Various mobility organisations have warned that the future of trains in Belgium and the safety of passengers are in peril, but the federal government says the alarm bells are being rung prematurely because the issues are still being discussed internally.
Passenger and consumer interest groups argue national railway operator SNCB and railway infrastructure company Infrabel are not receiving the necessary resources to guarantee high-standard service for passengers, which in turn is resulting in deplorable working conditions for staff members.
“Having received numerous testimonials from passengers, as well as informal contacts with railway staff in general, we are very concerned about the future,” TreinTramBus stated in a joint press release with Navetteurs.be and Test Achats.
They warned that some sections of the railway network are in such an advanced state of decay due to a backlog of maintenance work that they pose risk to the safety of passengers, and that the number of trains being scheduled isn’t rising to the same extent as the number of passengers has in recent months, resulting in overcrowded trains.
“We regularly receive testimonies from travellers who are concerned about being crammed into trains with limited capacity. This is partly due to frequent train cancellations. These increasingly frequent situations inevitably increase the risk of Covid-19 contaminations,” the associations warned.
Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet stressed that no concessions will be made about the safety of the passengers and that ongoing discussions will provide both SNCB and Infrabel “with a vision and a framework,” as set out in his policy note presented in parliament on Tuesday, which promises that from December 2021, the number of trains in the morning, evening and weekends will increase by 5%.
“I have already released more than €1.5 billion in additional support, through the investments for the railways under the Boost Plan and through additional compensation for the operating costs of the railway companies in the context of the Covid pandemic,” he said in a statement to The Brussels Times.
According to the associations, well-informed sources warned that the SNCB is considering the definitive abolition of some peak travel time services “due to a lack of financial and human resources,” however Gilkinet said that no services will be cancelled and that no lines will be closed, and that Infrabel is continuing its efforts to develop technical solutions to improve passenger and staff safety.
Gilkinet’s cabinet argued that through the organisations’ warnings, “alarm bells are being rung too soon.” They say ongoing talks between the government, SNCB and Infrabel focus on management, performance and public service contracts, and agreements will be made regarding how much funding the companies will receive and what’s expected in return in terms of the service provided.
“These negotiations need more time, but the idea is that a long-term vision will be formed and that decisions can be taken that will have a positive long-term impact,” Gilkinet’s spokesperson, Litte Frooninckx, told The Brussels Times, adding that a system has to be put in place so decisions are made sustainably.
“In this difficult context, we need to look wisely at how public money is handled, but our intention is to make a model shift to make railways the backbone of mobility, and we think this is only possible if supply and service are really top-notch, so people will opt for trains instead of their cars.”
Pandemic and floods
Gilkinet’s cabinet recognised that the railway companies want more funding and “that is understandable because, for years, budget cuts have heavily impacted them,” but said this is “a situation that we inherited and that we are now trying to reverse.”
She emphasised that aside from the systematic budget cuts made under previous governments, the current historical context has not been taken into account by the associations, referring to the coronavirus crisis resulting in a loss of income as fewer people travelled by train, and the deadly floods in July, which caused severe damage to Wallonia’s railway network.
“In addition to the resources provided for investments, the federal government provided financial support to compensate for the difficult context in which the railways companies were operating,” Frooninckx said, explaining that all these investments added up an amount of almost €1.7 billion in financial support.
“These investments are useful and indispensable to achieve our climate and economic objectives because an excellent train service is good for the climate, our economy, our health and our mobility. It may take some time, but we are on the right track,” Gilkinet concluded.