Belgian rail operator NMBS/SNCB is struggling with obsolete rolling stock. According to the newspaper La Libre Belgique, 15% of NMBS/SNCB’s rolling stock is idle for repairs or maintenance, which has consequences for train punctuality. The problem is not new, but problems and delays in delivering new equipment are causing the problem to drag on.
In 2019, NMBS/SNCB estimated that the average age of carriages and locomotives in its fleets was 22 years. As a result, nearly 660 railcars could not be used daily due to repairs or maintenance. NMBS/SNCB promised that by 2021, the immobilization rate would not exceed one train in eight, or 12,4%.
Standard not met
And what turns out? For 2021 and 2022, that standard was just missed at 14,2%, or one train in seven. Thus, in 2022, a quarter of the A7577 locomotives and railcars, whose average age is 45, were at a standstill.
For the A08 transits, the Desiro that can be found on many IC lines and the most widespread on the Belgian network, the result was a stopping percentage of 8,7%.
The average short-term rolling stock maintenance cost was also 47 000 euros per transit in 2022.
Delay in delivery of new rolling stock
The unavailability of rolling stock naturally also impacts the punctuality of NMBS/SNCB trains. Last year, about a third of the railway company’s delays were attributed to it.
However, the fact that a locomotive or railcar is not deployable is not always due to age. Sometimes, the equipment needs to be updated or modernized, such as the mandatory installation of the European ETCS braking system.
Purchasing new rolling stock is the first factor in achieving the target percentage. In 2015, for instance, NMBS/SNCB ordered 751 new M7 transits from manufacturer Bombardier, acquired by French firm Alstom in 2020. However, the delivery experienced disruptions and delays due to the Covid-19 health crisis.
Today, 300 transits are in circulation. M7 will also be deployed between Liège, Namur, and Brussels within a few months. Other deliveries will take place until December 2026.
Of course, the question remains whether the preconceived standard can easily be met. After all, the ambitious new management agreement explicitly states that NMBS/SNCB wants to run more rides per day and thus attract 30% more passengers between 2023 and 2032. And defective trains in depots or late deliveries of new material are the sticks in the wheels.