Rail, machinery… and the royal road to privatization

While François Bellot, the new Minister of Mobility, asks the railway workers following the strike decision « to stop this movement which traps the users » , we answer him that the  « Social dialogue » no longer works, being always to the advantage of the employers and the state which is its servant. We also add that the users are not« caught in a trap », but must understand the anger of those who transport them by train every day. Let’s not play the game of the politicians and the media-industry, let’s support the strike in the end.
In a previous Kairos (June 2015), we met a train attendant who told us about his deplorable working conditions. Bellot and his clique do not prefer to hear them, let them die slowly, until the privatization they are waiting for… We say to the railway workers not to be afraid anymore, to those who take the train to understand the anger of their « colleague ». True unity scares the power. Let’s scare him!


Kairos: How long have you been working for the SNCB?

Anonymous: « more or less twenty years. »

And you started as a…

« It started as a controller, then turned into an attendant. The controller sounded a bit too much like a control, gestapo, that’s why they changed the term ; the uniform was originally navy blue, but now it’s really steward. »

And so you liked it?

« Well, I liked the job and I still like it, but it’s the change… you can really feel the separation between two companies, with the two infrastructures, with Infrabel and SNCB. »

Can you explain how in 20 years you have seen this evolve?

« At the beginning, the two companies were one, so for example, for connections, we phoned the station and they arranged to ensure the connections, but now we have to go through a central office and it is the central office above that decides. For a few seconds they refuse to make a connection. I have the impression that there is no longer really a customer service, there is a billing between the SNCB and Infrabel where one charges the other for delays, it’s a war. »

Can you explain for those who do not know the difference between the two structures?

Infrabel is everything that concerns the infrastructure, i.e. the tracks, and the SNCB is basically everything that concerns the ticket office and the train, the contact with the customer. »

And so when there is a problem of delay for example, there are the two structures which are independent but which must communicate nevertheless?

« Yes, that’s it. We phone a central office called RDV, which transfers it to Traffic Control, which is Infrabel, and Infrabel decides whether or not to make the connections. »

And so since the split…

« Before we tried to do everything to make sure the customer got his train, now they like to say ‘look, the customer will wait an hour, and the train the goal is to be on time and it’s a story of billing from one company to another. »

And who decided what you were explaining to me the other time in the train, to make the trains wait longer in the stations?

« With the major works, they decided, since the complaints of the passengers were about delays and not about the length of the journey, to lengthen the train journeys a little so that the trains were, in parenthesis, on time. »

But they take longer?

« It takes longer. Namur-Brussels before it took an hour, now it takes almost an hour and twenty minutes. At first it was put for the works, but now there are no more works and it has not changed but they left like that there is no more red on the board, but the journey is longer… »

So concretely, the train leaves at the same time but…

« …it comes later. »

And it stays longer in the stations?

« When things are going well, we sometimes wait 5, 6, 7 minutes in a station before continuing. »

Did they warn the travelers of this?

« They said they would change the schedule. There was a lot of work so they lengthened the schedules to make up for the delay due to the work, but well the work isn’t done, isn’t done anymore or has been done and they didn’t shorten the schedules, because the state gives financial compensation to the railroads based on trains on time. »

And so in twenty years, apart from this split, what have you seen?

« At the customer level, there is more aggressiveness on the part of travelers. We can see that we are moving towards another generation, another mentality of people. We really see that young people come to conflict and for nothing they try to start. »


« We can’t talk about the railroad, she’s the communications manager…and we can’t say anything. »


And aren’t there things that are done to generate aggression, like the extra 7 euros on the train? Aren’t there devices that take away some of the humanity in the relationship?

« It’s mostly for older people, they have to adapt to machines, to computers. Previously, when a machine failed, the 7 euro surcharge was deactivated in our machine (ed. note: portable, inside the train). Only they put this (editor’s note: the automatic payment terminals in the station) in place before we have the new machine that we will have in about a year. So for a year, we have to practice the payment, so people go to the machine — which works only with a bank card or coins -, which replaces the counters  they put machines in the stations to force people to have a ticket before entering and not to force the controller to run after people. But here, the problem is that when the ticket office is out of order, we in our machine the supplement of 7 euros is always inside, so we have to force the person to pay us when it is an error of the SNCB ticket office, people can’t do anything about it  ; they have to pay us the price of the journey plus the 7 euros… »

So a 3 euro trip, they pay 10.

