After ten years of waiting: finally a plan for the railway again

Successive Ministers of Mobility gritted their teeth on it, SNCB CEO Sophie Dutordoir called it her “biggest dream” when she took office, and with a ten-year delay, they were finally knocked down by the federal government today: new management contracts for SNCB and Infrabel. “We had to wait a long time for it,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo at the presentation. The contracts are the result of more than a year of negotiations between the top of the rail companies and the cabinet of Federal Minister of Mobility Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo).

1 Why are these contracts important?

In a management contract, the government and a public company jointly set out the lines for the coming years. Where should it go? What is the vision? What are the objectives? And what’s in return? The last contracts for NMBS and Infrabel date from 2008, when Inge Vervotte was still Minister of Mobility, and have expired since 2012. It means that the rail companies have been sailing without a compass for ten years now, without knowing where to go.

That is now coming to an end. Gilkinet speaks of a “historic moment”. Unlike the previous ones, the new contracts are not valid for a period of four, but for ten years. “For the first time in the history of the NMBS, a plan is ready for the long term,” says Dutordoir. Its importance can hardly be overestimated. The mobility challenges are enormous. If Belgium wants to achieve its climate objectives and bring CO₂ emissions to zero by 2050, a shift from the car to the train is indispensable.

But in recent months, the quality of the offer has taken a deep dip – with an increase in canceled, delayed and overcrowded trains, due to outdated equipment and understaffing. That trend must reverse.

2 Will the trains run more and more punctually as a result?

The new contracts, which will come into force on 1 January, will not automatically lead to a better quality of the train offer. But they do set ambitious targets. Over the next ten years, the number of kilometers traveled by trains in Belgium must grow by ten percent to just under 92 million kilometres. Trains will leave earlier and run later – up to an additional five hours a day in Brussels. Two trains per hour in each direction at almost every station, that will be the minimum offer. All this should enable NMBS to attract 30 percent more passengers.

But those travelers will only come if the reliability of the train also improves: if they run more punctually, are not canceled and are not overcrowded. In November punctuality reached its lowest level in four years. 15 percent of trains were delayed by more than six minutes. The ambition in that area – 91.5 percent punctual trains in 2032 – is lower than the ambition in the 2008 contract.

Whether it will be achieved will largely depend on the renewal of the rolling stock and the rail infrastructure. Both are in poor condition today and play a crucial role in the poor punctuality. Between now and 2032, half of the trains will be renewed, according to the contract. They will have more space for legs and bicycles, air conditioning, sockets and better mobile reception.

The contract also gives NMBS more options to set its own rates – something the company has been asking for for ten years. For example, it will be able to introduce lower rates during off-peak hours, in order to spread the crowds better over the day. Stations must become “vibrant meeting places”.. Freight transport by rail must also double in volume.

3 Are those beautiful ambitions affordable?

Over the next ten years, a total of no less than 44 billion euros in tax money will flow to the two rail companies. That is almost a tenth more than originally foreseen, but less than what the rail companies asked for. They indicated that they needed an extra 3.4 billion euros for the next ten years to realize the ambitions, the budget consultations ended at 2 billion, and the possibility to borrow 1 billion. The corona crisis, but especially the war in Ukraine, have a finger in that.

“We asked the rail companies for a Rolls-Royce plan and ended up with a Volvo: still very good,” says Gilkinet. “That’s still a lot better than a broken deux-chevaux like now.”

According to the minister and the rail CEOs, the adjusted budgets will have no impact on the long-term objectives, but will mainly be felt in the first two years. Investments at NMBS are being postponed, for example in more accessible stations, as is Infrabel’s necessary catch-up movement. Only after 2025 will the new contract really take off.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Infrabel CEO Benoit Gilson, Minister of Mobility Georges Gilkinet and SNCB CEO Sophie Dutordoir (left to right) sign the new management contracts for the rail companies. © Belgian

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