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Burrowing badgers force weeks-long shutdown for Dutch trains

Rail officials in the Netherlands plan to excavate badger tunnels and relocate the unwelcome guests

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
3 min

ProRail, the government organization that manages the Dutch railway system, suspended service on a line in the southern province of Noord-Brabant this week. But there was no mechanical failure, no natural disaster, no labor dispute. For the second time this month, officials blamed burrowing badgers.

“The possibility of the [bedrock] of the train tracks collapsing and the derailing of trains is reason for us to shut down train operations,” Coen van Kranenburg, a ProRail spokesman, said by email.

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On March 13, ProRail halted operations between Workum and Stavoren after discovering an elaborate tunnel under the tracks by Molkwerum, a village on the Leeuwarden-Stavoren line in the northern province of Friesland. On Tuesday, another badger habitat was uncovered near Esch, a community on the line that connected Utrecht Centraal to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Officials stopped running trains at both sites out of safety concerns.

“Badgers are fabulous diggers. They have really strong forelimbs and long, stocky claws,” said Ame Vanorio, director of the Fox Run Environmental Education Center in the Badger State of Wisconsin. “I can see how their burrows would undermine the train track.”

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In the Netherlands, badgers are a protected species, so ProRail can’t just shoo them away. The railway manager must acquire an exemption to remove the animals and shut down their subterranean compound, which can measure more than 300 feet long.

On Wednesday, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency granted a waiver for the northern section. Work started early the next morning. Because the animals are nocturnal, all activity must take place during the day, when they are snoozing.

The first phase of the plan entailed constructing an artificial “castle” for rehoming the badgers and priming a grassy strip for a badger-resistant fence that, according to ProRail, will not interfere with breeding birds. It also erected mesh on the embankment and will place valves in the burrows that will act like turnstiles: The animals can exit but not reenter. If all goes as planned, the badgers will bunk down in their new habitat on the right side of the tracks.

On April 3, workers will remove a section of track and excavate any remaining tunnels. A veterinarian will anesthetize any holdouts. After a shelter stay, they will join their clan in their new digs. ProRail hopes to finish badger-proofing and repairing the track by April 24.

In Esch, ProRail is making similar preparations while it awaits an exemption.

The restart date “depends on a multitude of factors, among which whether time-consuming permits are granted,” Van Kranenburg said.

Until the routes reopen, travelers can rely on alternate transportation, such as buses in Friesland. On the Utrecht line, called the A2 corridor after the parallel highway, passengers can take intercity trains run by Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the national railway company.

“It seems capacity-wise this is enough for now, even in rush hours,” Van Kranenburg said. “It does, however, mean more travel time.”

ProRail routinely inspects its more than 2,000 miles of tracks for badger dens. Until this month, ProRail and badgers have coexisted without any major safety issues. Its website explains the railway system’s delicate relationship with the badger.

“The caves can cause dangerous situations and we must always monitor the safety of the track,” a Google translated version of the page explains. “At the same time, we are fans of nature. … We want him to be okay.”

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This isn’t the first time animals have rattled the railroad. In 2021, beavers dug beneath the track in Drenthe, interrupting service between Assen and Groningen in the northeast. Beavers, which are protected, are also a menace to tracks near waterways, where they build their lodges.