« Yes, there you go. If the counter is out of order, they have to go to a station, fill out a form with all the refund information and they get their money back within 2–3 weeks. This system is not perfected. I have an example from a colleague who had a case of a young person who went up to ******(1)The mother gave him a 20-euro ticket to take the train at the weekend and go to the movies. The young man arrives at the station with a 20-euro ticket, he gets to the ticket machine, no ticket. So what does he do, he gets on the train, he asks the colleague for a weekend ticket ******-Namur, well the colleague says « I’m screwed, there’s seven euros more on the train ». The colleague doesn’t know what to do, it’s in the price, he can’t even say « I’m going to put Florée, I’m going to put Courrière ». (Editor’s note: closer stations and therefore with lower fares than Namur), it’s seven euros everywhere. So what did the colleague do, he paid the journey 7 euros plus five, that’s 13 euros: not enough money to go to the cinema, so he went to Namur, he went for a walk. »

But it still creates a different relationship with the user?

« It creates problems, yes. »

There is no longer any possibility of taking into account the context, such as someone arriving late for their train, arriving after…

« The person who gets on the train and the person who goes to hide in the bathroom, it’s the same fare. »

And in terms of schedules, there are also things that have changed?

« They eliminated, and this is also with the new transportation plan and the cost saving measures, so they eliminated the « low occupancy » trains, so the late night or very early morning trains… these were more mail carriers that were going to work, so these people no longer have the opportunity… »

What should they do then?

« Pff… that’s right, well… they have to deal with it. They’ve cut the trains very early and very late at night. So people who want to go to the movies, I’ll take a silly example like the one who takes the train from Namur to ******: before the last Omnibus that left Namur to ****** left at 10:20 pm, so people knew to go to the 8:00 pm show in Namur and get out at 10:00 pm, well now the last train is at 8:00 pm. So for people who live in small towns, they no longer have the opportunity to go to the movies, or they have to get on the trains in the big stations; it seems that people in the villages, they are a little bit harmed. »

And they removed stations?

« They cut less than what was planned. It’s mostly in the number of trains… »

I feel like they are focusing on the big points?

« It’s clear that they are increasing in the major centers ; I have the impression that they really want to bring people back by car to the major centers to put trains, well full… it’s… business eh! »

Who decided on these business plans?

« The government is kind of in there, the management…I don’t know. »

Who is the boss?

« At home it’s Cornu. »

Who comes from ?

« He’s someone who was put in by the government. »

Do you get the impression that he is running this as a public service?

« Not really, no. He’s more into a liberal thing. They want to liberalize the company in 2017, so they want to open the door to the private sector, so that’s why they’ve kept the two companies, so that the private sector will come and run on Belgian territory, and the private company will have to pay the running rights on the Infrabel tracks. It’s a kind of track rental. So I don’t know where we’re going in 2017, we’ll see. We don’t know what sauce we’re going to be eaten with. »

Do you have more information than the average person who just takes the train like that?

« We are not informed of anything at all, often it is the traveler who informs us of certain strikes and other things that I am not even aware of. »

And in terms of vacations, quality of work, what has changed?

« Here at the personnel level, there is a problem, in each depot there are many people who have left for retirement, who have not been replaced, and therefore there is a shortage of agents in each depot. But the trains are still running, which means that when we are in reserve period, so for 3 or 4 weeks every x time we do six days in a row, one day at home, 7 days in a row, one day at home. It’s not like someone who’s in an office, he doesn’t come, it’s okay, it doesn’t change anything in life  If we don’t come, the train doesn’t run, we’re a bit stuck at this level. We can’t plan anything, we have to ask for time off two-three months in advance to be sure to have it. »

And what has changed in what you are told is your job?

« Here now everything is based on security. So ticket control is secondary, it’s security, security, security  To avoid accidents, it’s safety, customer reception, customer information, and control comes last, which is why they have created control brigades, the famous Ticoteam, which go to 3–4 and control everything. »

Don’t you think that sometimes there is a will to bring to bankruptcy so that it is taken over by the private sector?

