Underinvestment in Belgium’s public transport becomes major problem

Underinvestment in Belgium’s public transport becomes major problem
Thalys high-speed trains also got stuck during last week's heat wave. © Belga

The recent heatwave made it clear: Belgium's public transport fails to deliver when the temperature gets high. Meanwhile, a leaked infrabel internal audit shows that there is chronic underinvestment in public transport.

Last week’s heatwave was surely very uncommon for Belgium, but climatologists claim there will be more in the coming years. The consequences for (public) transport are disastrous. Trains are blocked, have no cooling or air-condition, trams can’t circulate, and roads are damaged.

Climate change

According to Flemish public transport provider De Lijn and Belgian rail company SNCB, everything needs to be adapted. “We are investigating climate change,” said Sonja Loos from De Lijn, “but we have to take extreme heat and cold into consideration.”

“It is clear that we can’t change everything. The current material has a life-cycle of 10 to 15 years. New, adapted criteria can only be implemented with the renewal of the material,” she explains.

There are also real physic problems to tackle. Extreme temperatures have a significant influence on metal. It shrinks when very cold; it expands when very hot. That influences the power line above tram or train, but also on the rails under them.

Passenger association TreinTramBus is not impressed by these arguments. They understand that the weather was extreme, but the clumsy reactions of both De Lijn and the Belgian rail cause major dissatisfaction among clients of public transport, according to New Mobility.

Chronic underinvestment

Meanwhile, a leaked internal audit of the rail infrastructure company Infrabel has caused great turmoil in the southern part of Belgium. Because of a recurrent lack of funding, Infrabel is thinking of closing small regional lines in Wallonia.

The leaked information provoked an immediate and violent political reaction. Practically all political parties emitted their objection to the idea firmly. The responsible federal Minister François Bellot has already reacted by saying that “the dismantling of smaller lines will not happen because it is simply illegal under current agreements.”

At Infrabel, they insist that this was only an internal study that ‘unfortunately’ leaked out. Analysts think the audit is a means for the Infrabel managers to attract political interest for their problems.

Already a year ago, Christine Vanderveeren, CFO of Infrabel, signaled the problem in the Federal Parliament. “In 2021, at the latest, we have to increase investments drastically. Otherwise, we will not be able to maintain the network anymore.”

One of the problems is also that financial means aimed to maintain or expand public transport are often diverted by politicians to solve problems elsewhere.

The Brussels Times

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