Foreword by the CEO

For NS, there were two sides to 2023. The start of the year was promising, but we are by no means satisfied with our operational performance in the second half of the year. After all, passengers need to be able to depend on the train every day. The award of the 2025-2033 main rail network franchise means, however, that we can look to the future with confidence.

As we look back at 2023, several dramatic events stand out. In March, one of our drivers was killed near Maarn in a collision with another NS train. A horrific accident like that is a shock for the entire organisation. Another terrible rail accident took place near Voorschoten in early April, when an Intercity train partially derailed due to a collision with a crane that was being deployed on the track and had been hit by a freight train minutes before. In this accident, the crane operator died and about thirty people on the train, including NS staff, were injured. The accident also caused an IT outage at ProRail’s Amsterdam traffic control centre, which lasted for several hours and had a huge impact on passengers and staff in the wider region.

Disappointing operational performance

Until the summer, NS’s operational performance was gradually moving in the right direction. 1,200 new main guards and train drivers started work. Trains were on time more often, and were longer, which increased seat availability. The quality of our services was clearly improving.
From August, a variety of circumstances – including trackwork, disruptions and warm weather – combined to cause problems in our operations. There was also growing inconvenience for passengers and staff as high levels of rolling stock withdrawals meant that fewer trains were available, while crowding increased significantly, especially during super-peak hours. The introduction of the Intercity New Generation did not go as planned. This had a major impact on performance on the HSL, as did the speed restriction on part of the HSL at Rijpwetering and the adjusted timetable during trackwork.
It took a great deal of time to get all these problems under control, resulting in disappointing operational performance levels, especially during disruptions or trackwork, such as at Rotterdam Central Station in November and December. Compared with the annual figures for other years, our results may not seem too bad. However, the figures conceal negative travel experiences of individual passengers that cannot be captured in averages. We are working hard to bring our performance back to the level that passengers expect from us. 

Long-term efforts to improve train travel

The award of the 2025-2033 main rail network franchise is a great incentive for us to improve our performance in the coming years. The award decision offers certainty to our organisation. It is also good news for the Netherlands as a whole, as the award will allow us to continue our efforts to make train travel better, more enjoyable and more sustainable and to create a strong and highly interconnected rail network. This also enables us to continue to play an important role in solving major societal issues, including the mobility agenda, the climate challenge and the need to ensure accessibility for a million new homes. As co-owners of the stations, we are involved in area development projects for residential, work and recreational functions in various cities, including Amsterdam, Utrecht and Den Bosch. People who travel by NS train instead of by car contribute to solving the climate problem. As part of the new franchise agreement with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, we are going to measure the CO2 emissions avoided by train travel. We see opportunities to raise awareness of this issue among employers as part of their mobility policies.

Moreover, the security offered through the main rail network franchise means that we will remain an attractive employer. Last year, we managed to recruit many new guards and train drivers in a short period of time, which allowed us to improve our timetable services step by step. Nevertheless, we still have a shortage of engineers and mechanics. To solve this problem, we took a number of targeted measures in 2023. For example, we intensified recruitment efforts, launched an additional ‘TechniekFabriek’ training programme, offered new training courses and found technical solutions to ensure a more effective organisation of maintenance.

Persistent financial challenge

Financially, we are still struggling with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. 2023 was another year in which we operated at a loss. Passenger numbers are rising, but high inflation and the associated sharply rising costs of wages, IT, energy and equipment are not helping. We do not fully pass on those extra costs in train fares, because we want train travel to remain affordable for as many people as possible. At the same time, we want to continue investing for the benefit of our passengers, for example by purchasing and modernising trains. 

Keeping our employees happy at work

We will continue to invest in our employees. There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone remains healthy and enjoys working at NS. Sickness absence levels are high, and in terms of public safety, things could and should be improved: the number of incidents involving aggression has risen at an alarming rate since 2019. Our employees on trains and at the stations are often the victims in these incidents. This is unacceptable. To counter this trend, we introduced another package of measures last year: 100% entry checks at various stations, staff equipped with bodycams, increased surveillance and more effective cooperation with local authorities. It is very frustrating however to see that in certain situations staff do not have the powers they need or that police assistance is not available quickly enough. There are limits to what we at NS can do ourselves, so we need help from the central government and public bodies to improve interventions and enforcement. Last year, talks started with the unions to reach a new collective agreement.

Driving trains across the border and in foreign countries

The non-domestic operations of NS should promote the interests of Dutch passengers. Abellio UK was transferred to the management of Abellio UK at the end of February 2023. In Germany, Abellio will continue to operate a limited number of franchises, in Lower Saxony and central Germany. The ‘Deutschlandticket’ – a €49 card that allows passengers unlimited regional public transport travel for a month – has led to passenger growth at Abellio, demonstrating the potential for incentivising train travel. However, there is a great deal of disruption on the German railways due to infrastructure maintenance issues and work needed to modernise the tracks. This leads to many delays and train cancellations, and thus inconvenience for passengers. In the coming years, we anticipate that our German staff and passengers will continue to experience a great deal of inconvenience. 
We maintain our ambition to carry out cross-border operations. For destinations such as Paris, Berlin and London, train travel is already a fully-fledged alternative to air travel. In 2023, we once again sold more international tickets. From next summer, new ICEs will be travelling to Frankfurt, and we will be running our brand-new ICNG Belgium to Brussels. Both of these developments are extremely promising!

Looking ahead

Train travel has a bright future. To be ready for that future, we will continue to work with ProRail and our other partners in 2024 to make improvements to and on the tracks. This means we are again going to see works and renovations taking place. The very busy rail network, combined with infrastructure constraints and the expected increase in passenger numbers, means we need to continue finding solutions to spread passengers more effectively and continue to recruit new staff. We want to be open about the fact that this will continue to cause inconvenience at times in the years ahead. However, it is essential to get the basics right now so that we can keep the Netherlands accessible in a sustainable manner.    

A word of thanks to all NS employees

In my first full year as CEO, I have been impressed by the resilience and expertise of each and every one of our more than 20,000 employees. Thanks to them, train travel remains relevant and NS is vital to the accessibility and sustainable future of the Netherlands. On behalf of the Executive Board, I would like to thank you all very much for your efforts. I am also grateful to all employee representatives, the Supervisory Board, our partners and our shareholder for their dedication and for the trust that they have shown in us. It is up to us to live up to that confidence again next year.

On behalf of the Executive Board,

Wouter Koolmees

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