Belgian National Railways' next 10-year investment strategy is due to be approved shortly, but renewal of the operating contract agreed with government in 1991 has become mired in political disagreement. Harry Hondius takes stock of the situation

RARELY in Western Europe does a Prime Minister have to intervene personally in railway management matters, temporarily withdrawing a portfolio from his transport minister and appointing a team of civil servants to review the options available. But this is the current situation in Belgium, where Guy Verhofstadt has taken over the SNCB portfolio from the controversial transport minister Isabelle Durant for consideration by his chef de cabinet.

Adding urgency to the debate is the need to renew the 1991 contract under which SNCB operates, and agree the railway's next 10-year investment plan for 2001-10.

The 1991 contract specifies the railway's overall direction, scope for development, and its level of financial support. Mrs Durant would like to amend this contract to give the government tighter control of SNCB. But on the other hand, for environmental reasons, she wants the railway to meet an ambitious target of carrying 50% more passengers and freight in 10 years' time. She also wants to see 13 disused lines reopened.

Since 1999, Belgium has been governed by a 'rainbow coalition' of socialists, liberals and greens. For the first time since 1947, the Christian conservative parties found themselves in opposition. Similar coalitions also govern the Brussels, Flemish and Walloon regions.

As SNCB is a state-owned company, its board of directors is a mirror of the long-standing political landscape. Mrs Durant would therefore like to change the board structure to include representatives of the green parties. This would mean that the historically most important Belgian political parties - the Flemish Christelijke Volkspartij (CVP) and Walloon Parti Socialiste (PS) - would have to give up board seats, which they of course have no intention of doing. Following the next general election in two years' time, they may be back in government together.

Corporate governance

The SNCB board currently consists of 18 members and one commissioner appointed by the government. The PS and CVP each have four directors, the Parti Social Chrétien (PSC) three, the Socialistische Partij (SP) two, and the railway trade unions two. There are two independent directors and the Vlaamse Liberale Democraten (VLD) and Parti des Réformes et de la Liberté (PRL) each have one. Ecolo, the Walloon green party to which Mrs Durant belongs, and its Flemish counterpart Agalev are not currently represented.

Chief Executive Officer Etienne Schouppe (CVP) is also on the board as Managing Director, and five other board members hold executive positions.

An audit completed in January for SNCB by KPMG suggested that there should be a clearer division between the executive arm (the MD and five executive directors) and the board's corporate governance responsibilities. At present strategic and tactical decision-making are mixed. There is considerable tension between the green minister and SNCB, and the political nomination of board members and top officials does not contribute to internal cohesion. But the composition of the board can only be changed if two-thirds of its members agree.

The waters were muddied last year when Schouppe faced the prospect of legal action over alleged 'irregularities' in the lease and buy back of rolling stock, and the reporting of results for the successful ABX parcels business. However, these charges failed to materialise, and the CEO came out of the affair totally exonerated.

Towards a 10-year plan

In setting guidelines for the next 10-year investment plan, Mrs Durant included her ambitious goal of a 50% increase in traffic by 2010. But SNCB does not believe that this target is realistic, and has therefore drawn up a preliminary plan based on a 30% increase in passenger-km and 45% growth in freight tonnage. However, these figures do not count the potential increase in passenger-km from the development of the long-planned Brussels RER network.

Over the past 20 years, SNCB's total passenger-km have remained largely static, in the range between 5·5 billion and a peak of 6 billion in 2000. Brussels is the clear hub of the network; 50% of all passenger-km are handled on journeys to and from the capital. Each working day around 100000 passengers enter and leave the city by rail, giving SNCB a 28% market share.

The RER proposals drawn up for SNCB by French consultancy Sofretu (now Systra) estimate that the network could attract another 100000 passengers/day travelling from a zone radiating more than 30 km from the city centre. Centrepiece of the planned RER network is a new north-south tunnel linking Schuman and Josaphat.

A second national transport hub is Zaventem Airport, which handled 12 million passengers in 1997. Of this, rail had a market share of 15% - adding 45000 passengers a day, largely during peak hours. By 2010 Zaventem will be handling between 19 and 23 million passengers, with public transport's market share ranging from 25 to 40%.

Freight traffic is expected to grow sharply. In 2000 SNCB transported 62 million tonnes, but this could increase to 90 million by 2010. Much of the growth (around 16 million tonnes) will be on routes to and from the port of Antwerpen, which now accounts for 43% of SNCB freight traffic, giving rail an 18% market share.

Three scenarios

SNCB's preliminary investment plan includes three scenarios, designated A, B and C. These would cost 16bn, 14·4bn and 12·4bn euros respectively. Table I shows the key elements included in Plan A. This does not include the rolling stock needed for the proposed Brussels RER. Funding for the package, as proposed, would be split between SNCB (8·3%), high speed line financing consortium HST-FIN (10·6%) and the government (81·1%).

This package includes a number of spectacular infrastructure projects, including three new links around the port at Antwerpen to handle the growth in freight traffic. The so-called Liefkenshoektunnel would link the two parts of the harbour on each side of the Scheldt river, and a second connection would be built into the port area from Lier.

There would also be a connection between the present Line 11 from Bergen op Zoom to the harbour and Netherlands Railways' Vlissingen - Roosendaal route, partially duplicating the existing line from Antwerpen to Rotterdam. Heading east, SNCB envisages reactivation of the Iron Rhine corridor to M?€?nchengladbach (RG 7.00 p437), which is 60 km shorter than the present route to Germany via Montzen.

Amongst the new line projects on the conventional network are a 200 km/h link from Louvain-la-Neuve to Namur following the E411 motorway, and a route from Namur (Dassoulx) to Gosselies and Charleroi following the E42. These would cut journey times from Brussels to Namur and Charleroi by around 15min.

