This article is the first of a series on lobbying activities for the Northern Netherlands
As of 5 December 2022, the Lelylijn is officially part of the Dutch government program, and the EU is open to adding this project to the TEN-T network, a planned infrastructure network to improve connections between European countries.
The decision comes following months of less-than-positive headlines about rail connections in the north: with frequent disruptions, lack of fast connections with other regions of the country, inadequate infrastructure for handling increasing passenger and commuter numbers testing the network’s resistance every day, there is a widely shared public sense of the need for improvements.
Two projects could have a significant impact on railway connections for the region: the Lelylijn, a 200km/h link from Groningen to Lelystad, and the Emmen-Rheine line, a cross-border connection between Emmen and Rheine, in Germany.
In addition, a third railway project called the Nedersaksenlijn (or Lower Saxony Line) would connect Groningen to Emmen, with consequent benefits for cross-border commuters.
In early December, the EU Transport Council decided to include the Lelylijn to the TEN-T network, which is currently under a revision process by the European institutions. Secretary of State Vivianne Heijnen said that this is “a beautiful step” toward the realization of this project. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but this European decision helps us with that and at the same time challenges us to really work on the Lelylijn.”
Growth potential for the North
Beyond upgrading connections for train users, building the Lelylijn, Emmen-Rheine line and Nedersaksenlijn could also help to counter the declining population and housing scarcity in Northern Netherlands.
According to the report “Opportunities of the Amsterdam – Noord Nederland – Hamburg railway link” published in 2021, “a well-developed railway link is a decisive location factor for the settlement of new companies.” They, in turn, would generate new jobs and attract the younger, working population.
Lobbying organizations Strong Northern Netherlands (SNN) and the North Sea Commission of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR-NSC) advocate for increasing funding for these railways and expediting the legislative process for their final approval and construction. In particular, the lobbying groups are working hard for the Lelylijn and the Emmen-Rheine line to be included in the TEN-T.
SSN and the CPMR North Sea Commission activities represent the North’s interests, and aim to empower the region in the negotiations with the central government and the European institutions. The inclusion of the Lelylijn in the TEN-T is a concrete result of these efforts and is part of a wider framework that embraces many fields, including transport, clean energy, and circular economy.
Local opposition, regional unity
Almost every party supports the Lelylijn, but some local factions don’t want the project because they think that a faster connection would result in more people from the Randstad coming – for instance – to Friesland, threatening the local identity and culture.
Regional Minister for the province of Drenthe Nelleke Vedelaar told The Northern Times that the Northern Netherlands is collectively advocating for better integration of the region into the European rail network.
“Not only because of the regional advantages, but especially because of the opportunities that an improved international connection offers the Netherlands and Europe,” Vedelaar said. Among the concrete advantages, the Regional Minister mentioned improved cross-border business, labour mobility and the contribution to working toward zero emissions.
Others feel that the Lelylijn is a project without a tangible positive impact on people’s lives. According to SSN, it is normal to have some divergent interests, but the lobbying activity to improve railway connections is being carried out well, and getting results.
In April 2021, Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe (along with Flevoland province) announced the Building Blocks for the Delta Plan project (Bouwstenen Voor Het Deltaplan). In short, the plan states that northern provinces can contribute to several national challenges, for example, the housing crisis: the north has space to build up to 220,000 new houses, which would in turn necessitate the presence of better infrastructure.
These investments should be made in three directions: upgrading the existing railway connection, building the Lelylijn, and building the Nedersaksenlijn.
SSN advisors explained that there is unity among the Regional Ministers, and they share the same priorities. It is true that, for instance, the province of Drenthe would benefit less from the Lelylijn compared to Friesland, and they may find the Nedersaksenlijn a bigger need.
Nevertheless, the provinces agreed on common interests and made an offer as “the North” (plus Flevoland), an effective case of cross-provinces lobbying activity.
Lack of funding
Yet as a general rule, northern provinces tend to receive less funding than other Dutch regions when the government is distributing money for new infrastructure. For example, with the latest round of infrastructure investments in November 2022, the government allocated 7.5 billion euros for the whole country: out of that, around 325 million euros (4 percent) went to the Northern Netherlands, while 65 percent was reserved for the Randstad (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and surroundings).
‘We zetten in op een goede bereikbaarheid van het hele land.’
Het regeerakkoord is duidelijk: de kloof tussen (Rand)stad en regio moet dicht. Brede welvaart voor iedereen.
Noord-Nederland wil en kán bijdragen aan die welvaart. Hoe?
Maak het Noorden beter bereikbaar. pic.twitter.com/nWH9rVNyUu
— Strong Northern Netherlands (@SterkNoordNL) November 17, 2022
One argument made to defend such decisions is that the Coalition Agreement already funded the North with a 3 billion investment. These funds, however, are reserved for long-term projects, with a deadline in 2038 – like the Lelylijn.
According to lobbyists, the Northern Netherlands needs more money to invest in issues plaguing commuters here and now: the main railway that connects the North with the West has issues on an average of nine hours per week, SNN said, and whenever a disruption happens, the northern regions are effectively cut off from the rest of the country.
Lelylijn and TEN-T
The project to include the Lelylijn in the TEN-T framework has existed for a long time, but it became more concrete when the government presented the Coalition Agreement in December 2021. Coincidentally, the agreement was announced two days after the European Commission put forward the proposal for the TEN-T revision.
Belonging to the network increases the chances of receiving European funds that could fill this gap: that is why, for the organizations lobbying to include the Lelylijn in the TEN-T, it is important to work toward this direction.
For SSN, being on the TEN-T map is a decisive step, but not the final step. The lobbying activity should continue to ensure the infrastructure is built. Advisors explained that it is important that the lobbying activities from the different actors involved (SNN, CPMR-NSC, and local and national governments) remain coordinated, and pursue the same goal.
The Lelylijn represents a regional upgrade to the Northern Netherlands’ railway network, but it is also part of an international project to improve connections with other countries in Northern Europe, namely Germany, Denmark, and Scandinavian countries.
With the Coalition Agreement, the government has set aside 3 billion euros for the Lelylijn within the Delta Plan for the North – a framework to boost the growth capacity of the region.
At best, these funds will cover half of the money needed for this infrastructure, as the official cost is estimated to be 6 to 9 billion euros. The Coalition Agreement also specifies that the amount reserved by the government should be complemented by both European and regional funds.
The Ministry of Infrastructure has officially requested the European Commission to include the Lelylijn in the TEN-T extended core network, and the Commission gave a positive response to this request in October.