Belgium: how labour unions fight for better railways
October, its rain, its dead leaves… and its budget negotiations. All public services are expecting to see their budgets cut in these times of crisis. But for the railways, the stakes are particularly high. The government must decide on the resources it will grant to SNCB and Infrabel for the next 10 years. Without additional resources, 700 km of lines are at risk of disappearing. But the railway workers and their unions are organising resistance.
While global warming is increasingly threatening, the issue of public transport in general and the railways in particular has never been so topical. However, the state of the railways in Belgium today is catastrophic, far from the ambitions that should be theirs, and unworthy of a rich country like ours.
Refinancing or abandonment: the railways at a turning point
“Yesterday, I had to stay overnight in Brussels: all the trains to my home in the Centre region had been cancelled. It’s the same thing every day”. Nicolas (not his real name) is a commuter friend. His stories of cancelled, late or overcrowded trains are heard every day.
Is this just a feeling Nicolas has? Not at all. This year, more than 22,000 trains have been cancelled outright. 1 in 30 trains. A record. Punctuality has also gone down, after a revival during the Covid period. The fault lies in years of disinvestment and a glaring lack of personnel.
Faced with these facts, Mobility Minister Gilkinet (Ecolo) promises better days ahead. Before the summer, the minister and the railway companies negotiated the objectives of the Belgian railways for the next 10 years, via a so-called ‘public service contract’ for SNCB (the company that runs the trains) and a ‘performance contract’ for Infrabel (the company that manages and maintains the rails).
But these objectives are far from ambitious: only 9 out of 10 trains on time, new ticket office closures, fare increases, the end of the large family card…
Even the increase in the number of trains (around 10%, or 1% per year) is far from the ambition needed to fight the climate crisis and offer an alternative to the car.
Those who know the railways from inside do not see how these objectives (which are not very ambitious, it should be remembered) will be achieved with the announced loss of 2,000 jobs on the railways. Especially when we see today that the SNCB does not even manage to provide 100% of its services… Doing more with always less remains the liberal recipe applied to all public services for over 30 years.
Minister Gilkinet and the CEOs of SNCB and Infrabel are therefore asking for additional resources for their management contract projects. But it is possible that this little ambition will not even be achieved.
To achieve this, the railways need an additional 3.4 billion euros (over 10 years, i.e. around 340 million euros per year). Without these additional resources, the railways will face a disaster scenario. The head of Infrabel has already warned that 700 km of lines will be under threat. For users, this means a further deterioration in service quality.
There is in fact a third option: that of an ambitious development of rail and public transport.
There is no reason why railway workers and users have to accept the minister’s plans. There are many examples from abroad that show that “train” can be synonymous with “ambition”, “quality” and even “free”.
Switzerland, for example, holds the record for the number of passengers: it is the European country where people take the most trains to get around: 14% of all journeys are made by train, compared with 8% in Belgium. This did not come out of nowhere. Switzerland has dug into its splendid mountains, developed robust infrastructure, and carried out investment plans over 20 or 30 years.
Switzerland (8.6 million inhabitants) has three times as many stations as Belgium (11.6 million inhabitants). The different public transport systems also work together, in contrast to Belgium, to offer users the best possible service.
Other interesting experiments have also been conducted recently to attract users to public transport. This summer, in view of the explosion in fuel and energy prices, the German government decided to offer a monthly ticket for only 9 euros to travel on all regional transport. 52 million tickets have been sold, an unprecedented success. In environmental terms, the 9-Euro-Ticket means 1.8 million fewer tonnes of CO2 than normal. Cleaner air, therefore, especially in large cities and on weekdays.
Neither Switzerland nor the German experience is perfect. But they do show that an alternative to the government’s plans is possible…but it won’t fall from the sky.
In addition to these budgetary pressures, there is the soaring cost of energy.
Indeed, the explosion in energy prices has a direct impact on the finances of railway companies: €100 million more in bills for the SNCB alone (which is also the Belgian company that consumes the most electricity). An additional hole in an already negative budget. It is impossible to propose ambitious investments to improve train traffic or the development of freight transport with shaky finances.
This price explosion also has an impact on the working conditions of railway workers. As for many workers, the bills, petrol charges and proposals for regularisation are taking on such proportions that many families find themselves unable to pay them. More and more voices are being raised to demand a real increase in the purchasing power of railway workers. And for good reason: railway workers have not received a pay rise for 14 years!
That’s why, in addition to their sectoral action plan, the railway workers are also following the interprofessional action plan and the demands to block energy prices and unblock wages. The next meeting is the general strike on 9 November.
The railway workers have waited too long
Poor service, underfunding, understaffing, deteriorating working conditions,… The situation has become too serious, in all areas. The railway unions then took their responsibilities. After the success of the strike on 31 May, discussions between the unions took place and on 20 September they presented an ambitious action plan as a common front (CGSP Cheminots, CSC Transcom & SLFP).
The objective of the common front is clear: to defend a substantial refinancing. A refinancing that will allow the recruitment of sufficient railway workers to ensure the public service missions of the railway. Not the daily minimum service imposed on passengers, but an optimal public service, a real alternative to cars and trucks. Refinancing that will also improve the working conditions of railway workers. Whether it is the wages that have been frozen for 14 years or the holidays that have been refused, the railway workers deserve to see their daily sacrifices rewarded.
The 5th of October is the first step in a fight for the future of the Belgian railways. Railway workers and passengers have everything to gain.
This text has been first published in French on Solidaire site, who is Cross-Border Talks’ partner in transform!italia-led Media Alliance.
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