Infrabel wants to paralyze rail traffic in Brussels for a month
From mid-October to mid-November, rail network administrator Infrabel has asked NMBS/SNCB to cancel 100 trains a day that cross Brussels. This is apparent from documents that the newspaper De Tijd/L’Echo was able to view. The proposal that ‘P-trains’ or peak-hours trains to and from Brussels should not be allowed to run is because Infrabel is in the process of renewing the infrastructure at Brussels-Midi.
The national railway company NMBS/SNCB says it is caught off guard. As a result, 68.000 commuters may not be able to travel to Brussels on their regular train for a month in the autumn.
Busiest axis in Belgium
After modernizing the switches and signaling system on the side of the North-South connection in 2017, it will be the turn of the south side of the station this autumn. Due to the works, a crucial phase in the ETCS Master Plan, the North-South axis must be completely closed during the extended weekends of 1 and 11 November. But to NMBS/SNCB’s surprise, it also appears that a great deal of inconvenience is expected from Monday 14 October to Friday 8 November.
Infrabel will have to secure 30% of the switches for Brussels-Midi, which means that fewer trains will be able to pass through the busiest axis in the country during this period.
1 in 4 commuters affected
According to NMBS/SNCB, Infrabel only announced the measure three months in advance. “The official letter was sent at the beginning of June, but NMBS/SNCB has been aware of the site for some time now,” says Infrabel spokesman Thomas Baeken. He emphasizes that it did not ask NMBS/SNCB to abolish all P-trains. “The works require choices to be made. It is up to NMBS/SNCB to tell us which P, IC or S trains it wants to discontinue temporarily.”
Of the more than 400 daily P-trains, 104 run through the capital. The trains in question have 91.000 seats and transport an average of 68.000 passengers per day. The measure will affect one in four commuters who travel to Brussels in the morning rush.
Overcrowded IC trains
Both public companies have been at loggerheads about the planning of works for years. According to the NMBS/SNCB, Infrabel often communicates late about the planned maintenance and takes little account of the impact on the passenger. According to Infrabel, the rail company always knows where work will take place six months in advance, except in unexpected urgent cases.
At the beginning of July, ten rail freight operators, under the leadership of Lineas (formerly NMBS/SNCB Logistics), also demanded more consultation in a letter to Infrabel. The passenger transport companies NMBS/SNCB, Thalys and Eurostar quickly joined the message. “Infrabel does not consult enough, we are too often presented with faits accomplis,” complained NMBS/SNCB spokesperson Dimitri Temmerman.
Everything is not yet lost. By mid-August, a working group has to look at alternatives for the autumn. According to current plans, NMBS/SNCB will be able to divert up to 20.000 passengers via the Brussels stations of Schuman, Schaerbeek or West. Other passengers may move to overcrowded IC trains.
According to Infrabel, it is still too early to talk about definitive figures for canceled trains, as consultation is still ongoing. Infrabel emphasizes that rail works are necessary and in everyone’s interests. “Doing nothing is not an option,” says Thomas Baeken. “Some 1.200 trains run on the busy Brussels North-South link every day. This means that for some of the trains (L, IC, or P-trains), a choice will have to be made. The offer must be adjusted to the available capacity.”
One single company
In a reaction, trade union ACOD Spoor asked for a new transformation of the Belgian railways into one company where a single CEO makes the decisions. “The communication between the two railway companies has been a structural problem at management level since the division of the railways in 2005, and is particularly visible in the punctuality figures and the lack of operational communication to passengers,” says ACOD Spoor.
Peter Thoelen of passenger organization TreinTramBus says that this is not the first time that a communication problem has been identified between NMBS/SNCB and Infrabel. “The passenger does not care much about the communication problems between the two companies and is once again the victim of it. It is becoming scandalous.”