The rail authority NMBS/SNCB has been criticised for its tough policy on collecting fines for fare-dodging, after a man with psychiatric problems was presented with a bill for more than 30,000 euros. The case was raised by Leuven city councillor Bieke Verlinden, who told Het Nieuwsblad how the man unwittingly travelled without paying for a ticket, and was caught several times. The problems did not stop there.
“He also didn’t know what to do with the letters that followed and the reminders,” Verlinden said. “The result? Bailiffs, debt collectors, and in the end he owed the NMBS no less than 30,374.60 euros.”
The 27-year-old, she explained, is trying his best to cope with the situation, and has entered into a collective debt repayment negotiation. “But debts to the government, including the NMBS, can never be written off,” she said. “So this huge sum is expected to follow him for the rest of his life.”
She is now calling on the SNCB and other government enterprises like Flemish public transport authority De Lijn to implement a more humane way of collection fines, “especially when it is clear they are not dealing with deliberate fare-dodgers, but people with psychiatric or serious social problems.”
Her call has been echoed by the anti-poverty charity Network Tegen Armoede. “The federal government promised to work on these problems, whereby small debts quickly grow to enormous sums,” said coordinator David de Vaal. “Sadly to date they have come to nothing.”
The association of Flemish communes has also asked for businesses like the SNCB to operate a more flexible system when it comes to debts.
The SNCB responded with a statement, which said the rules in force apply to all passengers. “But the SNCB does not pursue debts for the sake of it. When there are problems we ask customers to get in touch with our customer service department, so that a solution can be worked out.”