, under the Oude Rijn emerging at the A4 motorway (The Hague/Amsterdam) between Leiden and Hoogmade, and combining in the Haarlemmermeer polder with the Schiphol Rail Line continuing to Schiphol Airport a
journey time: about 18 minutes at a maximum speed of 300 km/hr for 2 minutes.
cost: NGL 3.1 billion, including a short tunnel under the Oude Rijn.
The Bos variant
route: through Rotterdam Overschie, passing to the west of Vinex location Noordrand 1, in combination with the A13 motorway past Delft and Vinex location Pijnacker/Delfgauw, following a bend past Vinex location Ypenburg via Prins Clausplein, between Leidschendam and Vinex location Leidschendam-Zuidoost, still combined with the (A4) motorway past Leiden, into the Haarlemmermeer polder following the Schiphol Line to Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam.
journey time: ca. 21 minutes without a stop in The Hague, ca. 26 minutes with a stop.
cost: NLG 4 billion excluding possible claims for modifications to existing plans at Delft and The Hague.
A glance at the maps is enough to show that the A1 variant fails to conform to the planning principles. Far from being in keeping with spatial structures, it finds its own way based on the line of least resistance and the shortest journey time; it doesn’t combine with existing or future infrastructure and slices up the Green Heart. The Bos variant conforms much better to the two planning principles in that it joins with motorways and follows a route along the inner edge of the Randstad’s ring of cities.
The above comparison raises the important question of whether the project office for the high-speed link (Projectbureau HSL) ever examined a route of the Bos variant type and, if so, why didn’t this option make it to the final selection. Subreport 4 of the new policy document sets out all the routes north of Rotterdam ever examined. One of them involves a combination with the A4 and A13 motorways via the Ypenburg intersection. When asked about this, Willem Bos himself revealed that this combination variant should be regarded as the ‘archetypal Bos variant’. As a civil servant at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, he happened by chance to see the first policy document on the high-speed rail link in 1991. During interministerial consultations with the Department of Roads and Waterways, he proffered his suggestion of a combination variant along the A4 and A13. In the absence of a map, he outlined this route in the air for his audience. The upshot was confusion. It transpired that such a solution had never been thought of. Three years later he came across his suggestion in the new policy document (see Map 2). He was amazed by the arguments given in the new document for rejecting his variant and these led him to develop the final Bos variant. This differs from the original version at the debated points and so answers the criticisms which made Projectbureau HSL give it the thumbs-down.2)

The vested interests

As well as analysing the characteristics of the two variants, we must consider the various interests at stake. In some cases these are clearly identifiable and understandable. Central government wanted an efficient link to the European high-speed rail network which could compete with air travel over short distances. So this link had to be extremely rapid, and in view of the European scale of the network there could be no stop in The Hague. This concurred with the interests of Dutch Railways in trying to remain competitive. An additional important if underplayed argument for them was that the direct link between Amsterdam and Rotterdam in a genuine HSL guise would be a ‘super intercity’ route that would ease the burden on the existing lines in the Randstad.
At a very different level the various interests are less easy to define, and were accompanied by a full-scale war: choosing between the A1 or the Bos variant with a possible stop in The Hague meant a veritable battle of the cities. Of course a direct link between Amsterdam and Rotterdam would favour these two and put The Hague at a disadvantage. Indeed, from the outset Amsterdam and Rotterdam opted for each other in an unprecedented show of harmony, jointly elbowing The Hague aside. What could The Hague, or the planned new economic region of Haaglanden, do about this?
The region of The Hague has long struggled with an internal conflict. On one side are the highly affluent municipalities of Rijswijk, Voorburg, Leidschendam and Wassenaar in the periphery, on the other the destitute city of The Hague. It is destitute in that it has the burdens of the big city (urban renewal, housing, public transport, cultural and social infrastructure), but not the benefits of the flourishing ‘golden edges’ or suburbs. For unlike other large cities, in The Hague these golden edges with their high ground rates and well-heeled residents and businesses are all grouped in separate municipalities on the fringes. These Liberal Party (VVD) dominated municipalities enjoy to the full the facilities offered by The Hague though without contributing to the costs. Because of the formidable influence that these municipalities jointly exercise on the national VVD Party, this situation will continue; at the national level the party opposed the forming of a Haaglanden urban region, which accordingly did not take place.3)
Rijswijk, Voorburg and Leidschendam, in one voice with Delft, naturally were vehemently opposed to an HSL through their living space. And because The Hague expected no less, it took a tough stance in favour of the route on existing track with a stop in the city. This attitude was a blow to the Bos supporters. The Hague had lacked the insight and/or courage to go for the Bos option early on and so teach its opportunistic peripheral municipalities (who of course favoured a route on existing track) a lesson. It was not until the government opted for the A1 variant with an extra tunnel in May 1996, leaving The Hague empty-handed, that the city joined the Bos camp.
Amidst all this wrangling, one voice remained silent – that of Zoetermeer. While Leidschendam and Delft fought tooth and nail against the Bos variant along their Vinex location, not a sound was heard from Zoetermeer, where the A1 variant threatened the Vinex location Zoetermeer-Oost. Inquiries reveal that the municipality did send letters during the various consultation processes, but was unwilling to shift the problems created by the A1 variant for their location to neighbouring municipalities. With hindsight it can be concluded that Zoetermeer behaved a little too correctly, and that Leidschendam, Delft and Rotterdam and their peripheral municipalities played a much cleverer game. And the fact that Zoetermeer was not dragged in as a natural ally by its neighbour The Hague once again shows the weakness of this city’s administration. Now The Hague will be able to pride itself for evermore on being the only centre of government in Western Europe where the high-speed line doesn’t stop.

