The board of directors of Belgian railway company NMBS/SNCB will soon consider a possible 5 to 6% fare increase early next year. The Rail Passenger Advisory Committee is already recommending that the indexation be postponed, mainly because of deteriorating services.
Until now, NMBS/SNCB has traditionally raised fares every year at the beginning of February. Last year, there was an increase of 9% on average. However, the new public service contract the company signed with the federal government stipulates that fares can now be indexed twice a year.
“Worse service than last year”
The Committee is not opposed to the principle of two adjustments per year per se, even though Belgium is in the top 3 most expensive European countries, but it does not consider early 2024 the right time to increase fares.
The main reason is that certain performance indicators at NMBS/SNCB are evolving badly, such as punctuality (train punctuality fell back to 86,7% in September, after a temporary improvement during the summer holiday) and the number of canceled trains – over the entire month of September, for example, 3 561 train journeys were completely or partially abolished, 3,7% of all trains.
“Passengers are getting a worse service than last year”, says committee chairman Dirk Lauwers, a professor at the University of Antwerp.
The gap in fare policy
In addition, the Train Passenger Advisory Committee, which includes representatives of trade unions and employers, passenger and environmental organizations, cyclists, young people, and senior citizens, notes that regional transport companies do not adjust their fares (such as De Lijn and TEC), or only index them for the first time in several years (MIVB/STIB). “The gap in fare policy between public transport operators is thus only widening”.
Finally, the prices of petrol and diesel have fallen sharply over the past year, which means that indexing train fares “risks reducing the competitiveness of the train versus road transport” and there would therefore be fewer train passengers.
Call for fundamental fare reform
In the advice, the committee calls on NMBS/SNCB to index fares in the autumn at the earliest, even if the jump would then be greater than 5 to 6%. “We understand that such a postponement would mean a loss of revenue for NMBS/SNCB, but we suggest that it seek compensation from the federal government for this”, Lauwers says.
A decision by NMBS/SNCB’s board of directors is expected during November.
Minister of Mobility Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) would not comment for now. Reactions in political circles are rather lukewarm, according to the news agency Belga. However, it does quote MP Joris Vandenbroucke (Vooruit). The latter would much prefer the committee to look into a fundamental fare reform.
“Public transport, and the train in particular, is far too expensive for the leisure traveler”, says Vandenbroucke. “There should be a much cheaper, flat-rate fare for using public transport across the country.”
Meanwhile, the railway unions have also announced they will strike for 48 hours each in November and December. The strike comes out of dissatisfaction with the course of negotiations on internal reorganizations.
In December, NMBS/SNCB will also start the first phase of its plan to expand its train offer significantly despite staff shortages. The railway unions point to the growing problem that there are far too many managers at NMBS/SNCB but that the workforce ‘on the ground’ is constantly diminishing.