After two years of excellent punctuality figures, SNCB’s operational performance has derailed again: train cancellations are accelerating and punctuality is steadily deteriorating. Reason: Shortage of manpower. The structural nature of this shortage of staff will make it more difficult to achieve the objectives of the new, highly ambitious management agreement.
“These trains are not running today.” This announcement, travelers have heard more often in recent months at Belgian stations. Its frequency actually hides A deep problem that is getting worse by the month.
The number of canceled trains peaked towards the end of the first half of 2022. From January to the end of June, more than 8,200 trains were cancelled, according to our analysis of data published by Infrabell. In total, 21,856 trains did not run as planned in the last six months.
The deterioration of the situation is mainly due to SNCB’s staffing problems. About 4 out of 10 trains are canceled due to railway company specific reasons. In June, this proportion even increased to 49%.
A shortage of train attendants, drivers and security personnel is forcing SNCB to increase the number of unexpected train cancellations. An internal analysis revealed that 14.7% of trains were canceled without notice explaining staff absences. Company management calls for an increase in absenteeism and quarantine, while, for the unions, it is a structural problem due to the lack of adequate budgetary means.
To remedy this, at least in part, SNCB will take on a total of 1,300 new employees this year. More than half of those positions have already been filled, with its spokesman, Bert Krolls, noting that “it takes a bit of training before the new recruits actually enter the service”.
at the same time, SNCB will cut around 2,000 jobs through “natural exits” over the next few years. Staff leaving the company (those retiring or resigning) will not be replaced. Today, the list of starters is already much longer than the new recruits, observe SNCB employees. According to the Socialist Railway Union, in 2021 alone, the number of departures exceeded arrivals by more than 1,100 units. Over three years, the net loss of employees amounted to 3,500.
“We can be concerned about the fact that half of the candidates drop out after their training.”
“We are aware that SNCB faces a job market where it is not easy to find good candidates”, admits Joachim Parmentier of the Independent Railway Workers’ Union (SIC). “But it is alarming that half of the trainees drop out after their training. This time, train drivers and train attendants discover that they can never take leave in the first years. This discourages them.” Bart Krolls answers that seniority does not play a role in taking long vacations. “But if an employee takes three consecutive weeks off in one year, we take it into account the next year.”
For the union, it is explained by the lack of workers Abolition of the famous “rocksack” system Which, for years, allowed train workers to accumulate rest days and receive compensation before retirement. The Social Inspectorate has given SNCB formal notice to reduce this number of overtime hours by June 2024. However, in certain regions, employees have accrued leave up to 2 years. Which SNCB will therefore have to grant for a short period of time.
otherwise, Partial train cancellations are more frequent than in the past. An engineer explains it this way: “Today, the SNCB does not always succeed in creating a reserve of drivers and escorts, especially on weekends”, explains an engineer. “Result: When a driver/attendant called to take over from a colleague at a major station is absent, the train cannot continue on its way and chaos ensues. Central planning tries to find a replacement. But, despite a bonus of 80 euros , answered a few calls.
Safety at risk
The problem of understaffing also affects safety. For workers: Attendants have long complained of an increased risk of aggression. And for equipment: Maintenance of trains and tracks suffers from shortage of technicians Not to mention the increasing workload at Infrabel’s signaling booths, which increases the risk of errors.
The new train departure system, called LINDA, did not help matters From now on, the guide has to signal to the driver via smartphone that the train can leave. But this system has some failures, while “the old system with special keys on the platform worked perfectly well”, underlines a train driver. “Specific Consequences: In the first five months of the year, there were 12 signal passages, precisely the patterns of events that could lead to disaster Such as Buijingen (19 killed in 2010 collision between two trains, editor’s note). And LINDA is still used for a small fraction of all trains. It’s a miracle that nothing serious has happened yet. “
“We can even speak of a breach of contract on the part of the railway company: the user can no longer trust the timetable.”
These internal problems have direct consequences for travelers, as underlined by TreinTramBus, the Flemish association (part of the French-speaking side of Navetteurs.be) that protects the interests of public transport users. “Examples of the problem line have become too many”, according to its spokesman Peter Meukens: “In the end, it is the traveler who pays the price for excessive cost cutting. The quality of service is no longer satisfactory. This is not an accident or an isolated technical problem, but a structural failure. We can even speak of a breach of contract on the part of the railway company: the user can no longer trust the timetable.”
This question is not only aimed at deleting trains, but Periodicity, which relapses. In the covid years (2020 and 2021), it rose to 93%. This official rate means in practice that more than nine out of ten trains arrive at their destination (or Brussels) with a maximum delay of 5 minutes and 59 seconds.
But punctuality continued to deteriorate in the first half of this year. In June, it had already reached only 88%. And it is for IC trains and less during peak hours (evening). Trains that actually arrived “on time” (less than a minute late), accounted for just over one in two (53.5%) in the first six months of the year.
If the delays are mainly due to external factors (extreme weather, people on the way, aggression of the guides, etc.), according to witnesses, the lack of staff aggravates them.
Ambitious management contracts
The negative spiral that seems to be entering Belgian railways again does not bode well for achievements The new management agreement has very ambitious objectives That should go into effect next Jan. 1, after House approval in the fall.
“The ideas sound fantastic on paper, but, let’s be honest, everyone knows they’re impossible to achieve right now.”
Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecollo) and railway management The bar is very high for the next ten years: Punctuality target 91%, more trains, faster connections, comfortable connections and at least two trains that stop every hour at each station. In doing so, it is hoped that The number of travelers is expected to increase by 30% in ten years, which will bring customer satisfaction scores.
To achieve this SNCB and Infrabel believe they need 3.4 billion additional euros.
It is not certain that the government will approve them. Especially since then A plan to actually achieve the goals is still missing, That feeds the skepticism of unions and staff user associations. “We have no equipment, no staff and the network is already full,” sighs a young train attendant “The ideas sound fantastic on paper, but, let’s be honest, everyone knows they’re impossible to achieve right now.”