Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Latest whinge: the #NMBS / #SNCB

When we first moved to the village where we live, train connections were rather good - from our local station, there were two trains every hour both to and from Leuven, arriving there just before the half-hour mark and departing just after it. This worked particularly well for connecting trains to Brussels, which usually leave Leuven on or just after each half-hour.

But a couple of years ago, the local timetable was changed; the trains now leave Leuven just before the half-hour at 28 mins past, and arrive just after at 33 mins past (and in the evening they drop in frequency to hourly rather than half-hourly). For my morning commute this is just about OK as the Brussels train leaves at 35 mins past and is usually a bit behind, so normally one can belt across to the right platform. But for the evening return journey, when the local train service is down to one an hour at the 28 minute mark, it is disastrous. The Brussels train is scheduled to arrive in Leuven at 25 past; if you chance to be at the wrong end of it, and it is on time, you may well not be able to get to the local train's platform; if the train from Brussels is delayed by even a hair's breadth, you arrive to see the local train merrily puffing away into the distance.

Normally I take the trains that arrive in Leuven just before the top of the hour, in order to get the bus home which leaves at 7 minutes past and also stops much closer to my house. But as luck would have it, I happened to be on the later trains on both Monday and Tuesday this week; and on both Monday and Tuesday I arrived in Leuven to see my connection disappear.

I had had enough at this point. Since I had involuntarily acquired time to spare, I went to the Leuven ticket office and asked what I could do to urge the NMBS / SNCB to restore the previous, more sensible timetable, or at least to shift the departure southwards by that crucial couple of minutes. They suggested that I fill in the complaints form on their website. I said that I had already done so, in February and in September, but had had no response and was not convinced that any human being had looked at it. Who could I talk to at NMBS / SNCB headquarters to be certain that the top brass are aware of my concerns? The ticket office guy looked blank and suggested that I talk to the deputy stationmaster.

I found the deputy stationmaster's office, ignored the 'staff only' sign and outlined the situation to the deputy stationmaster and her colleagues. Who could I talk to in Brussels? She flatly refused to give me any information about NMBS / SNCB headquarters, or any ideas as to who else I might talk to. Her colleague, cynically lounging by his computer screen, said that there was absolutely nothing that could be done.

I went back to the ticket office guy and told him that his advice to see the deputy stationmaster had not in fact proved a fruitful line to take. He gave me a phone number to try the next day - 070 797979 - and also made the interesting suggestion that if my Brussels train is running late I should ask the conductor to call ahead to Leuven to see if they can hold the connection for me. This is actually rather a good idea, fully in keeping with the Belgian tradition of on s'arrange, but does not help with the systemic problem of the train timetable simply being wrong, and also of course will inconvenience other travellers on the local line if their train is made late for my benefit.

I got home (by bus) and filled in the NMBS / SNCB web form anyway, including a request for a human being to acknowledge receipt of that message. Needless to say, no such message has arrived.

Next day I tried 070 797979. No answer. Poking around the website I found another number to try - 02 5282828 - and actually got through to a human being. He pootered around with the online records and confirmed that my trains had indeed arrived too late in Leuven to catch my connection, which was all very well, but I already knew that. Who could I speak to at NMBS / SNCB headquarters? He did not know, but gave me another number to try - 02 224 5111. I asked if my conversation with him would at least be reported to his chain of command. He said that the usual procedure would be followed, which did not fill me with confidence.

So I wrote up an account of all of this and emailed it to the NMBS / SNCB press spokesman, whose email address at least is public, including again a request for acknowledgement that a human being had actually received the message. No reply as yet, but I suppose it is early days.

I should add that once again, my train home was delayed yesterday, but this time I was taking the slightly longer way route via Ottignies (because I had been at the European parliament all afternoon and was leaving from Place Luxembourg), and asked the conductor if the train going north could be held until we had had a chance to get on it; and he duly did so, and I got home rather earlier than I had on Monday and Tuesday. I was clearly not the only passenger rushing from one train to the other.

Ironically, NMBS / SNCB claims that pragmatism and passion are two of its core values. (The third is modernity.) It doesn't seem terribly pragmatic to schedule trains in such a way that people miss their connections, unless of course the agenda is really to scrap passenger trains on our line altogether and turn it over completely to the more lucrative freight business. And I have to say that I did not really sense much passion from the NMBS / SNCB staff I spoke to.

Clearly NMBS / SNCB is pretty dysfunctional when it comes to customer communication. I imagine that this is partly because it is split into three different companies, Infrabel, which manages the infrastructure, NMBS / SNCB, which manages (if that is the word) freight and passenger services, and NMBS / SNCB-Holding, which owns the other two. Altogether NMBS / SNCB is the largest single employer in Belgium, with all the baggage of institutional culture that brings, especially in a country which was designed by bureaucrats for bureaucrats.

Anyway, I shall update as and when.

Edited to add: As advised by the bloke I spoke to on 02 5282828, I called 02 224 5111 again this morning and got through twice. The first time, the operator denied that they had a customer service department and put the phone down. The second time, a different operator, obviously by mistake, put me through to the customer service department. They told me that I must speak to the call centre and then put the phone down without giving me the call centre's number.

Further edited to add: Got a response from the spokesman's office!
After reading your email to our press office, I can only confirm that you have called the correct number of our customer service. If indeed you were treated in the way you describe, this would not be professional on their behalf.

But as you can surely understand, treating a customers complaint is not the role of our press officer. In the meantime, we forwarded your complaints to the customer service manager and we insisted on the sense of urgency of your demand. They confirmed us a rappid treatment of your complaints and they will get back to you within a few days, after having made the nessecary enqueries.

I would like to appologise on behalf of our company for all inconvenience you have encountered.
Well, we'll see what happens...
Tags: nmbs-sncb, world: belgium
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