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A rail postcard from Brussels

Saturday, February 18, 2017 2:08
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(this is part of my Rail Postcards to the Transport Commissioner series – you can find all the other postcards here)

Dear Violeta,

I’d hoped to not have to write another one of these postcards to you so soon after my last one. But things go wrong all too regularly with EU-wide rail it seems. This one also concerns a trip that started in Bruges at the College of Europe, a place where you were happy to extol to the students the joys of EU transport policy only last month.

Anyway, this morning I left Bruges at 0657 and got delayed due to trespassers on the track, ending up 40 minutes late in Brussels. These things happen, I understand that. So I go to the ticket office in Gare du Midi to enquire if I can take the 0928 Thalys to Köln, rather than the 0825 ICE I was scheduled to take.

The answer: NO.

Why not, I ask at the ticket office? “It’s SNCB’s fault” the Thalys employee tells me. Well, yes, that is indeed technically the case – my SNCB Brugge-Bruxelles train was delayed. But why can’t Thalys take me? “It’s a private company” she tells me. And what about Railteam I ask – does that not give me the right to get on the next train? No, she tells me, because the train that was delayed was not an international one.

So here I am, sat an extra hour in Brussels, waiting for the 1025 ICE to Köln because Thalys refuses to let me on their train. We did not even get to the stage whether the Thalys was full or not – I was just point blank refused to be allowed to board it.

Now let’s just take a step back here. SNCB – my first train – is run by a 100% Belgian state owned rail company. Thalys, who refused me access to their train, belongs 60% to SNCF (French state owned) and 40% to SNCB (Belgian state owned). My ICE is run by Deutsche Bahn (100% state owned). The track on which the Thalys and ICE run to Köln was built with state means, including EU money. This whole thing in terms of its ownership and the financial investments is as statist as it gets.

Yet when it comes to how the passengers are treated, suddenly these firms behave like the toughest capitalists you can imagine – oh no, you cannot possibly board our train, because you have a ticket for the other one.

It strikes me that this liberalisation lark is not leading to real competition, or something that works in the interests of customers. It’s actually leading to firms trying to shed their responsibilities, to blame others, to not actually help their passengers get to their destinations. Liberalisation of EU rail has generally been a failure.

To add insult to injury, my ticket for this trip was about 3 times as much as a Ryanair flight would cost for Brussels – Berlin. But I try to be green and reduce my carbon emissions. But when EU rail is this bad would you blame anyone for flying instead?

Until next time, safe travels!


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