Brussels train crash: it was bound to happen
Belgian trains are frequent and hyper-efficient. But are there too many of them?
A visit to the wonderfully retro Brussels Central station is a must for admirers of the work of the great architect Victor Hortha. And as the hub for the densest railway network in the European Union - Belgium has a staggering 3,454km of track - it's also a paradise for train spotters.
Researching a magazine article, I once spent 20 minutes there noting the arrival of trains on several different platforms. Out of a total of more than 30 trains, some of them international, all except one were on time, and that one was just 90 seconds late. Eat your heart out, Richard Branson.
Compared to travelling on Britain's unreliable and ludicrously expensive privatised railways, travelling by rail in Belgium is a positive delight. Not only are trains more punctual and more comfortable, but fares, based on distance-based pricing, are easy to understand and considerably cheaper than in the UK. And trains are incredibly frequent: on average they leave every half an hour between Belgian cities.
But having such a dense railway network also has a downside.
With unconfirmed reports stating that at least 20 people have been killed, it seems that this morning's rush-hour train crash at Buizingen, nine-miles south-west of Brussels, could prove to be the worst train disaster in western Europe since the crash at London's Paddington station in October 1999, when 31 people lost their lives.
Reports state that two trains collided head-on, in snowy conditions at around 8.30 local time. The crash has caused major disruption to domestic and international services - with all Eurostar services from Brussels suspended until further notice.
Some would say that given the sheer number of trains operating on Belgium's bursting to the seams network, this morning's disaster was an accident waiting to happen. Last summer, while travelling from Hasselt to Brussels, I expressed my enthusiasm for Belgian Railways to a railway guard.
Having spent time travelling on the railways in Britain, he agreed with me on the superiority of the Belgian service, but expressed concerns that there were simply too many trains on the network. "We've reached full capacity," he said. "It's really a tribute to the organisation and signalling technology that crashes are so rare."
The last major crash in Belgium, in which eight people were killed, occurred nine years ago, and also concerned two commuter trains colliding head-on near Brussels. And in 2008 a commuter train collided with a freight train near Liege, leaving 30 passengers injured. Even so, considering the number of trains operating every day on continental Europe's busiest network, Belgian Railway's safety record, even after today's tragic events, is still commendable. ·