« Sometimes I feel like they do it on purpose. I have colleagues who were at Sabena, who are meeting again 10 years ago. They are doing everything… investments while we are in debt: the famous automatic machines that cost a lot of money, the famous stations, the station of Mons, Liège, why a huge bazaar like that, it is not useful. Besides that, there are stations like the one in Namur where the water flows everywhere, there are some stations where the platforms look like speed bumps. They make absurd decisions.

For the machine (editor’s note: the automatic teller machine), it’s something that I personally wonder about: finally this machine, how much it cost, with all the system…, the computer specialists who have to manage it when it’s broken down and every x amount of time, the money that was put in — the tray fills up with coins -, so once it’s full, the people can’t pay with coins, so Securitas has to empty them out Everything is done by the private sector now at the railway: the cleaners, those who clean the station of Namur, it is private, everything becomes private  Even our pay slips, before, it was the central office in Mons that put the box with the pay slips in the train, it arrived in Namur, the loader in Namur took it, deposited it at the depot. It didn’t cost anything… now it’s the Post Office. So we have our pay slips with one week of delay and we learned that our mail instead of being directly in Charleroi, it was in Ghent. On the one hand we are asked to make efforts, to control well to bring in money and on the other hand we spend for bullshit  I don’t know what’s under there, but I think it’s ridiculous. It’s all the same stuff, and the colleagues who say « but why are we busting our asses here, when we see the waste, the crap they do, it’s frightening ». I heard again just two days ago that Cornu was saying that we had to increase the price of tickets to fill the hole. Sometimes… that’s it! Pfff… I don’t understand, I don’t understand. There are more and more bosses too, before there was a boss, now there are managers with skills, managers here, managers there, and when you ask what they do, they don’t know what they are doing! There are lots of leaders and no one on the ground. And you can feel a sense of fed up among colleagues, there are plenty who want to leave, they stop because they feel that we are going straight into the wall. »

They are a bit fed up for what you say, they don’t find pleasure anymore?

« Then we are a little bit like idiots: we call the central for a connection, they answer us « ok, the connection is assured », we make an announcement to the passengers and then they arrive on the platform and there is the train which passes under their nose. »

This creates conflict between you and the travelers.

Sometimes it’s the other way around, we phone, « no, listen, there’s no connection, they have to take the next one », and we arrive and the train is there! Sometimes it’s the other way around, we phone, « no, listen, there’s no connection possible, they have to take the next one », and we arrive and the train is there! We make ourselves look like fools. There is no certainty, the more intermediaries there are, the less the thing goes. Before, we used to phone Brussels station, Charleroi, we knew that the train was there ; now we phone there, this one phones there… and it takes you ten minutes to get the information and finally the information is not good. »

Basically, I feel like the human factor is getting smaller and smaller.

« It’s like in the post offices, it’s everywhere. Now at Delhaize it’s automatic payments, it’s general… I think we’ve gone back to the Middle Ages: very rich people and everything else is misery. In all the companies, they want to liquidate the staff. »

Interview by Alexandre Penasse
The fact that our interlocutor refused to To reveal one’s identity, at the risk of professional reprisals, says a lot about the endless « freedom of expression » that the media and politicians keep harping on, forgetting to name the fear that some people have of telling the truth in our « free » societies. Kairos wants to give voice to all these anonymous people. 

Freedom of expression ?

Anonymous :  » well, I’m counting on you, I’ve come to talk, because there are colleagues who have been almost revoked because they talked to the press. All I care about is that I have no worries.

K. : no, we are bound to the secrecy of sources. Do you have an idea for a nickname, or am I making something up ?

A. : must put a pseudo ?

K. : I can put  » anonymous « , or Alain Connu. (laughs)

A. You have to know that they have put in place people whose whole day’s work is to go and search on Facebook what colleagues could put negative things about the SNCB, and the colleagues are shot. ! Their only job is to track down the information that colleagues put on Facebook. There is a colleague ****** who had put  » fed up with this train ******, nothing but problems « , she was called by the chief  » listen, your facebook comments…    » . We can’t talk about the railroad, it’s the communication manager… and we can’t say anything.


Notes et références
  1. Les mots noircis représentent ici le nom d’un village où il y a une gare, que la personne interviewée nous a demandés expressément de ne pas citer sous peine qu’on le reconnaisse et le risque de représaille.

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