On December 10th, Belgian public railroad company NMBS/SNCB will start the first phase of its plan to expand its train offer significantly. In the first phase, however, the expansions remain limited.
The extensions are part of the 2023-32 public service contract that NMBS/SNCB signed with the federal government at the end of last year, aiming to increase the number of passengers by 30% by 2032.
Passengers can already see what will change for them through the travel planner on the website and the app. Tricky point: the NMBS/SNCB still has to cancel rides due to staff shortages.
Plus 2 000 trains weekly
The new transport plan, which is being rolled out in four phases, covers the period December 2023 to December 2026 and should increase the number of train kilometers traveled during that period by 7,4%. According to the railroad company, this is the most ambitious plan ever. By the end of that period, there should be 2 000 more trains running weekly, including 720 on weekends. More than half of the stations, namely 280, will have improved supply by 2026.
The first expansion will be felt mainly in Wallonia, where the Charleroi airport will be made more accessible via the renovated Fleurus station. Seven days out of seven, an IC train will run every hour in both directions between Leuven, Fleurus, and Charleroi-Central. The train will also stop in Heverlee, Wavre, and Ottignies. In and around Liège, the S (suburban) offer will also be reinforced during the week.
One new feature in Flanders is that the Noorderkempen station will have a second train per hour to and from Antwerp-Central all day on weekdays. Now, that second train only runs during the morning and evening rush hour. Also, the S53 train between Ghent and Lokeren will run again and will be extended to Oudenaarde on weekdays.
Three S53 trains will still not run in the new timetable because there are not enough tracks available due to work at the Ghent-Sint-Pieters station. As a replacement, the IC train between Antwerp-Central and De Panne will exceptionally stop in Beervelde when there is no S53 train.
Still cuts in the suburban offer
The fact that those S53 suburban trains have not been running for some time has everything to do with personnel shortages. That problem, which NMBS/SNCB has been struggling with for some time, has still not been eliminated as the railroad company is cutting back on the supply elsewhere.
Some P-trains around Geraardsbergen, Ghent, and Oudenaarde will be temporarily out of service, and some low-occupancy P-trains will also stop running due to the increase in telecommuting. The S32 between Puurs, Antwerpen-Central, and Essen will also run less frequently than planned.
Still shortage of train conductors
“We have recruited more than 350 train conductors this year,” says spokesperson Dimitri Temmerman. “But in some regions, especially in Flanders, it remains difficult to find enough people.”
The train conductors also need to be trained before starting work, and a training course quickly takes a year. NMBS/SNCB continues to recruit. Last weekend, a particular job train traveled through Flanders.
For this year, NMBS/SNCB is still looking for candidates for some 200 vacancies. These are mainly operational positions, such as train conductors, drivers, technicians, safety officers, or station personnel. More than 1 400 new colleagues have already been selected this year.
Meanwhile, social unrest is also looming. The unions have started an alarm procedure because the NMBS/SNCB management wants to reduce the start-up time of train conductors. Such a procedure is the last step before a possible strike announcement. An ultimate reconciliation meeting will take place on Wednesday.
According to the unions, the management unilaterally decided before the summer that the start-up time – the ‘sign on’ time – would be halved from 20 to 10 minutes. The unions disagree with the decision, which is supposed to increase productivity, and believe that train attendants need 20 minutes. For example, to synchronize applications, top through new rules or messages, have contact with cadres or colleagues…
The management also proposed a compromise, whereby the start-up time would first be reduced to 15 minutes and only within two years to 10 minutes, but the unions refused. Reportedly, in various other European countries, a 10-minute start-up time would be expected.
‘Service not up to standard’
According to CD&V MP Jef Van den Bergh, the quality of service provided by NMBS/SNCB has left much to be desired in recent months due to technical problems, outdated equipment, and staff shortages, making it unrealistic to expand the supply.
“This leads to abolished trains, shortened routes, or reduced capacity,” he says. “I don’t think expanding supply under those circumstances is realistic. The priority now must be to get the service in order in the short term.”
Federal Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) said it is “an absolute priority” to attract more train passengers. “To do that, we need to offer a quality service, with a substantial increase in train supply: more trains, later in the evening and earlier in the morning, including more frequent trains on weekends.”
Gilkinet points out that a 10% increase in transport services is included in the 10-year contract the government signed with NMBS/SNCB.