New Belgian public service contract for NMBS criticised
AllRail, the alliance of newcomers to passenger rail transport in Europe, has strongly criticised plans by the Belgian government to once again award a public service contract to NMBS/SNCB for ten years. This would leave the railway monopoly with NMBS/SNCB until 2033 and, according to AllRail, would block innovations in the railway sector.
“Why is it that the same failed business model from the past is being held on to at a time when the market share of passenger rail transport is so low?”, Nick Brooks, secretary general of AllRail, reacts critically to the Belgian government’s intention to once again award the rail transport for the next ten years to the NMBS.
Earlier this month, a publication appeared in the European Official Journal in which Belgium expressed the intention to award the Public Service Obligation (PSO) contract directly to NMBS. Publication in the European Official Journal is part of the procedure for awarding the new public service contract, which is planned for the end of 2022 and is due to start in 2023.
Negotiations with SNCB and Infrabel
Negotiations are also currently underway between the federal government and SNCB and infrastructure manager Infrabel with a view to concluding a new public service contract for SNCB and a performance contract for Infrabel.
Brooks, whose organisation represents private rail operators, continues: “The EU wants to double the number of rail passengers by 2030, and Belgian Transport Minister Georges Gilkinet, as a green politician, is probably trying to do the same. The government decision that simply protects the current inefficient and unattractive rail transport for passengers in Belgium is therefore not in line with his policy.”
Striving for public tender
Europe is seeking to liberalise rail transport through legislation. The Fourth Railway Package stipulates that, in future, rail transport must be awarded through public tendering. This creates competition and companies are motivated to improve their products, is the argument. Belgium could have taken up this option this time, but has decided not to do so and to resort once again to direct award.
Minister Gilkinet says that by extending the contract with NMBS, he is “showing confidence in the historical operator that has to put the train of the future on the rails”. The intention is that in the future more trains will run on the Belgian railways, running earlier in the morning and until late in the evening. With the direct award, NMBS retains the exclusive right for passenger rail transport until 2033.
“Negotiated concession award stands in the way of innovations”
AllRail and other critics have serious reservations about Gilkinet’s confidence. According to them, the lack of competition on the railways over the next ten years means that NMBS will not innovate its services. “In fact, market opening, as provided for in the EU’s fourth railway package, is the best means of reorganising SNCB’s services.”