Recently there was a head-on collision between the CEO of De Lijn and guardian minister Lydia Peeters (Open Vld). After Schoubs criticized the underfunding of De Lijn in a newspaper interview and also used the word “rotten strategy”, the minister responded that De Lijn had to stop “complaining and complaining” and that they had to work on creative solutions instead of “to cry in the newspaper”.
In the meantime, according to Schoubs, there have been several conversations with the minister and, according to her, there is certainly “no problem with mutual relations”. “But it is my job as CEO to highlight the problems that exist. We are now in a situation where we cannot realize the requested modal shift,” Schoubs explained.
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During a hearing in the Flemish Parliament, Schoubs acknowledged that the public service contract (ODC) that De Lijn has concluded with the minister for the period 2023-2027 provides for a “turnaround” in financing, but that this “catch-up” is not entirely sufficient to cover all to absorb past savings and at the same time respond to accelerated renewal and greening of public transport.
Schoubs again – with a stack of figures – raised the problem of the outdated fleet and infrastructure. For example, the buses are on average almost 10 years old, while the average is only 7 years and 30 percent of the buses are older than 15 years. The tracks are also on average 16.7 years old, while that is best only 12.5 years.
The current government has increased investments to 270 million euros per year. But according to Schoubs, 370 million euros would be needed annually to keep the buses, trams and tracks at a healthy level and to ensure the necessary innovation and greening.
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According to Schoubs, the outdated fleet and infrastructure also have an impact on services. “Trams have to run slower because the tracks are outdated, older buses are more susceptible to breakdowns, maintenance costs are higher and an old bus also offers less comfort,” Schoubs pointed out.
Add to that other problems, such as the shortage of drivers, and you know that De Lijn cannot always offer the range and service it promises. That is also why Schoubs suggests that we may – temporarily – cut back on supply. “The gap between available capacity and what we promise is too big. That is why we at De Lijn are asking for the offer to be scaled down to a level that we can effectively offer what we promise,” says Schoubs. As soon as capacity is restored, supply could be increased again.
According to the opposition parties, Schoubs’ figures prove that too many cuts have been made on public transport in the past. For example, Jos D’Haese (PVDA) spoke of “robbery construction” on De Lijn, while Stijn Bex (Green) spoke of an “assistance” by successive Flemish governments.
But De Lijn’s approach to temporarily reduce supply seems to receive little or no support. “Reducing the offer is not the answer that the traveler is waiting for. Then government funding should be increased,” said Vooruit MP Els Robeyns. A lower offer is also absolutely not an option for Groen and PVDA. Groen urged the minister for a real “emergency plan”. There also appears to be little interest within the majority for a reduced offer. For example, Bert Maertens (N-VA) and Karin Brouwers (CD&V) wondered what the reduced supply should look like and whether the reduction fits in with the agreements made in the public service contract and basic accessibility.
“I would rather not do that,” Schoubs defended himself. According to her, it is “a choice between the plague and cholera” and the intention is to “lower the bar a little to be able to effectively deliver what we promise”. Schoubs could not say how long that reduced supply would last. “Preferably not too long, but I can’t say whether that will be six or seven months. Above all, we must ensure that we can guarantee the promised service.”