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Belgian mobility minister eyes relaunch of free rail passes

© Belga

Belgium’s Mobility Minister said that a free rail pass schemed launched to boost local tourism amid the coronavirus pandemic could be followed-up by a sequel.

Speaking to the Belgian Chamber on Tuesday, Federal Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet lauded the Hello Belgium rail pas scheme as a “great success.”

“The rail pass was a great success,” a spokesperson for Gilkinet, a member of the ruling Francophone greens (Ecolo), told De Morgen.

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“We are now going to see whether it can be repeated and whether we can define a formula for this with the” national rail company SNCB/NMBS, they added.

Over 3 million people applied for a 12-ride rail pass when it was launched in September, which is valid from October to March of next year and which grants users two one-way trips per month free of cost.

Originally set to be launched in August, the release was postponed twice amid concerns from mayors in Belgian coast towns that they could lead to overcrowding in the beaches.

Gilkinet’s plans to press the reboot button has spurred concern among the ranks of the opposition parties, who have said that the free rail passes failed to give the coast’s tourism industry the boost that was expected.

“The original pass has completely missed its objective,” N-VA MP Tomas Roggeman said. “It was meant to support the tourism sector, but we now see that it is not used for that at all.

The MP’s comments echo complaints from the mayor of Ostend, who said that, with the second lockdown, local businesses in the coastal city were hardly benefiting from the arrival of rail pass users.

Pointing out the cost of the scheme, which totalled €110 million, the MP said that it would “be much more efficient to simply pump the money directly into tourism.”

Gilkinet’s proposal has also raised some eyebrows among its ruling coalition partners, with a lawmaker from the CD&V saying that, before moving forward with a second free rail pass scheme, the government should first compensate regular rail commuters who could no longer use their SCNB/NMBS passes due to the pandemic.

“Many daily commuters have seen their subscription expire while they had to stay locked in,” CD&V MP Jef Van den Bergh said. “They did not receive an extension to their subscriptions. We think it would be more appropriate to first work out a compensation scheme for them.”

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times