This autumn, some crucial decisions will be taken regarding the future of the Belgian railways. There will be a new public service contract with the NMBS/SNCB and a performance contract with the infrastructure manager Infrabel, supplemented by multi-year investment plans. Belgium finally has a rail policy again, but without the necessary people and resources, it threatens to remain nothing but words.
Belgium, like the other EU Member States, has committed itself to reducing its CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030. This objective can only be achieved by a modal shift. Rising energy prices, air pollution, increasing congestion on our roads and the major impact of road traffic on our quality of life are also reasons for choosing a different kind of mobility.
Because investments in railways and rolling stock have a long planning and implementation period, it is necessary to think in the long term. This philosophy lies at the heart of the Rail 2040 vision of Federal Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo). By 2040, the railways should account for 15% of passenger transport and 20% of freight transport, compared to 8% and 12% respectively today. The Minister wants to evolve towards a standard frequency of 2 trains/hour throughout the country and 4 trains/hour around the major cities and on the main axes. To achieve this, Infrabel’s already heavily used network will have to be used even more efficiently and adapted to the traffic flows.
Planning infrastructure in function of the desired train service, sounds logical but is not how it was done in Belgium until now. Only after the Antwerp north-south tunnel was opened, was it really determined which trains would run through it. In Switzerland, the process is reversed: the planned train service determines the infrastructure. Today in Switzerland, you can already look up how many and which trains are planned to run there in 2030.
The Integrato concept developed by civil society is based on the Swiss node model. The Swiss network is built around nodes that trains must be able to reach within a certain time period in order to meet and connect with each other in all directions. A train in Switzerland does not necessarily travel as fast as possible, but as fast as necessary to reach the connection node and the station entrances, platforms and walking routes for passengers are also dimensioned according to these connections. This concept is also feasible in Belgium, but requires adjustments to the network and timetable. According to Minister Gilkinet’s Vision 2040, the thorough study on the application of this concept to the Belgian network must be completed in the period 2023-2024.
Strengths of our rail network
Belgium has a historical investment backlog that we have been carrying with us since the 1980s, but on a number of points we score better than average in Europe. 90% of the Belgian railway network is electrified. In Flanders, there are only a few passenger rail lines with diesel traction around Ghent and Aalst; in Wallonia, only the Charleroi-Couvin line. With a network length of 3615 km, our network is also one of the densest in the EU, making it an excellent backbone for a hierarchical public transport network. After the dramatic train accident in Buizingen on 15 February 2010, railway safety became a top priority. As a result, we are also in the lead as regards the roll-out of the European train control system ETCS. Of our neighbouring countries, only Luxembourg scores better in terms of electrification and ETCS.
At the end of 2021, only 88 of the 555 Belgian stations were accessible to passengers with reduced mobility, i.e. with a platform height of 76cm, platforms accessible via ramps or lifts, an accessible ticket machine, guide lines and cobblestones for the visually impaired and reserved parking spaces. Belgium has been dragging its feet for far too long in choosing a single platform height, so that alongside old platforms of 28cm or less, you also find relatively recent platforms with a height of 55cm. As a result, 70% of today’s passengers board in a station that does not meet these criteria. By 2030, that number should increase to 181 stations and stops, so that almost 80% of train passengers can take the train in an accessible station.
Of course, an accessible station is of no use to you if a train stops there that you still can’t get into. Rolling stock has a life span of more than 50 years and, until the beginning of this century, trains were delivered in Belgium that were not optimally accessible. It will probably take until after 2035 before all Belgian trains are accessible. Once the latest M7 double-deck coaches are taken into use between 2023 and 2026, every NMBS/SNCB double-decker train must have one coach with autonomous access, where the access door can also be operated by the passengers themselves.
Another tricky point is the obligation to request assistance between 1 hour and 24 hours before departure. NMBS/SNCB still has a long way to go to ensure that a passenger in a wheelchair can travel as spontaneously and smoothly as any other passenger. France, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom are much more inclusive in this respect.
