Underinvestment public transport becomes major problem
The recent heatwave made it clear: public transport fails to deliver when the temperature gets high. Meanwhile, a leaked internal audit of Infrabel (rail infrastructure company in Belgium) also shows that there is chronic underinvestment in public transport.
The heatwave of last week was surely very uncommon for Belgium, but climatologists claim there will be more in the coming years. The consequences for (public) transport are disastrous. Trains are blocked, have no cooling anymore, trams can’t circulate, and roads are damaged.
According to Flemish public transport provider De Lijn and Belgian rail company NMBS-SNCB, everything needs to be adapted. “We are investigating climate change,” says Sonja Loos from De Lijn, “but we have to take extreme heat and cold into consideration.”
“It is clear that we can’t change everything. The current material has a life-cycle of 10 to 15 years. New, adapted criteria can only be implemented with the renewal of the material,” she continues.
There are also real physic problems to tackle. Extreme temperatures have a significant influence on metal. It shrinks when very cold; it expands when very hot. That influences the power line above tram or train, but also on the rails under them.
Passenger association TreinTramBus is not impressed by these arguments. They understand that the weather was extreme, but the clumsy reactions of both De Lijn and the Belgian rail cause major dissatisfaction among clients of public transport.
The worker unions at both companies agree with these critics. But they are also pointing at the recurrent investment problems. “The modernization of the rolling material has been postponed several times, and there are still too many trains without climate control,” is their claim.
Meanwhile, a leaked internal audit of the rail infrastructure company Infrabel has caused great turmoil in the southern part of Belgium. Because of a recurrent lack of funding, Infrabel is thinking of closing small regional lines in Wallonia.
The leaked information provoked an immediate and violent political reaction. Practically all political parties emitted their objection to the idea firmly. The responsible federal Minister François Bellot (MR) has already reacted by saying that “the dismantling of smaller lines will not happen because it is simply illegal under current agreements.”
At Infrabel, they insist that this was only an internal study that ‘unfortunately’ leaked out. Analysts think the audit is a means for the Infrabel managers to attract political interest for their problems.
Already a year ago, Christine Vanderveeren, CFO of Infrabel, signaled the problem in the Federal Parliament. “In 2021, at the latest, we have to increase investments drastically. Otherwise, we won’t be able to maintain the network anymore.”
One of the problems is also that financial means destined to maintain or expand public transport are often diverted by politicians to solve problems elsewhere. As long as this kind of transport is not considered a real priority, these financial problems will stay or even increase.