Belgian rail sees 7% more passengers in 2023

Last year, Belgian public railway company NMBS/SNCB carried 244 million train passengers, 7% more than in 2022. After the Covid-19 years, this is the second consecutive year of growth.

Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) says the figures confirm “that we are on the right track, even if there is still work to be done, especially concerning punctuality and accessibility”.

With 89 million users, commuter season tickets (+8% compared to 2022) remain the most popular among travelers. However, telecommuting still makes their numbers lower than in 2019. This is followed by sales of single tickets or ten-ride passes, accounting for 77 million travelers, up 8% compared to 2022. Commuter school traffic is third in line, with 64 million young people using the Student Subscription (+6%).

More leisure travel

On weekdays, NMBS/SNCB now sits at an average of 96% of the number of travelers in 2019. Still, remarkably compared to that period before the coronavirus pandemic, there are now 10% fewer travelers during morning and evening rush hours. On the other hand, the number of train passengers is now 10% higher during off-peak hours.

This shift is presumably related to telecommuting and the growing popularity of trains for leisure travel. Occasional travelers are likelier than commuters to take a train outside peak hours. The trend of more leisure travel is also evident during weekends and school holidays: on weekends, for example, there are 20% more train passengers than in 2019.

The busiest day on the railways is Friday. There may be fewer commuters in the morning – the busiest morning rush hour is on Tuesdays – but this is more than compensated by the evening rush hour onward by students living in digs on their way home or people taking the train for a trip.

Still 56 million more passengers to go

“More people on the train is excellent news in several respects: for our climate, for our health, for road safety, for our economy, and for reducing traffic jams, which cost us 5 billion euros every year,” Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet stated.

But much work remains to be done. In particular, “to strengthen the reliability of the rail network and improve services for passengers, especially in terms of punctuality and accessibility,” Gilkinet said.

“We are working on that every day,” quoting the massive recruitment of staff (1,300 new employees are being sought), the ordering and commissioning of new rolling stock, and the renewal of the railway infrastructure. “And with the new transport plan now in force, passengers will benefit from improved services.”

By 2032, NMBS/SNCB aims to increase the number of passengers by 30% compared to 2022, partly by increasing the trains on offer by 10%. Back in 2022, 227 million passengers were carried. So that means the number of passengers should reach 300 million by 2032.

So, 56 million additional passengers must be attracted in nine years, or 6.2 million additional travelers annually – or 17,000 additional passengers daily – without losing loyal rail passengers. This is pretty ambitious.

Higher fares

From February 1st, NMBS/SNCB is raising most fares by 5.9%. These include the prices of standard tickets, season tickets, and multi-journey tickets. According to the National Labour Council and the Central Council for Business, indexing fares while worsening service quality is not conducive to getting more people on trains.

NMBS/SNCB has recently received much criticism because many ticket offices have shorter opening hours.

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