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Vicinals are on their way back 31 July 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Brussels, tram.
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Vicinal car 10485, preserved at the Woluwe tram museum

Anyone who studies the public transport map of Brussels will notice an odd thing – the holes in the network. There are certainly a lot of trams (indeed Brussels is one of the top 10 tram cities worldwide) but they are often to be found off the beaten track: they tend to avoid the main radial thoroughfares. This is because those main ‘N’ roads – like the N5 to Waterloo or the N8 to Ninove – used to have trams of a different sort – the chemins de fer vicinaux or buurtspoorwegen. These ran on narrower gauge (1 metre) tracks and so could not easily be taken over by the STIB. After the war the country could boast 4,811 km of these ‘neighbourhood railways’, but most of them closed in the 60s. The principal remnant is the 68-kilometre coast tram, the world’s longest tramline.

The plan with a hole in the middle

I’ve been reading the Flemish Mobiliteitsvisie 2020, published in 2009, which gives a remarkably clear and detailed insight into the tangled web of transport in and around Brussels. It is produced by De Lijn, whose business is public transport, so you might say “well they would wouldn’t they” but nevertheless it’s persuasive – as anyone who’s taken the train to Zaventem and whizzed over eight lanes of stationary traffic on the ring can imagine – if they don’t see it instinctively.

First of all let me comment that it’s comical that the plan, like a Polo mint, has a hole in the middle where Brussels ought to be. It prefers to talk about Vlaams Brabant to avoid treading on anyone’s toes. I can only guess that behind the scenes STIB/MTUB must be on board this plan. In fact my compulsive reading on this issue, Tram 2000, reprints in its June edition excerpts of the parliamentary debate on mobility, wherein Céline Delforge of the Greens questions the region’s mobility minister Brigitte Grouwels about just this issue – line-sharing between STIB and De Lijn. If we have De Lijn running its trams into Brussels along the STIB lines, she asks, won’t we risk destroying our integrated public transport system? No, she is assured, cities are not obliged to open up their public transport to competition. So from that point of view Brusselaars can relax – what’s proposed is an extension of Brussels’s tramlines out into the surrounding region. This happens already in places – notably on the delightful line to Tervuren (on which I celebrated my 50th birthday with beer and a tram-shaped cake). I’m reminded of the RTBF television spoof of 13th December 2006 where Flemish UDI meant the 44s were halted at the regional border. The spoof was making a good point – which is the Brussels regional border is acting like a straitjacket: we have a booming economic zone to the north-east of the city, round the airport, that is cut off from the rest of the town. Meanwhile Brussels has 20% unemployment while Flanders has under 7%.

Exponential growth

The Mobiliteitsvisie first of all notes that public transport patronage is likely to jump by 55% between 2009 and 2020 (in passenger-kilometre terms). The wonders of exponential growth are such that although that sounds massive, it’s only 4% a year. Investing in 513 km of new tramlines, it says, will shorten journey times and swing the modal spilt away from cars. The result is plans for new tramlines radiating out from Brussels to Ninove, St-Niklaas, Boom, Heist-op-den-Berg, Aarschot and Diest, figuring among an amazing 33 new tramlines for Flanders as a whole. The vicinal is coming back!

The report is careful to explain its methodology: the consultants asked people where they need to go and constructed a ‘desired network’ (wensnet). Which links do people want, and what would the cost-benefit be of improving mobility? It finds that there’s a potential to save 9,000 hours of time in each peak time hour – i.e. 15% of the time that is being lost. By separating public transport from cars, it can decrease the ‘VF factor’, which is the time of a journey by public transport divided by the time of the same journey by car. The lower the VF factor, according to research by TNO Delft, the greater the swing in the modal split.

It maps the travel nodes – from international level (Brussels, Zaventem, Antwerp, Lille) down to local. It then defines what transport modes are available. Interestingly between train and ordinary city tram it defines two separate concepts where something like ‘tram-train’ would be: ‘light train’ and sneltram or express tram. The difference here is that ‘light trains’ run on existing tracks while sneltrams run on new tracks. The end result is that the light trains are in effect the GEN (RER) while the sneltrams in effect rebuild the buurtspoorwegen (vicinaux) that were torn up on the 60s! Brilliant!

I have to say though it leaves out of consideration two modes that Brussels has been investing heavily in – shared cars (car clubs) and shared bikes. I guess it thinks these aren’t appropriate at regional level – and to be fair the Cambio shared cars are already in Flanders.

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