François Bellot: ‘Belgian rail has too many pen-pushers’
In an interview with economical newspaper L’Echo, Belgian federal Minster of Mobility François Bellot (MR) says that at his age, he can speak “without mincing matters“. Like saying the “SNCB/NMBS has too many pen-pushers sitting at a desk and too few people in the field” or Brussels should have to work at night at its tunnels.
In a world of confrontations and where a little phrase can fuel polemics this man is a UFO, L’Echo writes. Where others are climbing barricades easily, Bellot always stays calm.
“It’s not that I didn’t inherited a portfolio in which it’s easy to get agitated”, Bellot says. Traffic jams, restructuring Belgian railways, the Regional Express Net,… there are numerous reasons to get nervous.
“I’m an engineer and what I like to do is organizing. They can make me Minister of Justice, I wouldn’t go for the content, but what interests me is that things are running fine”, Bellot says.
Modernizing Belgian railways
“We’ve come to the end of a certain logic with the SNCB/NMBS. In the eighties it was all about massive movements of blue collar workers and goods. The rest was the car, my freedom. Today social movement towards public transport is enormous. People ‘endure’ mobility rather than benefit from it, in cities but also on the countryside”.
“The role of the public rail company is to adapt to this new daily habits of people. We’ve studied the matter and the priority of SNCB/NMBS should be the passenger. This sounds like a truism, but it isn’t. The traveller isn’t always at the centre of concern at the SNCB/NMBS.”
More operational people needed
“I don’t want to provoke, but there are way too much pen-pushers at Belgian railways, while we need more operational people. Sometimes four or five people at an office desk are doing work that could be done by a computer. Listen carefully, I don’t want to liquidate staff, I want to balance things and that’s what our recruitment is showing. Digitizing has to be pushed. And autonomy too.”
“I hear the CEO (Sophie Dutordoir e.n.) wants to have more autonomy. I’ve got the message: the shareholder is the state and the minister is not operational in the company. I won’t be asked to choose the colour of the train tickets. I agree with more autonomy, but that won’t liberate her from her responsibilities”.
Let talent to express itself
Other parameter to consider: the railway network. “What kind of network do we want? How dense and in which direction? We have to adapt the internal rules. We still work like in the sixties. Rules are outdated, obsolete. Employees want to be heard, but today the system is stuck. We don’t let talent to express itself. We have to work on the internal democracy.”
Asked to comment on the social climate at the Belgian railways with a new strike in view on December 19th, Bellot replies: “I say things the way they are. I give you my short, medium and long term vision. What happens to me in 2019 (federal elections, e.n), I don’t care. I put things as I see it and ask to take some distance.”
Every Belgian family pays 650 euro
“It’s nice to have great ideas for the railroads, but if budgets are cut, wouldn’t that be contradictory? The budget is lowered with 1,2 billion euro, from 14,8 billion to 13,6 billion. But the railways are still costing the community a lot of money”.
“The effort asked in terms of budget is heavy, but indispensable. The moment a user enters the train, this costs 12,50 euro a head. Every Belgian family pays 650 euro per year to the SNCB/NMBS”.
Reinforce the offerings
“But in spit of the cuts, we offer 78 extra trains, including on Sundays. In twenty years time, this was never done before. Everything we are going to do is studied with the people on the field”. Bellot cites the figure of 120 demands of which 101 have been screened based on six criteria.
“69 projects are shortlisted, among which the 5,1% supplementary trains. The railways company embarks on maintaining the network, we with our billion euro take care of expanding the network. The Regional Express Network will be established”.
Not in favour of privatizing
Bellot, although being a liberal, is not convinced that privatization of the railways would be a solution. “I’m not in favour”, Bellot answers. “We have a rendezvous with European liberalization in 2023, that we can’t miss. Railway companies have to be ready and if not, it will become difficult I tell the unions. But a public company can modernize and stay public, that I believe.”
Confronted with some critics saying that one of the reasons for the mobility problems in Brussels, is due to the lack of sufficient trains, Bellot disagrees. “The ones telling you this don’t know a thing about it. The problem is more global. Car sharing can be an idea, but it’s not only Brussels. Antwerp is worse.”
Brussels’ tunnels: work at night
Bellot cites another example. “This story of the tunnels in Brussels that fall apart is known for a long time. They have scrapped the budget for the tunnels and in 2001, engineers warned already that this would become a catastrophe and nothing was maintained afterwards.”
Bellot does not think the essential problem is solved today. “There is no coordination in organizing the works. Pascal Smet (Brussels Mobility Minister n.e) tells me that workers are working at night. But every time I pass the tunnels in the middle of the night, I don’t see anyone on the construction sites. In the weekends neither.”
“When the viaduct in Vilvoorde was to be renewed, Flanders has mobilized its workers day and night to finish it, why can’t the Brussels’ Region do the same?”