‘Giving a car per passenger is cheaper than keeping stations open’
For some train stations, it would be cheaper for the Belgian national company, NMBS/SCNB, to buy a car for all departing passengers than to keep the station open.
Although the company has the highest number of passengers since 1963, almost two out of ten Belgian stations have less than a hundred passengers on a weekday. That is shown by an analysis of the last passenger count carried out by NMBS/SNCB in October last year at all Belgian stations and stops.
Almost four out of ten (37%) have fewer than 200 passengers per day and at 45 stops, NMBS/SNCB does not even see 50 passengers on a weekday. The highlight is the Walloon village of Ham-sur-Sambre, where trains stop for eight people a day.
The closure of unprofitable stations and stops is met with political resistance, especially in Wallonia, where almost ninety of the hundred least used stations are located.
Many small rural stops or stations may no longer be manned and equipped with ticket machines, but they do need to be maintained. In addition, the NMBS/SNCB pays a fee to the railway manager, Infrabel, for every stop a train makes.
“These are actually artificial costs”, says a former rail top man, “but they’re high up”. Finally, a train also loses commercial speed by having to stop frequently. This is a tricky issue because punctuality is the rail operator’s Achilles’ heel – over the year 2018, only 87% of the trains were on time, the lowest percentage in five years.
Between the lines
In its recently published memorandum, NMBS/SNCB CEO, Sophie Dutordoir, asks politicians “for greater freedom with regard to our train services” and “to work together with other public transport companies to facilitate door-to-door travel.”
Anyone who wants to read between the lines will understand that the company would prefer to see some stations and stops closed. Such plans invariably clashed with political resistance.
Almost 1.000 stations closed
When he succeeded his predecessor Jacqueline Galant (MR) in 2016, Minister for Mobility, François Bellot (MR), promised that no more stations would be closed until the end of 2020. Note: since the construction of the railway in Belgium in 1835, almost 1.000 stations have been closed, of which about 400 in Flanders and about 530 in Wallonia.
In the draft of the new management agreement, which the newspaper De Standaard was able to see, the door was opened to remove stops “if the minister gives his prior approval”. But this management agreement has been in the works for years and it won’t be there before the May 26 elections either.
15.000 euro per passenger
As a public service provider, the NMBS/SNCB does receive subsidies to serve remote places, even if they are not profitable.
But a car instead of a station for those few passengers? “An average passenger costs the NMBS/SNCB about 2.000 euro a year”, says the former rail top man. “But on sparsely populated lines this amounts to 15.000 euro per passenger. It seems absurd, and economically it is more than a witticism, but yes, for that amount you could indeed buy a car.”