Rail boss warns for Brussels track congestion after EU-liberalization

The liberalization of the European railroad market is continuing, which will also be at the expense of the services of NMBS/SNCB. So says Belgians railroad company’s CEO, Sophie Dutordoir, who warns of congestion on the track if additional international operators track trains through Brussels.

“If two operators are added, ten public service trains will disappear during peak hours,” says the rail boss. “If even more are added, up to 50 public service trains will have to disappear.”

Brussels hub

Six operators want to track between Amsterdam and Paris via Brussels in the coming years. These are both high-speed trains and regular connections.

NMBS/SNCB and Dutch NS also plan to double their offering between Brussels and the Netherlands from the end of next year. In addition, France’s SNCF is studying an increase in trains between Brussels and Paris.

Last week, Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, also announced that it wants to attract new rail operators and plans to double the number of direct connections to Britain over the next ten years, including a London-Cologne-Frankfurt and London-Geneva line. The first connection is likely to go through Brussels as well.

Priority for international traffic?

In the short term, all these new international connections raise the question of how Belgian network operator Infrabel and Belgium will handle these various requests and what priorities will be applied to trains operated by public service providers, Dutordoir now argues.

Because additional international connections will indeed impact NMBS/SNCB’s offer. Dutordoir refers to the peak-hour train from Ghent-Dampoort to Brussels. To the displeasure of many passengers, this train has been running an hour earlier since last week, because it had to give way to a Eurostar.

Impact on punctuality

According to Dutordoir, rail congestion affects train punctuality in Belgium, especially at certain junctions, like the North-South junction in Brussels.

Up until October of this year, 88% of trains ran on time. Congestion had a negative impact of 2% on the punctuality rate, as much as the impact of obsolete equipment.

This congestion can also be seen in the statistics. Between 2010 and 2022, train mileage increased by 9,5% and the number of passengers by 18%. Meanwhile, only 1,4% of main tracks were added, and a quarter of the secondary tracks, which freight trains, among others, use to pass passenger traffic, disappeared. To be clear, NMBS/SNCB is under heavy pressure because of low train punctuality levels in recent months.

Cut in workforce

By 2032, when the current multi-year investment plan runs, NMBS/SNCB wants to expand its offer by 10%, which is possible on lines not subject to excessive congestion.

Moreover, NMBS/SNCB wants to expand the range of trains without increasing its overall costs, even though fares will be increased by 5,9% starting in February.

The company wants to achieve this by reducing its workforce by 6% over the next ten years. This concerns only natural redundancies. At the end of 2022, NMBS/SNCB had 16 638 employees. As far as operational personnel are concerned, the railway company remains committed to additional recruitment.

Dutordoir also fears that the next government will seek resources from the railroads to address the budget deficit.


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