On average, Belgian rolling stock is older than in many other European countries. Although our summers are getting warmer, almost half of the Belgian trains still do not have air conditioning. Fortunately, this is usually the case in the driver’s cabin, but in the passenger compartments temperatures can rise to almost 40 °C on a hot summer day. The narrow 2+3 benches are also out of date.
On many lines, NMBS/SNCB makes no distinction between IC and S-trains, while you would expect more comfort on a journey from Ostend to Antwerp than from Beveren to Sint-Niklaas. The possibility to work while on the train could be an argument to get people out of their cars, but on a suburban train without a table, this is not possible.
Growth of offer
The corona crisis has made teleworking much more popular. Especially in the rush hour, there are still fewer travellers today. Due to the corona crisis, the total number of rail passengers in 2021 was more than 30% lower than in 2019. Recreational traffic, on the other hand, is strongly on the rise. For NMBS/SNCB, this offers opportunities to invest less in expensive rush-hour enhancements and to evolve towards a stronger basic all-day offer.
By 2032, NMBS/SNCB trains should cover a total of 92 million kilometres each year – about 10 million kilometres more than today. On weekdays, the number of trains will increase from 3800 to over 4200. They will depart earlier in the morning and continue later in the evening. Two trains an hour in each direction at just about every station will be the minimum. Around the major cities, it will be four trains an hour. The weekend service is also to be enhanced, a bit more on Saturdays than on Sundays. All this should enable the NMBS/SNCB to attract 30% more passengers.
Tickets and fares
Till now, the fare policy in Belgium is strongly regulated. The new contract gives NMBS/SNCB the freedom to set a number of fares itself – something the company has been asking for for ten years. For instance, it will be allowed to introduce lower fares during off-peak hours, in order to spread the traffic on the trains better over the day.
In the negotiations on the new performance contract, infrastructure manager Infrabel has clearly stated the quality of the network is in danger. Belgium has a long-standing tradition of saving on operating resources and investments are only assigned on a yearly basis, resulting in never ending engineering works. In order to fulfil its objectives related to safety, punctuality and accessibility, Infrabel insists on larger budgets. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Gilkinet can convince his colleagues to assign more money to Infrabel.
Belgium has high-performance high-speed connections to Amsterdam, London, Paris and Frankfurt, but classical international traffic has been greatly neglected in recent decades. A trip from Brussels to Luxembourg now takes more than three hours and the engineering works on that axis would only be completed after 2030. The connections from Antwerp, Ghent and Kortrijk to Lille are also very slow and cumbersome. The reopening of the Hamont-Weert railway line between Belgium and the Netherlands is a veritable procession of Echternach, although the Dutch are probably more to blame than the Belgians.
Minister Gilkinet makes no secret of his sympathy for night train connections, but so far it has mainly remained a matter of announcements, and the Brussels-Vienna night train has not yet been joined by other connections. The profitability of such trains, which sometimes respond to purely seasonal demand, is not self-evident, and finding suitable rolling stock is also very difficult. Only the Austrians have invested in specific rolling stock in recent years. In France and Germany, night-time services have been systematically reduced over the past twenty years. We can only hope that the plans for night trains to Milan, Prague, the south of France or Barcelona will become a reality. However, financial support for their operation seems to be a European rather than a Belgian task. We take it for granted that there is a European public road network. It should be just as self-evident that there should be a trans-European rail offer as a public service.
Word vs. budget
Both the railway vision 2040 and the draft public service contract 2023-2032 for the NMBS/SNCB contain a lot of good intentions. Minister Gilkinet deserves credit for outlining a coherent and ambitious rail policy, but now it is a matter of finding the necessary budgets. Together, the NMBS/SNCB and Infrabel would need an additional 3,4 billion euros over the next ten years. That is a lot of money, but not that much if you compare that budget with the annual tax rebate of 4 billion euros that our country gives to “salary cars” or the large amounts that go towards road projects. Moreover, a high-performance rail network is indispensable if we want to achieve our environmental and climate goals.
Kees Smilde and Stefan Stynen, TreinTramBus