HSL and Vinex

A further important aspect of the Bos and A1 variants was their impact on existing and future housing locations. It could be argued that, whatever else, there should be no HSL along large new (Vinex) locations and that for this reason the Bos variant was undesirable. Delft and Leidschendam naturally emphasized this point and it has therefore played an important role (along with the threat of claims and delays). However, the A1 variant also runs right next to a Vinex housing location – Zoetermeer-Oost. The HSL skirts the full length of the location (for 8000 dwellings) on the eastern side, on an earthern bank that descends from 9.50 m at the point where it crosses the A12 motorway to 6.50 m at the site of the planned Bentwoud recreation area.4) This bank is to receive an acoustic baffle at least 4.50 m high, probably over its entire length.
The Vinex locations Delfgauw and Leidscheveen together comprise 9000 dwellings. Delft and Leidschendam’s principal arguments against the Bos variant (plus the expected claims and delays) were the extra noise the HSL would produce, on top of that made by the A4 and A13, and that it would be one more barrier between the residential and recreational areas. However, in the case of the Vinex location Zoetermeer-Oost, the A1 variant produces at least as much noise and creates just as great a barrier because of the monumental bank required between Zoetermeer and the Green Heart. Furthermore, the HSL as conceived in the Bos variant could be regarded as a gift from the gods for Delft and Leidschendam. Thanks to the noise prevention measures required for the HSL and motorway combined, the problem of road traffic noise would be solved simultaneously. And the infrastructural works necessitated by the HSL (footbridges, tunnels for road traffic etc.) would help to overcome the barriers thrown up by the existing motorways. All this presumably would no longer be paid for from Vinex funds but from the HSL budget.
So we can conclude that the impact of each variant on the Vinex locations would be about the same. This was also the conclusion reached by Moret, Ernst and Young in the study they carried out in August 1996 for the Lower House of Parliament. Their conclusion is that ‘the [Bos] and A1 variants have the same effect as regards cuts through present and future residential areas. In the government’s assessment the negative impact of [the Bos variant] on urban areas features prominently. This cannot be based on the number of cuts through urban areas. It must be concluded that for the government the cuts through urban areas [in the Bos variant] evidently outweigh those in the A1 variant.’5)

