THE Belgian National Railways’ (SNCB) board of directors has approved what it calls its “most ambitious transport plan ever” for the period between December 2023 and December 2026.

Under the plan, train-km will increase by 7.4% to 89.5 million, following the introduction of more than 2000 additional services by 2026. Various measures will also be taken to further improve services for passengers. This is expected to increase passenger numbers by 30% by 2032.

Under previous transport plans, train-km increased by 2.8% and 5.6% in 2020-2023 and 2017-2020, respectively.

Of the more than 2000 additional services, more than 720 will run at weekends. These will be introduced in four stages: December 2023, December 2024, June 2025 and December 2025.

SNCB says it is expanding its offer following studies of travel demand and needs. However, delivery is dependent on the completion of new infrastructure, the ability to recruit more than 500 conductors and drivers, and on Alstom meeting the delivery schedule for the double-deck 200km/h M7 coaches ordered by SNCB.

The renewal of rolling stock over the plan period will provide 10,000 extra seats, 40% more spaces for bicycles, increase the number of trains with air-conditioning from 65% to 80%, and improve accessibility. All trains in SNCB’s fleet will also be equipped with ETCS, up from 80% of the fleet at present.

Service offers at more than half of stations will improve, including additional weekday or weekend services or later trains on Friday and Saturday evenings. The plan focuses specifically on improving offers in major cities such as Brussels, Antwerp and Liège. During the weekend, for example, two inter-city trains per hour will run on the Brussels - Leuven - Liège, Antwerp - Leuven, Kortrijk - Bruges, Brussels - Charleroi and Brussels - Mons lines.

Almost 50 additional S-train suburban services will also run on Friday and Saturday evenings, 30 of which will run until after 01.00 from Brussels and Antwerp to destinations including Aalst, Mechelen, Leuven, Braine-le-Comte, Nivelles and Ottignies.

Many stations will have a better connection with Charleroi Airport due to the introduction of a new Leuven - Fleurus - Charleroi-Central IC service, which will run seven days a week.

Due to the increase in people working from home, 22 lightly-used peak-hour services will be withdrawn.

Cross-border services will be strengthened with the introduction of the three-country train between Liège, Maastricht in the Netherlands and Aachen in Germany, and a suburban service between Liège, Verviers and Aachen.

The 2023-2026 transport plan has now been submitted for approval by the Belgian federal cabinet.

2022 results

The plan was released alongside SNCB’s 2022 financial results, which showed an improved result and a decrease in debt, despite the sharp increase in energy and staffing costs.

SNCB carried 227.4 million passengers in 2022, up 32.4% on 2021, but still fewer than the 253.4 million recorded in 2019.

While commuting and leisure traffic have recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the number of season tickets sold at the end of 2022 was 15% lower than in 2019, as working from home became firmly established.

Five consecutive wage rises for SNCB staff, which produced additional costs of €82.4m, and the sharp increase in energy costs, which added €73m compared with 2021, led to a loss of €142.6m. This was met by the government, leading to an operating result of €39.6m.