Lucky little country

Observations on Belgium

Now that we have a high-speed rail link to Brussels, maybe Britain's transport chiefs could take a look at the rest of the Belgian rail network. For, when it comes to public transport, it's the much-derided Belgians who have the last laugh on us Brits.

Like Britain, Belgium is small and densely populated. But, unlike Britain, it has a co-ordinated, fit-for-purpose, publicly owned public transport system. Belgian Railways is the cheapest network in western Europe, with ticket prices that should make train travellers in the UK green with envy. In Britain, a next-day, peak-time return ticket from Manchester to London (200 miles) costs just over £200. In Belgium, the cost of a similar journey is less than £24.

Not only are Belgian fares cheaper, the ticketing system is simpler. In Britain, there are more than 200 types of railway ticket, depending on dates, time of travel and time of booking. In Belgium, price is determined by distance - a system despised by free-market fundamentalists. Prices don't go up in the rush hour: Belgian Railways simply puts on more trains and carriages. It has no problem meeting capacity because it owns its own rolling stock.

What a contrast to Britain, where commuters on the nation's most overcrowded routes are told they will have to wait three years for an end to their ordeal, because the train companies refuse to order new carriages until their contracts are extended.

A publicly owned transport system also means that the various modes - train, bus, tram - can be co-ordinated. In Ghent, you get off a train and a tram is waiting to take you to the city centre (for E1.50, the set fare on all Belgium's trams and buses). In Britain, despite the government's exhortations, the system remains fragmented.

Anyone who has travelled on both the British and the Belgian systems knows which is better. Yet, incredibly, the Belgian model is under threat from neoliberals in the EU. In the name of "competition", they are calling for the end of national rail monopolies and for transport to be opened to foreign companies.

In October, after intense pressure from corporate lobbyists, the European Parliament voted for the liberalisation of all international rail services from 2010, and for the European Commission to report no later than 2012 on the liberalisation of domestic rail services.

This pressure is coming from Britain; opposition is led by France and Belgium. In other words, we are calling for the rest of Europe to follow our flawed model, dreamt up by the free-market ideologues of the Adam Smith Institute.

On my last trip to Belgium, I travelled by train from Oxford to Waterloo International. At Oxford Station the ticket office was closed, and the departure board was not operating. As a train pulled into Platform 1, bewildered passengers asked each other if they knew where it was going.

A few hours later I was in the Gare du Midi, Brussels, from where an efficient and cheap underground system took me directly into the centre of the city.

Belgium may be only a short distance across the North Sea, but as far as public transport is concerned, it's a different world.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China