Politics and the individual

In order to view the eventual compromise – a route through the Green Heart (A1) but with a longer tunnel (this compromise I term the A1+) – in the right perspective, it is as well to go back to the positions adopted by the political parties on the HSL and the Green Heart in their 1994 election manifestos.
The CDA (Christian Democratic party) confined itself to the predictable statement that ‘in the case of major infrastructural projects such as the HSL, the quality of the environment and residential areas has to be safeguarded’.6) In the actual debate the CDA’s ultimate preference, an HSL on existing track, played no role whatsoever.
D66 (Left-wing Liberals) was crystal clear in its attitude: ‘The route chosen should spare the Green Heart, even if this should lead to extra costs. If the HSL is built, it should be done with great care, using advanced technology and laid out partly underground.’7) Accordingly, on 31 March the D66 party conference opted for the Bos variant, including a station in The Hague. The conference called on the parliamentary party and the cabinet ministers to take the same line. The (D66) Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans van Mierlo, had his doubts about such an inflexible stance, though the spokesperson for the parliamentary party, Ms. Versnel, remarked dryly that she could live with the conference’s verdict.
The VVD (Liberal Party) proposed the following ‘concrete priorities’: ‘when expanding the physical infrastructure, negative effects on nature and the environment should be avoided as far as possible, or, if there is no other choice, compensated for elsewhere. … In affected areas, putting the physical infrastructure underground should be considered.’8) In addition to these ‘concrete priorities’, however, the VVD made a string of interesting remarks on environmental and infrastructural investment. ‘As a percentage of the national income, Government investment in the physical infrastructure has fallen alarmingly in recent decades. In order to strengthen the economic structure of the Netherlands, these productive investments should be given high priority. … If the Netherlands is to have a leading role, it is of vital importance that investment in the traffic infrastructure is substantially increased.’9)
But the most interesting manifesto is that of the PvdA (Labour Party). This is far more outspoken. On the Betuwe Freight Line and the HSL it states that ‘tough criteria must be set for the degree of compliance and the quality of life, especially in the urban areas. Such projects are carried out at a cost of millions and meant for a hundred years of intensive use. Decisions must not be taken lightly and a penny-pinching attitude towards the costs is inappropriate. Accordingly, in urban areas there will have to be tunnels or a half sunken tray, or some other construction offering local residents a similar level of protection.’10)
Not a word is said about the Green Heart in this manifesto. So it might be expected that the PvdA would demand tunnels in urban and residential areas – for the A1 variant this would be at Rotterdam-Noord and Zoetermeer-Oost, for the Bos variant at Delft and Leidschendam. But in fact the party pronounced in favour of the Bos variant so as to spare the Green Heart, without demanding tunnels at the housing locations. Somewhere between writing its manifesto and debating the route to be chosen, the PvdA shifted its priority from protecting local residents to protecting the Green Heart.
While early in 1996 the government was still divided over the choice of Bos or A1, some PvdA councillors, specifically in Rotterdam, had not forgotten their trackside community. National attention was entirely taken up with the Green Heart debate, and the Rotterdam authorities took this opportunity to cash in on the victory over The Hague. They brazenly demanded a tunnel at Schiebroek and a sunken track at Berkel. And at the point when the government came up with the A1+ variant, with the extra long tunnel under the Green Heart, the Rotterdam councillors argued, entirely in accord with the PvdA manifesto, that the additional 900 million guilders set aside for nature would only be fitting if first something was done about the impact on the local residents. (And behind the scenes they added that they would never agree to the A1+ variant without the extra claims being met.)
It is heart-warming to see how individuals, and not just vested interest groups and the powers that be, can significantly influence the course of events. Willem Bos’s efforts ultimately resulted in an extra long tunnel under the Green Heart, without this ever having been his intention. The apathy or excessive politeness of a small group of officials in Zoetermeer ensured that The Hague would lose out and gave Zoetermeer-Oost and its 20,000 future residents a monumental above-ground HSL embankment with all the negative trappings that would entail. And the single-mindedness and perfect sense of timing of a project leader in the Rotterdam HSL project group, combined with the audacity of a few local councillors, secured a tunnel and a tunnel tray for Rotterdam-Noord entirely without national debate.

The political decision-making

By the beginning of 1996 the government and parliament had reached an impasse. Within the governing coalition the VVD Minister of Roads and Waterways (Ms. Jorritsma) favoured the A1 variant and was thus diametrically opposed to the PvdA Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment (Ms. de Boer), who wanted to spare the Green Heart by opting for the Bos variant. The VVD parliamentary party was also in favour of the A1 variant. The PvdA parliamentary party, following its environment minister, supported the Bos variant, as did D66. This made it possible for the CDA, which wanted a route on existing track, to torpedo the government’s proposed solution by switching to the Bos variant. Meanwhile it had become clear to all the parties that the Bos variant had never been seriously examined by Projectbureau HSL and had been wrongly left out of the HSL policy document. An extra study of the Bos variant was commissioned, and when in due course the Lower House decided that the government had failed to take this seriously it went on to commission a study of the way the government had compared the two variants.11)
Prime Minister Kok overcame this deadlock on 1 May 1996 by presenting his solution consisting of the A1 variant with a longer tunnel through the Green Heart, i.e. the A1+.12) The leader of the PvdA parliamentary party, Wallage, welcomed this compromise as highly acceptable, thereby snubbing his spokesperson Vermeend, who called it ‘undesirable’ and continued to back the Bos variant. The two ministers, De Boer and Jorritsma, both presented the A1+ solution as a victory for the environment and public transport; this showed, once again, the governing coalition ‘at its best’.13) There followed seven months in which the question kept coming up in parliament, while none of the parties changed its standpoint. Nor did the government, and when eventually the CDA was moving towards supporting the Bos variant in order to secure a majority opposed to the government position, Wallage again snubbed his rebellious spokesperson and forced through a decision in favour of Kok’s compromise. Given that this was the view he took when Kok presented the solution on 1 May and that since then no new insights or positions had emerged, it can be said that the time between 1 May and 10 December, when parliament gave its approval, was lost in empty political manoeuvres.

