The staff shortage at Dutch railways NS, due to labor market shortages and absenteeism due to illness, is just not getting resolved. Of over 7 000 vacancies, NS now managed to fill almost 5 200, but the need for conductors and drivers remains high.
Chief executive Wouter Koolmees, who has been in charge of the rail company since November, slams a mea culpa: “We have shortchanged passengers”. But Koolmees also thinks NS is past its worst and has “turned the corner”. Still, the future remains challenging. According to Koolmees, there are still not enough passengers (-18%) to balance the accounts leaving the company with an operating loss of 304 million euros last year.
13% fewer trains
NS even started using office staff to assist conductors a few weeks ago to combat the shortage of train staff. The rapidly increasing scarcity of conductors and train drivers is due to scaling up the timetable and rising staff absenteeism, partly due to corona.
This naturally impacted travelers: there were 13% fewer trains, and trains were shortened, which led to substantial rush-hour traffic on some routes. But, at the same time, the pressure came to bear on an increasingly small group of conductors and drivers. For them, the pressure became “unacceptably high”, Koolmees said.
Still 2000 vacancies open
Apart from the personnel problems, there was a significant IT breakdown, a problem with a high-voltage power line in Flevoland, and strikes for a new collective agreement. “All in all, that put the company under great pressure for a long time,” the NS director says. “That made passengers and employees suffer.”
Nevertheless, NS still has just under 2 000 vacancies open, even though almost 51 000 people applied for jobs at the rail company last year. Of those, about 5 000 people have since started work – the focus has been on hiring chief conductors and train drivers. But these cannot begin to work immediately. For instance, training as a train driver takes 11 months, and as a chief conductor 15 to 18 weeks.
Besides a shortage of train drivers and conductors, NS is also looking for security staff because of increased aggression against staff.
Loss of €304 million
Koolmees says he is confident NS will be able to recruit enough staff, but at the same time, the rail company is also struggling with a sharp drop in passengers. “People have started traveling very differently than before,” says Koolmees. “For example, Tuesdays and Thursdays are very busy, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays a bit less.” Just by working from home, NS has a quarter fewer travelers on weekdays.
NS now transports an average of one million passengers a day, about 18% less than before corona, and on weekdays the railways count as many as 25% fewer passengers compared to 2019. The sharply lower number of passengers also leads to NS being in the red again in 2022, as in the first two corona years, with an operating loss of 304 million euros.
And then another dark cloud hangs over NS. The train company will also soon have to negotiate the terms of a new concession with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. That will start in 2025. The Dutch ministry wants to award the concession to NS again, but the European Commission and rival companies find this unfair and want it to be offered to the market first.
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