NS and COVID-19 in 2021
Like 2020, the past year was dominated by the COVID-19 crisis. Again we transported significantly fewer passengers than before the pandemic. This also had an impact on the use of our door-to-door services and the shops and services at our stations. Providing a safe journey continued to be a major priority for the public transport sector. We demonstrated our resilience as a company, for example by being flexible in scaling our operations up or down, by running campaigns to regain passengers and finding alternative working methods. Ever since the pandemic struck, one objective has remained as important as ever: keeping the Netherlands accessible in a sustainable manner.
During the first months of 2021, the Netherlands was in lockdown and NS operated approximately 90% of its trains. When the measures were relaxed in late April, we scaled up until all trains were operational again by the end of August, including commuter trains (the additional trains we deployed in the time before COVID-19 to absorb the daily rush-hour peak). Effective 20 December, NS temporarily reduced the number of trains in the evening, at night and during peak hours and started evening timetable services two hours earlier than normal. Due to the fact that more and more NS employees stayed at home due to illness or quarantine, NS was forced to temporarily adjust the timetable to 85% of all trains effective 7 February 2022. The lockdown in the Netherlands, the government's continued negative travel advice regarding non-vital international journeys and the measures in force in neighbouring countries also had an impact on international train journeys.
One of the ways in which NS is seeking to persuade passengers to return to the train is by adapting the product range. Studies have shown that passengers demand more flexibility and are more cost-conscious than before. To meet this demand, we have implemented several temporary and permanent changes that will make our propositions more flexible. For example, passengers can now temporarily suspend their season tickets. We have also developed several new discount propositions that we can launch as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows. Examples include the early reservation / off-peak-hours (Vroegboek) ticket, and the adapted group ticket (which is already available for passengers).
The number of passengers in 2021 was 48% of pre-pandemic volumes, when NS transported 1.3 million passengers on working days. The principal cause of this is the lockdown that was imposed in December 2020, when the government asked passengers to travel only when strictly necessary and advised commuters to work from home. After the measures were relaxed in the spring, passenger numbers recovered somewhat, thanks in particular to social and recreational travel. However, the recovery was less robust than expected. Many commuters in particular have not yet resumed travelling by train. Students however did return in our trains from the start of the 2021 academic year.
International travel did not begin to recover until just before the summer, and the upward curve flattened again by the end of the year. After the summer there was scope to increase the frequency of Thalys services to an average of ten trains a day, and in the autumn Eurostar scaled up from one to two trains a day. IC Brussels, the regional trains to Liège and Antwerp, ICE and IC Berlin operated a full timetable throughout the year. NightJet to Vienna/Innsbruck ran services in accordance with the timetable since it was launched in May.
Measures for passengers
In 2021 face masks were obligatory in our trains. For much of the year, the obligation to wear face masks and observe social distancing also applied at the stations, on the platforms and in shops. As in 2020, NS informed passengers about the measures in force via videos at the stations, in our trains and on the NS website, and via audio messages in the trains and at our stations. Wearing a face mask is a responsibility of our passengers and we call them to account over it. In cases where enforcement is necessary, this is a task for our Safety & Service staff and staff on our trains. In 2021 we were increasingly confronted by passengers who refused to comply with the COVID-19 measures.
In view of the increasing passenger numbers on our trains following relaxation of the COVID-19 measures, we launched a campaign in the first quarter of 2021 reminding the public of the need to properly prepare for a train journey. The campaign highlights the crowding indicator in the NS app and the possibility for passengers to register their journey using Treinwijzer in the NS app. Treinwijzer enables passengers to register their journey in advance if they wish, and find out how busy the train is expected to be. Following the relaxation of measures, in late September NS and ProRail began to remove the COVID-19 stickers at the stations. This operation was suspended in November, when the measures were tightened once again. The stickers did not return however at the stations and in the trains where they had already been removed.
During regular cleaning we devote special attention to contact points such as door handles and headrests, both in the trains and at the stations. Train toilets benefit from a more frequent supply of soap and paper towels. We have also installed mobile disinfection stands at several stations and in station shops.
Measures for NS employees
Our top priorities last year, as before, were to transport passengers in a responsible manner and to create safe working conditions for our employees. This was all the more relevant in view of the growing passenger numbers from mid-May. Support for our employees and the availability of sufficient resources to protect them against COVID-19 took centre stage. The flexible deployment of safety personnel contributed to a safe ‘reopening’ of Dutch society.
From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, NS formulated guidelines for its employees. Supplementing existing manuals, these guidelines describe the perspectives for action required to ensure that all our people can do their work safely.
NS office staff worked from home as much as possible, throughout the year. To support them we offered special home-working and ICT equipment, digital meeting and learning facilities and advice to help them remain physically and mentally healthy.
Riots in protest against COVID-19 measures
During riots in Eindhoven on 24 January, the station building was destroyed and a Jumbo supermarket at the station was looted. Fortunately, our colleagues and passengers were able to get to safety in time. The day's events left a big impression on them. The damage amounted to some €125,000. Windows, doors and shop fronts in particular were badly damaged. By order of the police, Eindhoven station was closed in the afternoon.
With the experiences in Eindhoven still fresh in our minds, we immediately took action when, on 19 November, the first reports emerged about riots in the centre of Rotterdam only a 10 minutes’ walk from the railway station. Colleagues and passengers were taken to a safe place and colleagues presenting themselves for duty were briefed. We also suspended all train services, closed off the station and enabled incoming travellers to leave the station safely via the back. Thanks to fast action and effective consultation, we were able to remain in control of the situation at Rotterdam Central Station and Rotterdam Blaak. Passengers did experience inconvenience, however.
