Belgium: Halle train crash

Stop the policies of liberalisation – invest in safety and services

On Monday, two trains collided near Halle, south of Brussels. The accident led to 18 deaths and 162 people being wounded, including 11 seriously injured. The drama has led to a discussion on safety measures in place for Belgian trains. This also raises the discussion on which services need to be provided by the railways. In the past few years, the train company has been split into three parts and investment was largely limited to prestige projects. The management is continuing its liberalisation policies in cargo transport. This policy will lead to new disasters.

The disaster has led to huge solidarity and sympathy with the victims and their relatives and colleagues, including at the depots of Leuven, Braine-le-Comte, Liège and Bruxelles-South. Further investigation is needed to determine the exact cause of the accident. A human mistake is the most common reason that is being put forward in the media today, which speak of a train driver who apparently “ignored” a red stoplight, as if this was a conscious act of the driver. Aside from the exact details of this accident, it is clear that growing pressure of work and the continuing cuts on material and maintenance are a real problem for safety and the service.

Deadly train collision

On Tuesday morning, train drivers went on a spontaneous strike. By noon, most of the Walloon and Brussels drivers were on strike. The action was also widespread in Leuven (the train driver who was killed in this accident came from Leuven). In the afternoon and evening, the strike spread further. The management said this was a purely emotional reaction. Yet this was the third accident to have taken place in nine months. On 23 May 2009, a railway worker in Dinant lost both legs after falling under a departing train during a fight with a passenger. For more than 15 years, the workers have demanded a safer departure procedure, yet nothing has changed, despite promises by the management in May 2009. On 19 November 2009, a train was derailed when entering Mons station. One railway worker was killed in this accident and the management was very lucky that this was the last train of the day with very few passengers on board.

The frustration of the workers is huge. Every year management again demands that workers work harder. Every change in schedules is used to extend journeys, with fewer breaks in between. The time for changing direction at the final station was reduced to the absolute minimum. Many drivers have to drive without any real breaks. Combined with the difficult hours (like starting at 2.40 am) and the huge flexibility, this is a recipe for problems.

A train driver from Leuven said on television that a toilet break or a short break to eat usually leads to a delay. Railway boss, Descheemaecker, reacted saying this was a reaction given at an “emotional moment”. On the radio, he added to this, saying that work pressure had not increased. Instead the workers should work “more intelligently and flexibly”. One day after such a disaster, this manager dares to ask for even more flexibility from the workers!

In March 2001 a train crash happened in Pécrot, leading to 8 deaths. After this disaster, management promised to invest in a new security system to make sure a red stop light could no longer be ignored – the train would stop automatically in such a case. They announced that the European system (ETCS) would be used. Yet only the high speed lines got this system. A quarter of the lines got a TBL1+ system, only a first step towards ETCS. This system is a positive step, but not as safe as the ETCS system. With TBL1+ the train is only brought to a halt after a red stop light and not just before it as with ETCS. While all new trains are adapted to the TBL1+ system, only 1% of the old trains have been adapted.

The management says the delay in introducing a decent security system is caused by negotiations on a European level. Yet France and the Netherlands have introduced decent security systems after disasters in 1991 and 1962 respectively. In Belgium, one disaster is not enough. It is strange to point to Europe as being responsible if such a system is possible in neighbouring European countries.

The national railway company, SNCB/NMBS, was split in three companies in 2005: the transport company, SNCB/NMBS, the infrastructure company, Infrabel, and a holding that is responsible for operational issues such as personnel, judicial and financial business and coordination. The holding is the owner of stations and car parks. All three companies have their own top manager: Jannie Haeck (former cabinet worker for minister, Vande Lanotte, SP.a – Flemish ‘social-democrat’), Luc Lallemand (former cabinet worker for minister Daerden, PS – French-speaking ‘social-democrat’) and Luc Descheemaeker, former CEO of cleaning multinational, ISS. The splitting of the company further reduced the number of workers: from 42,000 in 2004 to 38,000 today, despite a growth the traffic and transport.

With the liberalisation of the railways, management is demanding more flexibility from the workers in transport and cargo trafficking. The aim of the management is to obtain bigger profits: its website announces proudly that in 2007, a profit of Euro 12.9 million was made.

The only investments made in the past few years were not in safety improvements. The only money available was for prestige projects such as the high-speed train lines from expensive new stations like Liège-Guillemins at the cost of half a billion euros. This money has been taken by different building companies and used for corruption. For our services and safety there was no money left. The absence of investment in materials and hiring workers leads to more technical problems and delays.

Management is denying any responsibility and says it is investing in safety. The present management declared: “As soon as we took over the leadership, we started immediately to work on our own safety system.” Their predecessor, Karel Vinck, has been, since 2005, the European coordinator of an attempt to build a uniform safety system. To make themselves look more innocent, management asked workers not to react in public.

So far the management has only reacted with promises after disasters. Since the accident in May 2009, nothing has been done to realise the promises on changing the departure procedure. This management only makes promises when they are needed for its public image. The only ones who have systematically pointed to the problem of safety have been the trade unions. They should demand that management is steps down, together with the politically responsible ministers the government.

The spontaneous actions of the past days are putting pressure on the trade union leadership. This needs to be used to stop further attacks on cargo transport and on the services and working conditions in general. The anger after this disaster is huge, amongst both passengers and workers. This could be the basis to build united resistance against any further attack on our services and safety.

We need a general discussion on transport. The temporary closing down of the line between Brussels and Mons will push people to use their cars and to drive on the motorway between the two cities, a motorway that is generally known for its dangerous nature and total lack of maintenance. This also leads to accidents. The present (and past) governments have failed to invest in our motorways. Safety seems to be no priority for them.

We need more, decent public transport, with sufficient numbers of workers and good materials. We cannot expect this from the present management or government. The control of this essential public service needs to be in the hands of those who know it best and have most interest in good services: the workers and passengers (the community). This is crucial to assure that railways are used to deliver good services to the community and it means breaking with the logic of the present system in which only short term profits count.

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February 2010