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SNCB ‘has been forgotten’ by federal government, says CEO

18:27 25/11/2019

Sophie Dutordoir, the CEO of Belgian rail operator SNCB, blamed a lack of vision on the part of the federal government for problems with the service in a sharply worded interview with business daily De Tijd.

The government has “no vision, no investment plan and no money when it comes to mobility and rail services,” she said. “We are working ourselves to death, but we are just flailing about in the margins.”

Dutordoir (pictured) has been at the head of the state-owned rail operator for 2.5 years. SNCB is set to sign new labour contracts with unions over the next few weeks.

The process is expected to be challenging, as the service is understaffed, and workers refuse to budge on the matter of extending work hours. While Dutordoir says she isn’t interested in changing regulations around seniority and benefits, she does need “an openness to reform to achieve a simpler, more modern and flexible workforce”.

Regulations date to 1926

She says that one of the biggest problems is that SNCB management is still forced to adhere to rail labour standards that were agreed to in 1926. There are, for instance, hundreds of remunerations that must be paid to workers in certain circumstances.

“For instance, workers have the right to extra pay if they drive a service van from one site to another during work hours,” said Dutordoir. “I don’t want to steal away anyone’s salaries away, but the fact is that we employ hundreds of people to deal with these kind of administrative hassles instead of being able to focus on the real business at hand. And yet it continues to be very difficult to take much-needed steps forward on these fundamental issues.”

The operator has also been waiting for seven years for a new management agreement with the government, which, among other crucial issue, lays out the financial backing. The last agreement officially ended in 2012.

“And all of this while they expect me to carry out significant reforms to make this a modern rail company,” said Dutordoir. “Sorry, but in this context, SNCB and Infrabel can only just get by. I expect the government to get to work on mobility and the rail network.”

Dutordoir also mentioned that she contacted all the party chairs before the elections last May. If this is true, that would mean 15 people. Only two met with her, she told De Tijd. “The government formation leaders have since visited the energy sector, but the SNCB has just been forgotten.”

Photo: Thierry Roge/BELGA

Written by Lisa Bradshaw