Frank D’hanis (°1983) is a copywriter and philosopher. He is writing about the railway strike.
When a trip with the NMBS this week did not take me the expected hour and a half but almost three hours, it became too much for me. My toddler was at school waiting for his dad to pick him up and despite a wide margin I didn’t get to him on time. I was standing, gritting my teeth like a sardine in an overcrowded train, when the final stop was also abolished in the middle of the journey. This description will be familiar to anyone who sometimes travels by train. Yet I choose not to direct my frustration about the failure of the NMBS, with now another strike, not on the staff or the unions, but on the government and management.
Whether the federal government is cutting back on the rail budget is only clear to specialists. Officially it is said that significant investments are being made, which the opposition of course doubts, and that investments take time. NMBS CEO Sophie Dutordoir is convinced that things will be better within ten years. We will see. What I do know for sure is that the price of a train ticket has risen steadily over the years and I therefore pay more for the same often inadequate services. It is also certain that in ten years I have not experienced any positive evolution in the number of breakdowns, delays or helplessness at the NMBS when I take the train. Despite my strong environmental concerns, this leads me to increasingly take the car when I really have to be on time.
In a situation of unclear causes, it is natural for the dissatisfied traveler to look for the most visible explanations and direct his anger toward them. And that is often the staff and, if there is a strike, the union. My experiences with the staff on the train are 99 percent positive, but there are indeed those occasional times when everything goes wrong and I can no longer count on them. That is difficult, but I keep in mind that it is much more difficult for them than for me. They are constantly faced with delays due to outdated infrastructure and are not given extra time to catch their breath every now and then, but rather less and less. The reason for the recent strike was to halve the start-up time for train drivers to ten minutes.
If your staff say they are collectively exhausted for years because of the workload, and the operational side of your organization is often in trouble, then you have to take their complaints seriously. To dismiss legitimate questions such as more support for public transport as whining is short-sighted in such a situation. It is fashionable for certain political figures to portray entire sectors as lazy, in order to push their own ideological agenda of less state and more private. Education is another target.
When working people resort to a strike, whether at Delhaize or on the railways, it is because their reserves are exhausted. A strike is always a symptom of something deeper, and should therefore not be confused with the disease itself. As long as governments and management are not prepared to tackle that disease, the symptom will continue to occur, and will probably get worse. I wish NMBS a good recovery, and especially good surgeons.