From March 1st, opening hours will change in almost all Belgian railway stations where there are still ticket offices. No ticket office will remain completely closed, but opening hours will be reduced in all but four of the 91 stations where there are still ticket offices.
The Belgian public railway company wants to use its ticket office staff more efficiently, involving them at busy times at the ticket machines, for example. Parliament has little sympathy for the decision. “This goes against the spirit of the agreements,” say just about all parties.
Closed after 8 p.m.
Last week, the NMBS/SNCB was still discussing changes at 54 of the 91 stations with ticket offices at over 550 stations and stops. These included 33 stations where ticket offices such as De Panne and Genk will no longer be open at weekends. In other stations, the ticket offices will close on Sundays (Denderleeuw, Tienen…) or will only be open in the mornings during the week (Aalst, Hasselt, and Lier, among others).
But more ticket office opening hours appear to be adjusted. In the list that Belga news agency was able to see, there are only four stations with ticket offices where nothing will change in early March: Eupen, Kapellen, Puurs, and Wezet.
In some other stations, the opening hours shift, but the ticket offices remain open for the same length of time each day during the week. This is the case in Blankenberge, Spa, and Tongeren, among others.
In the other stations, opening hours are shortened. The ticket offices often open later in the morning or close earlier in the evening. For example, ticket offices will be open after 8 p.m. in no station except Brussels-Midi (a hub for international trains).
In major stations like Antwerp-Central, Bruges, Brussels-North, Brussels Airport, Ghent-Dampoort, Ghent-Sint-Pieters, and Leuven, ticket offices will be staffed at least two hours less each weekday. In the busiest Walloon station, Namur, it will be one hour.
Sharp increase in digital sale
According to NMBS/SNCB, the interventions are due to “the sharp increase in digital sales”. For example, only 10% of tickets are now bought at a ticket counter; in 2015, it was half that. Back then, though, there were more stations with ticket counters. The rest of the sales are mainly made at the ticket machine or via the app.
To be clear, no ticket counters will be closed entirely in any station in March – in 2021, as many as 44 ticket offices were closed. Waiting rooms will also remain accessible, and where there is assistance for persons with reduced mobility, it will be retained.
On Wednesday, the reduction of ticket office opening hours also came up for discussion in the Parliamentary Committee on Mobility. Several MPs felt that with the interventions, NMBS/SNCB is at least going against the spirit of the public service contract between the government and the railway company.
“You stated quite explicitly when the management contracts were concluded that there would be no more closures,” Jef Van den Bergh (CD&V) addressed the minister. “A reduction in opening hours may not be a closure, but it goes against the spirit of what you said then.” Although, according to him, the decision does not come entirely out of the blue either – “the efficiency gains also have to happen somewhere.”
“This is about much more than just the ability to buy a train ticket,” denounced Joris Vandenbroucke (Vooruit). “It is also about social safety and the need for human contact.”
Frank Troosters (Vlaams Belang) reproached NMBS/SNCB for adopting circular reasoning in increased online ticket sales. “This is something that NMBS/SNCB itself organizes,” he said. “The worse NMBS/SNCB performs, the more arrogant it acts.”
Reduction in services for train passenger
The NMBS/SNCB unions speak of reduced services for train passengers. The socialist union ACOD Spoor compares this to the weather forecast on television. “Everyone has an app to follow the weather at the minute, yet everyone watches the weather forecaster on TV,” the union says. Even at the railways, “everyone is asking staff for confirmation”.
Still, according to ACOD Spoor, NMBS/SNCB has agreed to consult on the adjustments. “We want clarity on the future of the staff involved and the impact of this cutback measure on passengers, especially those with reduced mobility. Indeed, according to NMBS/SNCB’s ‘services in stations’ project, ticket office staff will support those travelers.
According to the travelers’ organization TreinTramBus, this decision once again excludes the weakest in our society: travelers who do not have the Internet at home or are not digitally literate.
“The social function of public transport is coming under increasing pressure,” says TreinTramBus in the newspaper De Standaard. “We also saw this in recent weeks with the basic accessibility of De Lijn.”