From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, NS has always, from a sense of social responsibility, endeavoured to maintain transport services for people in crucial professions and other essential journeys. We collaborate with parties including the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, regional authorities, ProRail, other carriers and consumer associations to keep public transport services running in a responsible manner. Matters discussed over the past year include passenger perception of crowded trains, initiatives to spread passengers (clear communication, Treinwijzer), communication on the further scaling up of train services from May 2021, and the measures that were in place from the summer until the end of the year.
Our internal crisis management organisation (CMO) maintained external contacts with other carriers in OV-NL. The NS Corona Expert Team, part of the CMO, elaborated the measures into scenarios for implementation by the various business units. COVID-19 measures were on the agendas of all consultation platforms in which NS is represented on a regular basis.
In this platform, coordinated by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, NS collaborates with regional carriers, municipal and regional public transport organisations, passengers’ association ROVER, non-central public transport authorities and others. NOBV+ (National Consultation Platform for Public Transport) deals with issues such as scaling down and scaling up train services, measures at the stations and in the trains, face mask requirements, enforcement, bike-on-the-train policy, and adjusted timetables at schools and universities to help students avoid peak hours in public transport. In 2020, the government drew up a ‘Protocol for Continued Responsible Travel in Public Transport’.
NS is a member of OV-NL, a Dutch public transport sector association that looks after the interests of carriers. During the COVID-19 crisis, OV-NL serves as an important centre of information for media and other parties, for example on COVID-19 measures and safe travel. The OV-NL Security Working Group focuses mainly on enforcement and regulatory aspects of new measures and scenarios, and the associated coordination policies. In addition, it accommodates structural consultation with the police, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and, sometimes, the Ministry of Justice and Security. For example, this working group arranged the exemption from obligatory face masks for public transport employees: they can also wear a facial screen.
Survey: less travel after COVID-19 pandemic
NS and Delft University of Technology conducted six NS Panel surveys, starting in April 2020. The September 2021 survey among 18,185 respondents revealed that fewer and fewer passengers expect to resume their formed travel behaviour: only 37% of commuters, and 64% of recreational travellers. Nearly a quarter of respondents expect to travel by train less frequently than before the COVD-19 crisis, mainly due to home-working arrangements and increased use of private transport.
Commuters expect to be working from home on 2.2 days a week, on average, after COVID-19. In some sectors, especially government and services, this figure is even higher. Among commuters, Tuesdays and Thursdays look set to become the most popular travel days once things have returned to normal. NS faces the challenge of preventing overcrowding on such peak days. We attach great importance, therefore, to agreements with companies, educational institutions and other organisations on the days of the week most suitable for travelling. One striking finding was that despite passenger numbers rising from 36% in April to 65% in September (relative to 2019), respondents’ scores for crowding levels remained unchanged, with 31% stating they experienced the level as unpleasant. Where crowding was incidental, a high proportion of respondents (87%) decided to take that train after all. This suggests that crowding levels are no reason for passengers to opt for an earlier or later train.
Consequences for station projects and rental
A drop in passenger numbers has an impact on the revenue of businesses at the station and, by extension, on the rental income of NS Stations. The range of retail establishments at the stations has nevertheless remained virtually unchanged, and vacancy figures did not increase thanks to additional agreements on rent levels to reflect lower passenger numbers. Throughout the lockdown, one of our shops remained open at all stations to serve passengers on vital journeys. Scheduled maintenance was brought forward to further improve the overall appearance of our stations.
NS’s income this year is lower than expected and considerably lower than in 2019. Without the availability payment (beschikbaarheidsvergoeding) that NS received from the government, we would have incurred a loss on passenger transport of approximately €1 billion in 2021. The availability payment will stop as from September 2022. However, due to the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis, the lockdown and further COVID-19 measures it essential for this payment to remain available if we are to continue operating our timetable. The number of passengers did not increase in 2021 and was approximately 48% relative to 2019, compared with the 59% originally expected. This means lower income for the shops at our stations, as well as lower passenger revenues.
In order to be able to respond successfully to changing passenger needs and help NS regain its financial health, we will need to become a smaller, more effective and more agile company. We aim to improve results, digitise faster and respond more flexibly to changes in our environment. To achieve that, we are transforming NS into a smaller and more agile organisation that will enable smarter and more effective collaboration, strengthen our self-confidence and fuel our willingness to change. We will have to carry out more work with fewer people. 2,000 jobs will disappear over the next few years, This measure, which involves both internal and external staff, is expected, at the beginning of the reorganisation, to bring our head office costs down by 25%. Over the next few years, approximately 2,500 NS employees will retire. However, the jobs that will be lost or changed cannot simply be offset against those that will become available due to retirement, as they do not always concern the same positions.
Consequences for our foreign operations
Our subsidiary companies in the United Kingdom and Germany have also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For more details, read the chapter on Abellio.
The influence of COVID-19 on the annual report
Due to COVID-19, NS once again experienced a year that was different from previous years. This is also reflected in our non-financial results. KPIs such as seat availability and customer satisfaction have acquired a different dimension compared with pre-COVID-19 data. For example, several franchise KPIs have lost all relevance, albeit temporarily, while other results cannot be compared with those from the period up to 2020. This is why we have decided not to report on a number of results in this annual report, or to report less extensively or differently compared with previous annual reports. Where results have changed significantly, we only provide explanatory notes if the changes are attributable to causes other than COVID-19. By avoiding such repeated references to COVID-19 as the cause of major changes, we have been able to produce a report that is still pleasant to read.