ON TUESDAY March 27 two trains collided head-on at Pécrot, 14 km from Leuven on Belgian National Railways’ line from Ottignies, killing three crew and five passengers. The driver of an empty EMU appears to have misread a signal at Wavre that had been cleared for a freight train, and mistakenly assumed that this authorised him to run wrong line to St Joris Weert, using simplified bidirectional working with no further signals for 12 km. In these circumstances the ’crocodile’ automatic warning system only works in the normal direction of travel; this type of operation is only permitted at weekends during engineering work. Train radio was due to be fitted in 2005.

The driver, described as ’relatively untrained’, should have spotted that all was not well when he ran through three level crossings with barriers raised, but he continued at line speed past Florival, straight into the path of an oncoming passenger train formed of two EMUs that had just left Pécrot. Although the driver of the passenger train applied his emergency brake, collision speed was 80 km/h, and neither driver survived the impact.

The French-speaking signalman at Wavre realised that the empty stock train had departed wrong line, and contacted his counterpart in Leuven, saying that the passenger train must not leave Leuven and certainly not Sint-Joris-Weert, the station before Pécrot. Unfortunately, the Flemish-speaking signalman in Leuven did not understand what was being said to him, and interrupted, asking ’Can’t you speak Dutch?’ The Wavre signalman then sought to have the traction power interrupted, but in the control centre there was confusion as to whether the line was fed from the French or the Flemish end. The power was cut off just as the offending train passed Florival, but it was too late.

The accident added urgency to the final stages of a political debate on SNCB’s future and long-term investment programme (RG 4.01p253), and there is no doubt that it influenced the atmosphere. On March 30 the government announced that 16·8bn euros would be spent over 12 years, with the state contributing 11·2bn. Just over 8·3bn euros is allocated for infrastructure upgrades, station modernisation and extensions to the existing network - such as a new line to Antwerpen harbour - with 3·7bn euros to be spent on rolling stock, around 800m on workshops, information technology and buildings, nearly 2·4bn on high speed line construction, and just over 1·5bn on the infrastructure for the Brussels RER network. No provision is made for RER rolling stock, nor for reopening closed lines. The 60% split for Flanders and 40% for Wallonia is broadly maintained.

Tied closely to the investment programme is a rebuild of SNCB’s management structure, which will require legislation. This would see the supervisory board halved from 18 to 9 members, including representatives of the various political parties and the Chief Executive Officer. Day-to-day management would be placed in the hands of an executive board, which would include SNCB’s Chairman and CEO. Eight directorates are proposed: finances, human resources, R&D, passenger, freight, track, rolling stock maintenance, and stations. This board would, as our correspondent writes, be ’assisted’ by a strategic council that would include trades union representatives and delegates from regional public transport operators such as De Lijn. The unions quickly protested at their proposed removal from the board with industrial action on April 12.