The choice

In and around Projectbureau HSL various explanations of the choice of preferred routes (Map 2) could be heard: ‘a selection had to be made’, ‘you can’t present parliament with 16 variants’, ‘the A and B variants emerged at an early stage on the strength of unclear preferences’, ‘the combined variant was broadly examined and failed to get through the first selection’, ‘the technical arguments determined by Roads and Waterways were decisive’…
This still leaves the question of why the project office didn’t think of the Bos variant itself at an early stage, and why it didn’t take it seriously later on. It looks as if in choosing the routes the project office took the way of least resistance. The one along existing track had always been a civil engineering nightmare, and Delft, Voorburg and Leidschendam had fiercely opposed a variant through their territory from the outset. Zoetermeer and its Vinex location, on the other hand, seemed not to exist at all, and the political parties’ love affair with the Green Heart had yet to blossom. That left a route through the Green Heart. The coalition agreement of August 1994 established this as the official government option.14) This proved to be the crucial moment in the decision process, as this preference was incorporated in all the following planning decisions, including those concerning Vinex locations. This meant that other route options effectively ceased to exist, because ultimately they would always find themselves up against the claims and delays argument. That the Bos variant nonetheless survived for so long shows that it was simply the most convincing variant.
When the government finally chose the A1+, Prime Minister Kok indeed cited claims and delays as the main drawbacks of the Bos variant. He thus implicitly admitted that all those who had expressed their preference for a particular route were now confronted with a fait accompli. In the end the PvdA parliamentary party had to bow reluctantly to these unfair arguments. By then the construction costs of the Bos variant and the A1+ variant with the long tunnel under the Green Heart and extra facilities at Rotterdam had drawn level at 4.2 million guilders.15)
Finally, it has to be said that the A1+ variant offers the shortest journey time, a point which was played down during the debate but which will continue to be important for public transport.

Green Heart

The difference between the minimum attention paid the Green Heart in the party manifestos of 1993-1994 and the full weight of the Green Heart argument in the final choice of route, shows how rapidly and fiercely this debate caught fire. And of course how rapidly it may fizzle out again.
Now we have a situation in which tunnel and Green Heart legitimate each other’s existence. The Green Heart exists because it is worth such an investment. And the tunnel makes sense because the Green Heart is so expensive. The investment in the tunnel is also a direct investment in the Green Heart, increasing its value by 900 million. If the Green Heart was first more myth than reality, now at least it has a price tag and a name. The latter alone means that the Green Heart exists, in exactly the same way as the Randstad exists.
At least three scenarios are conceivable for the future of the Green Heart and its tunnel:
1. Investment in the tunnel makes the open Green Heart a n incontravertible dogma. The fiercely contested and expensively acquired openness will be maintained for evermore.
2. The HSL plus tunnel is regarded as negatively affecting the Green Heart after all. Now that it is in place, it can be treated as a new, ‘final’ demarcation line: building will be allowed from the west as far as this point; to the east of it lies the ‘true’ Green Heart which must be spared. Investment in the tunnel is in part recouped since expensive soumnd-damping measures are no longer required along the underground railway. Housing estates can be safely extended right up to the tunnel.
3. With the construction of the tunnel, the disturbance of water management and the noise pollution caused by the above-ground section of the HSL, the notion of a quiet, open, ecological Green Heart proves to be an illusion. The demand for housing continues to grow anyway and the Green Heart concept is gradually forgotten. Investment in the tunnel pays off in the form of noise-free housing estates built above the tunnel and closely packed around it.
One thing is certain: in planning nothing is certain. This is finally dawning as the practice of thinking in scenarios catches on. In addition, scrupulousness does not lead to truth and honesty is not the same as wisdom. Above all, the lesson to be learn from this story is that planning processes are not only informed by crystal-clear public procedures and their shadowy treatment at the hands of politicians, but also have ‘dark factors’ in tow.16)

