The Difficult Winter of Clark Kent

Dear Belgian Railways,

As you might have noticed by now, Belgium has recently been covered in a soft blanket of cold, white, powdery stuff. It is called snow. Remember that as i move on.

As you also might have noticed, this -all together now- snow has caused a bit of  a problem throughout the land as it tends to form dense carpets on roads, gardens and houses. What’s more, it can create accidents. Deadly accidents. So, although people tend to be rather happy with it at first, making large white antropmorphic figures outside in the garden, they quickly get fed up with the whole thing and start praying for sun to melt the snow away.

What’s more, as they can’t move about with their cars and bicycles without bumping into large solid objects, they turn to modes of transport more suited for such occasions. And that’s where you fit in.

You see, people have confidence in railways. If all else fails, people tend to look at the institution that lives by the clock, runs large engines and marvels of engineering over large distances to transport people from their homes to work and back for confidence. It’s the well-oiled machine of civilization at work. It is said that you can measure the wellfare of a country by the punctuality of its’ trains, in which case we are all doomed. At least Belgium, that is.

Whereas the French railways, at the first sight of snowflakes, are a kind of Spiderman, helping old ladies safely across the road, Belgian railways are not much unlike Superman: good-looking and strong at first sight, but not really at home on this planet and wearing the dirty underwear on the outside. You can call it what you want, but let’s call it by name: incompetence.

I happened to be in the country for a few hours during this memorable episode, and for a few moments i thought you had learned from last year. But as my train broke down just outside of Brussels and people started to panic because the doors were locked and it was impossible to get out, the first hints of Clark Kent’s outdated superhero costume underneath his clean-shaven journalist exterior were starting to show.

First, with tongue-in-cheek phrases barking from the loudspeakers, more at home in an abbatoir or, let’s face it, a gulag,  we were hurdled inside an already overpopulated and terribly slow  commuter train towards Brussels, with the promise we would be ‘taken care of’ in Brussels’ main station to go on to Paris.

In Brussels, however, no one was waiting for us. Well… in fact that’s a bit of an understatement, really. A few thousand people were waiting for their Thalys train to Paris, but there’s wasn’t a single member of railway staff in sight to ‘take care of’ the people coming from Cologne. In fact, there wasn’t a single member of railway staff in sight at all. The last member of staff i happened to notice was running towards his cubicle to lock himself in, protected from those nasty travelling people by a brick wall and the heated interior of his office on the platform. Oh, did i forget to mention? It was freezing -5°C outside.

I encountered a similar problem last year in Paris, when 4000 people were waiting in Austerlitz station in the freezing cold 3 days before Christmas for their train to arrive and take them to their family. They were given personalized information by railway personnel, coffee, macarons, croissants and warm blankets.

In Brussels South i saw elderly people being violoently pushed aside and barked at by railway staff, something you would probably call ‘communication’, but which i call violence and..well..incompetence.

Incompetence to handle a situation which, of course, was difficult… which, of course, was chaotic. But it wasn’t unexpected. You could have seen it coming. It’s called ‘winter’ for a start, and you had already noticed last year what it was capable of doing.

If even Superman can’t face a meteorological phenomenon like that, we’re all very surely doomed.

Yours sincerely,

Geert Biermans