The punctuality of Belgian public railway company NMBS/SNCB’s trains fell to the lowest level in five years last year. More than 46 000 trains were also canceled, a record. “This is not what passengers are entitled to,” the rail operator and NMBS/SNCB responded.
Specifically, 87,5% of trains arrived at their final destination or in Brussels on time with no more than six minutes delay last year – down from 89,2% in 2022. However, that punctuality rate does not take into account the canceled trains. Including those abolishments, punctuality reached 84,6% – down from 86,4% in 2022. That means over one in seven trains were delayed or abolished by at least six minutes last year.
If you look at the cause of delays, 39% are not directly the fault of railway manager Infrabel, NMBS/SNCB, or any other rail operator. These include delays caused by track walkers, accidents at level crossings, cable thefts, aggression against train staff…
Weather is another such external cause. For instance, the passage of storm Ciarán in early November led to nearly 44 735 minutes of delays due to a speed limit of 80 km/hour and 1 383 canceled trains.
Yet 36,6% of delays were attributed to NMBS/SNCB last year, mainly due to delays in the delivery of new M7 double-decker trains. “Supplier Alstom is facing a delay of two and a half years on those deliveries,” says NMBS/SNCB spokesperson Dimitri Temmerman. “About half of the 750 carriages we ordered are now in service. But we currently have a quarter fewer carriages than initially planned.”
As a result, NMBS/SNCB has to use older trains for longer, and they are more prone to breakdowns. If all goes well, all M7 carriages should be delivered by the end of 2026.
Rail network operator Infrabel is responsible for a fifth of delays (19,8%). These are rail infrastructure breakdowns, such as switches, signaling, or overhead wires.
No bonus with low punctuality
Infrabel and NMBS, who received a third more complaints from dissatisfied passengers in 2023 than in 2022, a record number, acknowledge that the punctuality is inadequate. “Our apologies. It must improve, and it will improve,” says Infrabel spokesperson Frédéric Petit.
The priority of both NMBS and Infrabel for 2024 is, therefore, to get that punctuality back up and make it conform to the objectives set out in the public service contract, namely timeliness between 89 and 91%, measured without canceled trains.
Punctuality is also a criterion included in a bonus-malus system, whereby NMBS/SNCB can lose or gain up to a maximum of 5 million euros in public funds.
Congestion on rail network
More generally, NMBS/SNCB also points to the impact of increased rail network congestion on punctuality. “We notice that the railway system is under such pressure that when there is an incident, there is much less margin to deal with. That creates a knock-on effect on other trains and thus leads to additional delays,” Temmerman says.
The increased congestion is there because train supply has expanded dramatically in recent years, with both domestic and international trains. In contrast, the rail network has grown much less over the same period. According to NMBS/SNCB, similar probers present themselves in neighboring countries.