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SNCB pleads for more safety measures around Brussels-Midi station
Belgium’s railway operator SNCB is calling for an immediate plan to improve the "dramatic" public safety situation around Brussels-Midi station in the capital.
“The SNCB has neither the resources nor the powers to take on this problem alone,” its managing director Sophie Dutordoir wrote in a letter. “It is necessary for each partner to take responsibility.”
Dutordoir asked Brussels minister president Rudi Vervoort (PS), federal mobility minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo), federal interior minister Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) and the mayors of Saint-Gilles Jean Spinette (PS) and Anderlecht Fabrice Cumps (PS) to work together to improve the safety and cleanliness of the station.
“The safety of our passengers and staff is SNCB's top priority,” Dutordoir wrote.
“Every day, more than 50,000 people take the train there, making Brussels-Midi the busiest station in the country. Moreover, it is also an international hub of train traffic in our country and the main gateway for international travellers visiting Belgium.”
Dutordoir said the SNCB was already taking many measures of its own, including the deployment of extra teams from Securail and more clean-ups at the station.
The director also hopes that the renovation of the former postal sorting centre on Avenue Fonsny will have a positive impact on the entire station neighbourhood, but still said that more is needed – and "urgently".
Among the creation of a short-term plan for improvements, SNCB also wants the future police station planned for the area to be housed in the train station itself.
“For SNCB, it is essential that all competent authorities and partners act immediately and decisively to address the problems and provide appropriate solutions,” Dutordoir wrote.
“This will not only benefit passengers, railway employees and the local community, but also improve the overall image of Brussels and our country.”
Federal mobility minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) said he “fully shares SNCB's concerns” and endorsed the proposal “to appoint a coordinating body for safety and cleanliness”.
Gilkinet said that interior minister Verlinden already organised a coordination meeting for August with the competent police authorities and representatives from the railway company.
“This is absolutely necessary – instead of passing the buck, the different levels must better coordinate their actions to ensure safety and cleanliness, as well as in the area around Brussels-North station,” Gilkinet said.
“The international status of these two stations (Brussels-North and Midi) and the image they project of the capital of Europe deserve a structural and proactive approach from the various authorities involved.”
Verlinden stressed that an initiative must come from Brussels’ minister president Vervoort, as he has “a coordinating power to tackle this issue”.
“We should not blind ourselves to the role of the police forces, however,” Verlinden cautioned.
“We should not expect them to have the solution to all problems. Punishment, follow-up and guidance by the justice system, the importance of education, poverty alleviation, guidance by street workers… numerous efforts are essential.”
Saint-Gilles mayor Jean Spinette agreed with SNCB’s letter, adding that he would like Brussels-Midi station to receive special international status that would allow it to further strengthen police capacity.
To assess the situation at the station first-hand, Brussels media outlet Bruzz had a team of journalists spend the night there.
When a reporter asked a taxi driver at the station whether they had noticed an increase in safety concerns, the driver responded: “Of course, it's daily. See that group over there? I dare you to walk past them. I guarantee you will be mugged.”
Other taxi drivers said that the group in question are members of one of multiple gangs that have made the station their workplace, making their living as pickpockets on metros and trains by day and at night mugging stray travellers and stranded tourists.
“They wait until Securail closes the station and all passengers have to leave the building, then they threaten people with a knife or shove a cloth filled with ammonia in their faces,” the driver claimed.
“By the way, they don't only harass travellers, but also homeless people who spend the night here. A group of women slept under the bridge for a while, but they were assaulted by the men and left.”
Federal police confirmed to Bruzz that perpetrators of thefts at Brussels-Midi rarely operate alone: “They work in groups, according to a certain structure and division of roles. The railway police are actively working on identifying these groups.”
According to the taxi drivers, the men are staying in squats in the area, but the police could not confirm this, saying only: “Many of the arrested suspects are indeed not legally registered in Belgium. It’s therefore possible that they are staying in squats.”
Bruzz’s reporters noted that while the last train left the station as scheduled at 1.30, the first night shift for Securail agents did not begin until an hour later.
Those agents ask lingering patrons to show proof of tickets - some travellers are waiting for buses. Those with a ticket are allowed to wait in the station while reporters noted that those asked to leave generally went to the Flixbus stop around the corner.
Police lack enough manpower to fully cover the station overnight, but keep an empty police car parked in front of the entrance as a visible deterrent.
“Police vehicles are regularly visibly placed there because, on the one hand, they can have a deterrent effect and, on the other, they can increase the public's sense of security,” a spokesperson explained.
The journalists noted that while their night was quiet, they were surprised at the low police presence in the station: apart from the empty vehicle, only three police cars were spotted and they were on their way elsewhere, responding to calls; just one car was witnessed performing a patrol.
This is in spite of the fact that federal police told Bruzz that the station has been a “hotspot” for years, meaning “a location identified as a sensitive spot, based on an analysis of recorded crime”.