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SNCB train conductors protest after spate of violent attacks

15:22 13/02/2023

Conductors for Belgian rail operator SNCB are protesting until at least 15 February after a spate of violent attacks from passengers that have left them feeling unsafe on the job.

The protest includes not checking passengers’ tickets, according to Günther Blauwens, president of the ACOD Spoor trade union (CGSP Cheminots), although some staff are still carrying out security rounds on trains.

“This is not really a strike, but a silent protest against the acts of aggression,” explained Blauwens.

“It is an internal initiative. The unions are not in charge, but we understand this act of protest.”

Several train conductors have been attacked by passengers in recent days, notably in Liège, Kortrijk and Lier.

One of the latest attacks took place at Lier station in Antwerp province on Thursday evening, when a passenger physically assaulted a train attendant to the point the employee needed to be taken to a hospital for treatment.

SNCB train and station staff were the victims of 1,900 attacks in 2022, an increase that seems to be continuing in 2023 with already 200 recorded attacks in January alone, compared to 130 in the same month last year.

That represents an increase of 50% in one year, with four out of 10 assaults degenerating into physical violence and each train attendant likely to expect two assaults per year on average.

“Since Covid, passengers react ten-fold,” Emilie Taverne, who has been a SNCB train attendant for three years, told Le Soir.

“If a train doesn't arrive on time, passengers jump on us. We have to appease them as best we can. The outbursts have already affected me. In those moments, I have to stay calm. Usually, things de-escalate on their own.”

Taverne said there had been a noticeable increase in the issue since the pandemic, with verbal attacks becoming more frequent.

Reasons include not only passengers lashing out after being caught riding without a ticket, but also anger over train delays, deficient equipment or lack of space.

SNCB has launched awareness campaigns about the issue, asking riders to be respectful of employees simply trying to do their jobs without abuse.

“For any act of violence against our staff, the SNCB will demand the most severe sanctions,” said Sophie Dutordoir, chief executive of the SNCB.

“We also ask the justice system to apply zero tolerance and to severely punish each aggression. Furthermore, an increased and visible presence of the railway police and the local police in the stations and their surroundings as well as on the trains is a necessity to support our security services.”

SNCB is asking that any aggression its staff face be treated seriously by the judicial authorities, with each situation being the subject of a complaint by the police force and each complaint being fully and seriously investigated, as well as the perpetrators being appropriately sanctioned.

For staff that have experienced physical or verbal assault, SNCB provides both psychological support and legal support against the perpetrator.

Cases leading to criminal proceedings may result in suspended or actual prison sentences for such attackers, who are also liable to fines or community service.

Assaulting public service staff is also considered an aggravating circumstance, meaning heavier sentences.

The SNCB plans to recruit more than 100 new Securail security agents in 2023 to increase the security presence in stations and on trains.

Securail also manages more than 10,000 surveillance cameras in stations, trains and on the railway property, the images of which can be made available to the police.

Written by Helen Lyons