The recovery plan is celebrating its first anniversary. What conclusions can we already draw on the mobility aspect?
“We have disinvested too much, abandoned rail in the past. With the agreement of the government, I obtained the means to reverse this trend, via the ‘Boost’ plan (250 million investments, added to the 365 million € allocated to rail as part of the European Recovery Plan, editor’s note) .
For example, we are investing in ports and infrastructure to facilitate the transportation of goods. A freight train is 50 trucks less on the road. Another example is to improve the accessibility of stations, in particular by standardizing the height of the platforms, by installing car parks, lifts, etc. Then, we modernize and strengthen the network to increase the number of trains, extend the timetable frequencies and gain in commercial speed. Typically, this is what is done with the finalization of the S network around Brussels. We are also investing in the Brussels-Luxembourg line, to shorten the travel time between the two capitals. The goal is really to give the train reflex, with the objective of gradually increasing, by 2040, the share of travel by train from 8 to 15%. We are in the process of revolutionizing the world of the train, of making rail mobility a real freedom for people. »
The Planning Office foresees a reduction in the number of train passengers in the future. How do you plan to prove these forecasts wrong?
“These forecasts were issued ‘on an unchanged policy’. However, change is underway: we are investing in the network to make it more efficient, with more punctual trains, shorter journey times, an increase in the number of trains, improved accessibility, etc.
We are also going to act on the pricing policy, in particular with flexible home-workplace subscriptions, for those who partially telework. Another challenge in terms of tariffs is to attract travelers during leisure time. This requires a dynamic policy and attractive offers during off-peak hours. It is with all this that we are going to make the projections of the Planning Office lie. Last element: they do not take into account the increase in fuel prices. However, demand is also linked to the competitive advantage of the train in relation to fuel prices. »
With prices soaring, there are questions that arise. Can you guarantee that ticket prices will not explode?
“There are mostly answers. And the train responds to this increase in fuel prices, since it is the cheapest mode of travel. On tariffs, we obtained a status quo until the end of the year, by granting an additional allocation to SNCB. With all the formulas that the SNCB offers (free for children up to 12 years, various reductions, Pass or duo ticket formulas, school or professional subscription), the train remains the most advantageous.
The train is the answer to different challenges. To that of the climate challenge: our network is one of the best electrified in Europe (+90%). This makes the train the most ecological transport, since there are no CO2 emissions. Then to traffic jams, the costs of which amount to billions in our country, since the train helps to decongest the roads. Then to the issue of road safety. And finally, the train is the biggest contributor to peace in the world: a train journey is oil that we don’t buy from Russia.
Rail also serves the economy. One euro invested in rail has a return effect of three euros on our economy. It’s a virtuous circle: good for the environment, good for the economy and good for jobs.
Talking about objectives for rail brings us back to the inevitable question of how to achieve them…
“We have three levers: public funding, own revenue, and above all choosing a model that is as efficient as possible from an economic point of view. But these efficiency gains will not come at the expense of workers, quite the contrary! Because more trains also means more guides, drivers… And that’s why we are looking for 2,000 people today to join the Infrabel and SNCB teams.
What is important is not only to have the means, but to spend them intelligently. And that this money can lead, as quickly as possible, to benefits for travelers. I take care to identify investments that can have a leverage effect, a rapid change in punctuality, travel times, the number of connections, etc. As is the case at Nivelles station. Even if all the work is not yet finished, there are now six hourly connections between Brussels and Nivelles. »
Is it also a way of showing concrete results to citizens?
“Yes, and that is very important. On the RER for example. Even if it is not finished, we have already reached 80% of the objective in terms of connections! And each year, we move towards 100%. But with 80%, when you live within a radius of 30 km around Brussels, you already have at least four trains per hour to come to Brussels or leave. Today, I see that there is really enthusiasm around the train, and citizens’ expectations. This is why the government is now reinvesting to make the service even more efficient! »
Your future on track?
To make the train “the backbone of tomorrow’s mobility”, investing in infrastructure is not enough. This is why Infrabel and SNCB are looking for more than 2,000 employees this year. “These are diversified jobs, at the service of people and mobility. They sometimes require technical skills: engineering, maintenance of catenaries, laying of rails… These are also relationship jobs: guides, drivers, Sécurail agents… There are a lot of jobs available!”, indicates Minister Gilkinet. “The Infrabel Academy, at the Gare de l’Ouest in Brussels, is a very fine project. It’s a real apprenticeship campus, where you can test yourself in welding, the placement of catenaries, safety functions… We need young people. And Infrabel and SNCB are two truly inclusive employers, both in terms of gender and diversity,” continues Georges Gilkinet.