Sophie Dutordoir, CEO of Belgian railways NLBS/SNCB, has asked local, regional, and federal authorities to help tackle the growing safety and cleanliness problems at Brussels South Station, with around 60 000 daily travelers, one of Belgium’s busiest train stations.
The mix of many travelers, tourists, drug addicts, more asylum seekers, as well as empty buildings plus poor urban planning and a lack of security personnel, means that every year there are as many criminal offenses at Brussels South station as at all stations in the 13 Flemish central cities combined.
“NMBS/SNCB has neither the resources nor the power to handle this problem alone. Each partner must take responsibility,” Dutordoir says.
Integrated action plan
Specifically, in a letter to Brussels Capital Region Minister-President Rudi Vervoort (PS), Federal Minister of Mobility Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo), Federal Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden (CD&V), and the Mayors of Saint-Gilles and Anderlecht, Dutordoir asks them to work together to improve the safety and cleanliness of the South Station.
Dutordoir says NMBS/SNCB is already taking a lot of measures. For example, she points to an integrated action plan in which extra teams from Securail were deployed, or cooperation was created with the railway police. The CEO also points out that she is ensuring more cleaning in the South Station and physical adjustments to the station.
Urban planning leaves much to be desired
In addition, according to Dutordoir, the renovation of the former postal sorting center on Avenue Fonsny should also positively impact the entire neighborhood. However, these works have been dragging on for several years, and its vacancy – the building has been empty for almost 20 years – is a source of irritation for many residents and passers-by.
At the end of last year, the Brussels government granted the final urban development permit for the renovation and expansion of the site. By 2025, the NMBS/SNCB wants to transfer approximately 4 000 employees to these new headquarters.
And at the end of March, the Brussels government gave the green light to start the seventh urban renewal contract called “Around the South Station”, the first implementation phase of which will run from April 2023 to the spring of 2028. The project aims to improve the living environment around the station, for example, by redesigning the public space.
It’s like beating one’s head against a brick wall for now. For this reason, Dutordoir “urgently” asks the different partners to develop an initiative in the short term, bringing the parties concerned together to ensure an improvement. For example, NMBS/SNCB also favors housing the future police commissioner’s office, which would be located near Brussels South in the station itself.
Structural and proactive approach
Federal Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet “fully shares NMBS/SNCB’s concerns and the proposal to appoint a coordinating body for safety and cleanliness”. According to Gilkinet, it was decided by Interior Minister Verlinden in late July to organize a coordination meeting in August with the relevant police authorities and representatives of NMBS/SNCB.
“Instead of passing the buck, the different levels must better coordinate their actions to ensure safety and cleanliness, including in the area around the North Station,” Gilkinet says. “The international status of these two stations and the image they project on the capital of Europe deserve a structural and proactive approach from the various authorities involved.”
‘Police alone cannot solve it’
Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden encourages consultation between all local authorities, actors, and relevant police forces. Nevertheless, she says, “an initiative in this regard must come from the Brussels Minister-President, who has coordinating power to tackle this issue”.
She also points out that the Federal Railway Police is virtually at numerical strength in Brussels, and “during the busy summer period, it is additionally reinforced by other services”. According to Verlinden, however, we should not be blinded by the role of the police forces. She also points, for example, to the position of justice, education, the fight against poverty, and counseling by street workers.
Saint-Giles Mayor Jean Spinette (PS) is pleased with Dutordoir’s letter. Spinet wants to create a special international status for the South Station and strengthen police capacity.
Breeding ground for theft and extortion
Every year, as many criminal acts occur around Brussels South station as in all stations of the 13 Flemish central cities combined. So writes the newspaper De Standaard, among others, based on police figures.
In Antwerp, the number of criminal offenses varies between 648 and 853 in and around stations, mainly involving thefts. In Ghent, it is slightly more, peaking at 1 003 crimes in 2021.
In Saint-Gilles, the Brussels municipality where the South Station is located, however, in 2020 and 2021, it was about 3 500 crimes each time or about 10 per day. This is about as many as all 13 Flemish central cities combined.
The most common crimes in Brussels-South are theft and extortion, followed by drugs. The recent rise in crack use, for example, is causing more and more violent incidents there, while several gangs have also made the station their workplace.
Brussels-South closes around 1 a.m. every day. Only those with valid tickets can stay at the station then.