How we can prevent a handful of strikers from taking Belgian and French industry hostage

02 June 2016

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A small strike with a huge impact

For rail freight operators in Belgium and France, the last days have been hell. A small minority within the infrastructure management companies went on strike and were able to block national rail freight traffic in both countries, as well as international traffic passing through from the UK, Germany, Spain, … All operators – private and public – are suffering heavily.
Moreover, industrial production has been severely hit. Important rail-dependent industries such as steel and chemicals were forced to slow down or downright stop production. We immediately started searching for alternative transportation methods together with the affected parties, but because of the unforeseen character and the duration of the strike it is very hard to find solutions that meet all needs. 

Trust in rail freight is damaged 

Operators such as B Logistics are working tirelessly to regain the consumer’s trust in rail. Rail is by far the greenest transport mode available, has the most positive effects on mobility and plays a major role in the competitiveness of our ports and countries on a worldwide level. We consider it our purpose to achieve a modal shift towards rail, and find it infuriating that a small group of rail workers can damage the image of the entire rail sector so heavily as they did in these last few days. 

The solution: guaranteed access to rail infrastructure for all operators 

When it comes to road transport, it is self-evident that roads remain open for all private and professional users at all times. Access to this infrastructure is considered a crucial public service and is always guaranteed, as is a constant supply of water and electricity. Furthermore, there are plenty of public services (the military, the healthcare sector, …) that are able to guarantee continuation of their services, even during strikes. 

What I propose is a combination of both, applied to the railway industry: guaranteed access to railway infrastructure. The infrastructure manager should provide service continuity (signaling & traffic management) to enable full access to the railway infrastructure, for all operators, at all times. 

What does it require? 

Developing guaranteed access to rail infrastructure requires, one the one hand, a well prepared, proactive infrastructure manager who is able to mobilise a limited number of people (in Belgium, a few hundred would already suffice) that are sufficiently trained and have access to the technical equipment needed to keep infrastructure operational in all circumstances. 

Secondly, there needs to be some additional government regulation that defines the rules of the game during a strike. This would enable the infrastructure manager to put above solution into place. 

Guaranteed access to rail infrastructure is absolutely realistic and doable. Achieving it may require careful preparation and political courage, but isn’t preventing a small group of strikers from taking entire countries and industries hostage more than worth it? It would sure do the credibility of rail freight the world of good.

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