Day trippers on a visit to Ostend yesterday were faced with a long wait for trains because of a fault on the line to Bruges, leading to large crowds at Ostend station and a collapse of social distancing.
The problem affected one of the two lines from Ostend – one of the busiest coastal destinations for train travellers – to Bruges and the rest of the mainland.
To make matters worse, yesterday was billed in advance as the warmest day of the year so far, leading many people to decide to brave the crowds and the city’s beach-reservation system to spend a day at the beach.
But while the day in Ostend went without problems, the trip home tuned into a nightmare. The rail authority SNCB had to call in the police to clear the station, spokesperson Dimitri Temmerman said, as people stood packed shoulder to shoulder waiting for the few trains still running.
The fault was cleared up at around 21.30. “The situation was completely under control at about 22.30,” said Ostend mayor Bart Tommelein (Open VLD).
Now Tommelein is calling for the SNCB and federal mobility minister François Bellot (MR) to come up with an emergency plan to deal with such situations in future.
“We make plans based on trains that run,” he said. “If trains suddenly start not running, when there are so many people in Ostend, I think there should be an emergency plan that can be activated very quickly.”
“Dear tourists, Ostend was a disaster today, both on the beach and in the station,” said virologist Marc Van Ranst in a tweet later deleted.
“You can forget about the coronavirus, but the coronavirus will not forget about you. If we go on like this, in no time we will all be back in our homes under total lockdown in our Bermuda shorts!”
Tommelein meanwhile described the situation as ‘Murphy’s Law at work’ ("Anything that can go wrong will go wrong"), but criticised the public’s tendency to ignore the rules.
“I worry about people from the big city getting on the train to come to our city. I don't want to keep everyone away, because the situation can be controlled, but if you are with groups of young people who do not want to follow the rules and make it a day where they break the rules as much as possible, you will of course have problems.”
UPDATE: The SNCB later issued a statement.
“We are in touch with mayor Tommelein and his police zone to see how things developed yesterday,” said Temmerman.
“Because the police shut down train traffic for two hours, the number of travellers waiting for trains increased. The trains were able to run again at 9.30 pm. We initiated out emergency plan. We deployed extra capacity so that we could allow one train after another to leave, so as to get those travellers out of there. We also worked with the police to spread out the passengers over the different trains.”
The Brussels Times