Welcome in Belgium!

If the first impression of a country is made by the facilities it provides in its national airport, Belgium has some room for improvement. Especially for those that combine their arrival with a train experience. The Thalys will soon make a stop here again, so we would like to welcome you and give you heads up for the experience that awaits you:

Welcome, the game is ”find the train”

OK, we know you are a little tired after your journey, we know you are a little stressed when you arrive for the first time in a new location, we know that we must guide you. But Brussels Airport has chosen to entertain you. There are just enough signs indicating where the railway station is so they can point out that they have done their job. But there are not enough signs so you can relax, follow he signs and arrive. If you follow the signs, we will even send you over an underground parking, barely lighted and with a smell as if there was a rock concert here yesterday. It’s a well kept secret that you can reach the railway station from within the airport without going over this parking. We love to make it a little more excited for you. No thanks, happy we could make this different.

Welcome, we don’t accept your money.

Most airports I have been to, and there are a lot, have an automated system to distribute tickets for public transportation. One can pay with cash or the major credit cards. Instructions on the terminals, as well as indications to where these terminals are, have been done with very clear pictograms, and in most airports, staff will be present to assist travelers. In New York for example, you will find on any given day about 5 to 10 staff in any of the airtrain-stations, ready to assist travelers in a very friendly and efficient way.

Well, we give you the choice in Brussels: You can get in line for a ticket, there are two windows, but only one is open. You will be serviced by a person that is barely speaking English and that treats any of his customers like they are to stupid to be walking the face of the earth, let alone his train station. Or, you chose the (yep: 1!) automated terminal. But if you had hoped to pay by cash or credit card here, you can get in the queue for the angry man, as in Brussels International Airport, this terminal only takes the local debit cards (bancontact/mister cash) supported by the local banks.

Welcome, figure out where you must go yourself!

There is no staff here to help you, because in the minds of the Belgian Railroad you are able to figure out the information on the yellow paper sheets that you might or might not find in the stations. If you pick the wrong ones, you will be looking at the timetable for the weekend if you are here on a weekday. If you happen to ever come in Amsterdam-Schiphol, you will find a display with all locations and what trains will bring you there. We Belgians believe that this is an underestimation of your brainpower, and we turned it in a little quiz. Enjoy: you have one chance in three to end up on the right platform. Once you have gambled well here, get ready for Brussels North station, where hitting the right platform is one out of twelve. The pro circuit, as you can see.

Welcome, don’t carry to much stuff

When I travel, I do carry some luggage (that is, if the airlines are not losing it). In Brussels airport, the national railroads have decided not to install elevators (lifts) to the train platforms and to block access for trolleys on the stairs. So, welcome dear traveler with luggage. See how you get to the train. don’t count on us for helping you. We’ll be monitoring you trough the camera-circuit and deliver the best of your struggle with luggage on our youtube channel one day. But we are not trained, nor have the genuine helpfulness in us to resolve this…

Welcome, show your tickets please, you thief!

So you have loaded all the luggage on the escalator and by risking life and limbs, you have made it to the bottom of the stairs and are ready to enter the platform. You would have hoped so, but the NMBS/SNCB (national railroad company) thinks the queue and the stairs are not enough humiliating and annoying you. You will now be checked to have paid the extra fee to use these great accommodations. OK, you lost me, so let me explain. When the Belgian government, the airport management and the railroad company set together and figured out that there could be some people taking trains in the airport, they decided to charge a special fee (diabolo, nomen est omen) for all passengers boarding or leaving a train in this railway station. And in stead of providing staff to help customers buy tickets, they have send 4 of their most incompetent, unfriendly and unilingual staff (they can’t even say please in our local languages, let alone in yours…) to see that you are not cheating this extra fee for the great service you are receiving.

Welcome, learn Dutch, now!

Some train staff will, once on the train, explain their welcome, the procedures and the next stops in four languages. They do exist but are extremely are rare. But they are in breach of the Belgian Legal system that doesn’t permit them to use English in official communications. And they are not even supposed to speak English. But rest assured that the Belgian railroads are committed to deliver you first class (!) service when visiting our country… As the airport is part of the Flemish community, one is not supposed to speak another language.

Welcome, our architect hates you… and us…

The railway station has been built taking into account the mission that not one person should feel comfortable here. And they succeeded. But for those that would have a sense of comfort after all, staff has been doing some reconstruction works since this station opened. So if you can stand the looks, they give you the noise of drills… We are all equal here: let the wait for the train be unpleasant for all. Those of you that have had lounges or even just enough sitting space while waiting for a train, note that we do things different…

Note as well the absence of any staff once you are on the platforms. You are on your own now!

Welcome, we have classes on our trains!

OK, even if the crappy compartment you are entering in is the most dirty one you have ever seen, beware: if it has the number 1 in it, or a yellow line on the outside: you are in a first class compartment. No, they have no internet here, of power plugs, or clean seats, or friendly people. But it is different, so you pay more…

One of the staff I met on a train and with whom I discussed this issue, said to a set of tourists that she found on the 1st class with a 2nd class ticket: “You can stay if you pay” …

Welcome, don’t carry to much stuff (2)

Baggage in train compartiment

The airport express baggage space...

Hey, after you have made it to the train, figured out that you are in the right class, you will find that this train, called airport express, has no room for luggage. The Belgian Railroad company must have been thinking that people coming to or leaving from an airport come there to visit the airport building itself, not to travel. So why provide trains that can accommodate all of your stuff? If you are lucky, you will even encounter one of their staff telling you that your luggage can not stand in the location where you put it, becoming deaf and ignorant when you ask where to put it…


Welcome, learn Dutch or French in 15 minutes!

So when you leave the airport, all of a sudden there is no information available in English anymore. Not on the signs, not in the announcements on the train. The man or women controlling your tickets is not supposed to speak English, but I must say that they have learned to explain that this is first class and that you should be in first in English. But explaining you what trains to change to get to your destination is part of the future learning program, if any.

Welcome, note that “express” is not fast

So this great train you are taking is called an Airport Express. That’s why they make it wait as long as possible in most stations it passes. If you happen to go to the airport and passes Leuven with this train, the “express” will stand still for about 10 minutes here. If the shop owners in Leuven would be able to serve coffee in under 10 minutes, you could have get some. Too bad.

Welcome, and enjoy your stay!

But, let this not stop you from experiencing the great nation with no service: Belgium Smile. The motto is: trek uw plan, tirez votre plan, help yourself.


If you would have hoped that NMBS/SNCB is reading these kinds of blogs and trying to improve, I must sadly inform you that this blog is not in a language their staff is supposed to understand…

6 thoughts on “Welcome in Belgium!

  1. Pieter

    The real bummer is actually when wanting to leave from Leuven for the airport. The earliest train is set up such that you mandatory miss the earliest flight (6:30 or se and not-coincidentally the cheapest) by just a couple of minutes. So you are obligated to take a taxi to Brussels-Airport. The advantage is obviously you didn’t have to take the train …

    • koen Post author

      Thanks Pieter for the comments, and indeed – I’ve left out the fact that the trains are not in sync with the airlines. Especially sad taking into accounts that most charterflights and lots of european flights do leave at the early morning hours…

  2. Patrice Fleurquin

    Great post Koen! You forgot to mention that this infrastructure is only a few years old ….

    There is a solution to overcome this kind of structural non-customer thinking: it’s called service design. Design your service for what your customers try to achieve ….

    Keep it up!


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