The 'Diabolo' connection at Zaventem will give direct links from the airport to Liège and Antwerpen, reducing the need for air passengers to travel via central Brussels.

The high speed element includes completion of the lines now under construction from Brussels to the Netherlands and Germany. However, it does not include the planned 'Brussels Europe' TGV terminal at Schaarbeek to serve the northern side of the city; although this is a particularly popular project within SNCB, further studies are deemed necessary.

SNCB has not made any provision for funding the 13 lines which the transport minister would like to see reopened, again on the grounds that further studies will be necessary.

The rolling stock package would continue the investment programme beyond the projects described in RG 3.00 p111. There would be an overall increase in capacity from 268000 to 305000 seats, not counting another 21000 seats for the RER fleet.

A build of 75 four-car double-deck EMUs would replace 114 ageing two-car EMUs of Types 62 to 65. Another 100 M6 double-deck inter-city coaches and 30 more two-car DMUs of Class 41 would also be ordered. This would bring the average fleet age in 2010 to 20 years for coaches and 20·8 years for EMUs. Four-car double-deck EMUs are also projected for the Brussels RER, but these are not included in the plan.

No more main line diesel locomotives will be bought to replace the 50 older units still in service, and the diesel shunter fleet will be cut to 160. Whilst the electric loco fleet is expected to remain at 427, the older 3 kV DC machines will gradually be replaced by dual- or three-system locos.

Troubles ahead?

The traditional split of investment in the SNCB network has been 60% for Flanders and 40% for Wallonia. This has sometimes resulted in projects being selected for political reasons rather than their commercial justification. In the current tense political situation, fine-tuning of the investment budget could prove controversial.

The 16bn euros cost of Plan A is 3·6bn euros more than the minister had envisaged. If the extra money can be found for all the projects, then a reasonable solution can be expected. If the railway has to cut back to scenarios B or C, this may lead to bitter in-fighting, which could even endanger the continuity of the national railway in its present form.

Table I. SNCB 2001-10 investment options, Plan A

Project category euro m

Modernising existing infrastructure 3300

Extending the conventional network 2500

New rolling stock 3300

Station improvements 530

Information technology and workshops 860

High speed lines 2280

Improved mobility in the Brussels area 3190

Total 15960

  • CAPTION: SNCB's current front-line inter-city stock is the I11 fleet, similar to the Bombardier-built AM96 EMUs (below). The first of 210 push-pull double deck IC vehicles are due to appear later this year
  • CAPTION: The proposed 'Diabolo' connection at Zaventem Airport would provide a direct link to Antwerpen
  • CAPTION: Proposed 200 km/h lines in Wallonia would reduce journey times from Brussels to Namur and Charleroi by at least 15 minutes
  • CAPTION: SNCB plans a 14% increase in seating capacity in its investment programme, to handle 30% more traffic; each AM80 'Break' unit received an extra trailer car in the 1990s
  • CAPTION: The Brussels RER network as envisaged for 2008 includes four-tracking from Midi to Nivelles and Schuman to Ottignies, a third track between Midi and Denderleeuw, and the Schuman - Josaphat tunnel to relieve the Nord - Midi corridor
  • CAPTION: SNCB anticipates a 45% increase in its freight business over the next 10 years, with the port of Antwerpen being a magnet for growth

SNCB sails into rough waters

Belgian National Railways' next 10-year investment strategy is due to be approved shortly, with the Green transport minister wanting to see a 50% increase in rail traffic by 2010. This could spur the construction of several new lines as well as the long-planned Brussels RER network. However, renewal of SNCB's operating contract agreed with government in 1991 has become mired in political disagreement. Harry Hondius takes stock of the situation.

La SNCB marche sur des oeufs

Le plan stratégique d'investissements pour les dix années à venir des Chemins de fer Belges doit être approuvé sous peu, avec le ministre Vert des transports qui veut voir s'accroître de 50% la part du rail d'ici à 2010. Cela pourrait entraîner la construction de plusieurs lignes nouvelles tout comme la création d'un RER pour Bruxelles, dont on parle depuis longtemps. Toutefois, le renouvellement du contrat d'exploitation de la SNCB signé avec le gouvernment en 1991 s'est enlisé dans les controverses politiques. Harry Hondius expose la situation

Die SNCB kommt in raue Gewässer

Die nächste 10-Jahres-Investitionsstrategie der Belgischen Staatsbahnen wird demnächst genehmigt. Dabei will der Grüne Verkehrsminister eine Steigerung des Schienenverkehrs um 50% bis zum Jahr 2010 erreichen. Dies k?€?nnte den Weg für verschiedene neue Strecken sowie für das seit Langem geplante Brüsseler S-Bahn-System ?€?ffnen. Allerdings ist der 1991 geschlossene Betriebsvertrag zwischen der SNCB und der belgischen Regierung in politischen Auseinandersetzungen unter Beschuss geraten. Harry Hondius untersucht die Situation

La SNCB navega por la tempestad

Los Ferrocarriles Nacionales Belgas cuentan con un programa estratégico de inversiones de 10 años que debe aprobarse en breves fechas. El ministro de transporte, del Partido Ecologista, desea ver un aumento del 50% en el tr? fico por ferrocarril para 2010. Esto podría dar lugar a la construcción de varias nuevas líneas, adem? s de la red RER de Bruselas, planeada hace ya tiempo. Sin embargo, la renovación del contrato de operación de la SNCB acordado con el gobierno en 1991 ha sido blanco de numerosos desacuerdos políticos. Harry Hondius revisa la situación