2013 saw a boost for massive investment plans: the renewal of the STIB’s management contract and the SNCB’s Pluriannual Investment Plan (PPI) were negotiated by the outgoing authorities: both the Federal Government and the Brussels Region have set the course for the future in the face of collective mobility challenges. Both of these mission contracts include massive investments in heavy transportation networks. For Brussels, the PPI plans to invest 800 million in the Brussels network. 

A quarter of a billion will be spent on investment in lines 26 and 28, the so-called « tangential network », which run through the suburbs and serve the secondary stations of Brussels. Reinvesting them is an old Brussels demand that has finally been met: these century-old paths are an ideal complement to the STIB’s surface network. The operator, SNCB-mobility, says that it will « evaluate the demand » once the investments have been made. We « invest » in it, meaning: offer us the infrastructure and we’ll see what we do with it. But the federal government is making the wrong investment: light trains, staff to run them, and a restored service on evenings and weekends are what users are asking for. 

Half a billion euros are still directed towards Infrabel’s leitmotiv: optimizing the famous North-South Junction, which was built in the middle of the 20th century to centralize a quarter of the Belgian trains. An important part of the funds will be used to study a widening of the junction, including the scenario of digging a tunnel from Midi to Schaerbeek (we are talking about 4 billion) for prestigious trans-European TGV. It is also an urban planning vision that would enhance the coverage of the tracks, with huge real estate stakes capable of generating profits for Infrabel, and imply a new twist in the urban dualisation in Brussels. Time will tell.

As for the urban transport operator, the STIB, apart from the redeployment of the streetcar, whose projects are progressing very slowly on the surface, there is the study of the construction of a « metro north », a 6 km extension that will connect a route currently served by 3 streetcars and trains. Why compete with existing lines? Estimated budget for this new metro: 1 billion 700 million euros. 

The other development concerns the automation of metro lines 1 and 5, which promises an increase in the frequency of trains(1) and the disappearance of a large number of driving agents. Project name: Pulsar. Supplier :Siemens AG. Cost of the order: 800 million euros. These figures are breathtaking and symbolize the massive investment policy, hyper-technological and provided by private operators who will use neither the workforce nor the know-how of Brussels. 


It is the funding that is of most concern. The Region does not have its own means to invest. The most important public contribution will be Beliris, the federal reinvestment agreement in Brussels. And there is still the loan, which the STIB may be able to take out if it becomes even more efficient than it is today(2). The 6th state reform does provide for resources to be reinvested in Brussels, part of which is directed towards investment in mobility; but these resources are no longer defined beyond 2016, whereas the metro will be built from 2018 at the earliest. The head of Beliris, Laurette Onkelinx, has mentioned the possibility of completing the financing of the metro: « if we don’t succeed, we will ask the private sector to pre-finance it », she said in essence in 2010. This has a name: Public-Private Partnership. 

Some major works are described as « white elephants », whose necessity is questionable, which generate an unfathomable debt, lead to the State being placed under the guardianship of the client and offer leonine contracts for a few investors. This is precisely what is to be feared with this Brussels metro: the private partners will pay their large civil engineering companies and reimburse themselves for the effort made for about 30 years, at usurious conditions. 

Who will pay? Passengers who will continue to see the price of a metro ticket increase twice as fast as inflation(3). The damage is done for the PPP Northern-Diabolo which overcharges each ticket to Brussels Airport by 5€ for the user, that is to say several million per year; as well as a pension of 9 million and a collection of 0.5% of each ticket SNCB. 

White elephants such as the prestigious stations in Liege-Guillemins, the one being built in Mons, or absurd renovations such as the one planned for Charleroi, even though the previous one dates from 2011! What is the attraction for the average Belgian of digging a tunnel under the Antwerp station to speed up the transit of the Thalys? What priority was there in 2007 to build a Diabolo tunnel to connect the airport to an international rail network? Finally, the costly project for a new link to Charleroi-Sud airport is an unsustainable development, while the Charleroi-Louvain line is under-maintained and suffers from a derisory service. 


This is a fiction. Let’s imagine ourselves in 2025, three years after the opening of the metro 8. 

The high-tech line attracts people from the center, but for the rest it competes with the RER, which drops passengers off at six stations in the northern territory. The annual reimbursement burden of the PPP, which covered only one third of the total cost, is too much to bear: 80 million per year to serve seven stops is too much. The STIB is forced to increase its prices: the single regional ticket is now €4.10. That’s not enough, so surface services in the service area are cut: three remaining surface lines are consolidated. As the success of the metro-boutiques was not as expected, the private operator will « sweat » the contract and force the STIB to accept a surcharge of €1.25 for each traveller for the consortium. This is the scenario that is followed from 2026. The user who wishes to use the line pays €5.35, including the additional fee of the ViaLion PPP; this special fare extends to Albert station, while half of the route was paid for by public funds. This ViaLion consortium is the private sector that has started to devour, by the juiciest pieces, the white elephant commissioned by the public authorities in the mid-2010s. 


We could fictionalize The rest of the heavy network will be operated by other companies following a directive forcing the opening to the market; that the modern streetcar in which we have invested so much will suffer the same fate, because it is profitable; and that what remains is diminished by the lack of continuity of the networks: buses from another time, operated by the State which restricts the service every 5 years. In 2030, Brussels will have lost its public service transport because of the debt contracted 15 years earlier; because of the belief that the private sector is better than a public service, because it is more pragmatic and less protective of social conditions. With its managerial profiles and the instillation of a profit logic within companies that were once human in size, the pride of working for the common good has disappeared. With the use of technology to replace the workforce, the public’s affection for them has deserted the networks as well. We have reduced public service to the word service, and still. 

This is due to the attraction of governments to the sirens of the private sector. While urban transport is becoming essential, it is not becoming more profitable: it is a public tool that has a cost: outsourcing it can only cost more than operating it under public control. 

A future respectful of the collectivist principles applied to public service would see them return to these fundamentals, guarantee universal service and lower its fares to provoke a modal shift from the car. A moratorium could preserve them, safeguard and enhance the heritage that trains, streetcars and buses represent. Governance has been taken over from the experts or top managers, with a spirit of co-management now ruling these large public enterprises: users and workers are consulted and represented on the boards of directors, the orientations are put up for public debate, and planning is mature and responds to observed and expressed needs. 

Finally, investments are considered in relation to citizens and not to capital. The cooperative investment of public utility is developed in favor of needs crying out of inequalities: housing, education… the access to an empowering and sustainable mobility becomes again a public good to answer our real needs. 

Liévin Chemin

Notes et références
  1. De 2,5 à 1,5 par minute, time is money. Ce qui est visé est surtout une augmentation de la capacité de ces lignes face à une utilisation croissante du mode souterrain.
  2. la STIB améliore constamment son «taux de couverture», le rapport entre ce qu’elle coûte et ses recettes de ventes. Pour pouvoir emprunter, ce taux doit rester supérieur à 50%.
  3. Cette dernière décennie, c’est précisément le remboursement de la dette de la STIB qui constitue la raison de la hausse des prix pour l’usager. GOETHALS C. dans « Les enjeux du financement des transports en commun à Bruxelles », Les analyses du CRISP en ligne, 20 décembre 2012.

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