2. This ‘almost-Bos variant’ produced the following objections. A close combination with the A4 and A13 motorways proved out of the question due to several bends near Leidschendam. This would bring the line behind the business park (Forepark) under construction, where it would cut through the edge of the Ypenburg Vinex location. The bend towards Rotterdam would then be too tight and three exits from the A13 motorway would have to be crossed. There would also be problems fitting the line in with the IKEA site, the Delftse Hout recreation area and thee lakes (Ackerdijkse plassen). Because of these drawbacks, this variant was not pursued further. As to the problems of coexisting with business parks and the edge of a newly created recreation area like the Delftse Hout, it must be said that these are hardly the same as accommodating the A1 variant to the Green Heart. Bos subsequently came up with a series of simple modifications to meet the objections. By crossing over to the west side of the A4 at Rijswijk when coming from Rotterdam, the tight bend was made easier and Forepark and Ypenburg were avoided. (The top speed through this bend would, however, remain slightly lower than the design speed of 300 km/hr.) Projectbureau HSL had not thought of this refinement, or at least not examined it in depth, and dropped the A4/A13 combination variant for good.

3. Outcome of the debate in the Lower House of 22 May 1997 on the Haaglanden metropolitan province.

12. According to Kok, an HSL below the Green Heart would be ‘cheaper than one round it’. ‘HSL onder Groene Hart, Verslag 1-mei bijeenkomst PvdA’, Algemeen Dagblad, 2 May 1996.

13. There is an ambiguity in the position of the VVD which perhaps requires further explanation. In the first instance the VVD called for thrift, in sharp contrast to its election manifesto. In the end, however, the party agreed to a solution that was 900 million guilders more expensive, thus keeping its election promise to invest substantially in the infrastructure after all. It could be said that Jorritsma’s consistently tight-fisted attitude made possible the more expensive solution with a longer tunnel as an ecological compromise, because the money for that tunnel will not now go simply into construction but represents an ecological investment. And here perhaps the interests are involved of a group not yet mentioned. Now that the Piet Hein Tunnel, the Tweede Wijker Tunnel and the storm surge barrier in the New Waterway have been completed, the Dutch hydraulic engineering industry is desperate for new work. So an extra tunnel would be the ‘productive investment’ called for by the VVD and would also protect employment in this sector, an argument which of course appeals to the PvdA as well. These two arguments have long underpinned the continuing tunnel construction programme: the Heinenoord Tunnel, the tunnel under the Westerschelde and the rail tunnel under Rotterdam. Drilling in soft ground is said to contribute to know-how in this field in the Netherlands. In future this know-how can be exploited as an export product. The fact is, however, that various countries around us and in the Far East already have this knowledge and that the Netherlands is lagging well behind them. The obligation to invite tenders from all of Europe could thus lead to a foreign consortium securing the contract. This would considerably reduce the benefits for the hydraulic engineering industry and employment climate which brought the VVD and the PvdA together. (For the purposes of comparison: the Erasmus Bridge was built by a Belgian consortium and the construction industry in Germany has for some time been feeling the negative effects of the influx of foreign consortia as a result of European tendering.)

15. In the explanatory document accompanying the Planologische Kernbeslissing HSL-Zuid, in which the government’s decision is laid down, the other arguments for and against the variants are set out once again. As to the Green Heart, it asserts that ‘the A1 route’s negative impact on the Green Heart concept with a tunnel under the Green Heart … barely differs from that of WB3 [the Bos variant]’. So a tunnel is not seen as detrimental to the Green Heart. The impact of the Bos variant (alongside existing motorways) on the Vinex locations is termed ‘substantial’. As to the effects of the A1 route on the Vinex locations Noordrand 1/2/3 and Zoetermeer-Oost, the document states that these can be ‘reduced to acceptable dimensions by sinking the line or locating it at the edges’. Finally, it is conceded that the effects of the Bos variant on agriculture and horticulture ‘are clearly the least of all’.

16. For ‘dark factors’ see L’Europe à Grande Vitesse, Rotterdam (NAI Publishers) 1996, p. 12.

Vies, lekker en direct. Joep van Lieshouts handleiding voor architectuur / Dirty, delicious and direct. Joep van Lieshout’s manual of architecture