With 3,513 km of railways Belgium has a very dense railway network. The entire railway network is managed by the public enterprise Infrabel.
Access to the Belgian railway network
The network statement is published every year by Infrabel and consists of a description of the network and the access conditions of this network.
Every enterprise seeking access to the Belgian railway network must meet the following conditions:
- Being recognised as a railway undertaking (RU); for that the undertaking must have a licence. Such a licence is valid in the entire European Union. In Belgium this licence is delivered by the minister of Mobility (in practice this licence is issued by the Directorate for Development and Support of a Sustainable Transport Policy and Railways (in French: Direction Développement et Support aux Politiques de Mobilité durable et Ferroviaire );
- Holding a safety certificate issued by the national safety body. The general part (part A) is valid in the entire European Union. The particular part (part B) is valid in only one member state. In Belgium safety certificates are issued by the DRSI – Department of Railway Safety and Interoperability (in French: Service de Sécurité et d’Interopérabilité des Chemins de Fer (SSICF) ; Railway undertakings (RU) with safety certificate valid on the Belgian Railway network.
- Holding railway infrastructure capacity (paths), accorded by Infrabel – Directorate Access to the Network (in French: Infrabel – Direction Accès au Réseau .
In order to actually use the railway network, a railway undertaking must make a contract of use (CU) with Infrabel - Directorate Access to the Network.
2. The sector's economic situation
2.1 Goods transport
The Regulatory Service has noticed that the number of railway undertakings that actively operate in Belgium has doubled over the last five years. The cumulative market share of new entrants has also seen a major increase. Whereas in 2007, new arrivals made up less than 5% of the market, their share was over 18% in 2013. However, only three of the new entrants have a market share of over 1%, the biggest of them representing around a tenth of the market. We can therefore say that competition on the market has slightly increased over the last five years. Naturally the new entrants are mainly active in the financially viable segments of full train loads.
The number of railway undertakings which operate in Belgium has progressively increased over the last few years. In 2013, with the entrance of PKP, a new Polish operator, there were 13 railway undertakings operating in Belgium. This is one more than last year. It should however be noted that 2 railway undertakings have operated on a single train path. This approach was probably aimed at maintaining the safety certificate.
At the end of 2008, the Belgian railway freight transport market experienced a clear decline due to the crisis in raw materials, which then led to the financial crisis. This reduction is clearly visible in the graph below, showing a major decline in the tonnes-kilometres travelled. In 2010 and 2011, the market renewed its growth, however since 2012 the debt crisis in the Eurozone has brought renewed decline. This negative trend continued in 2013. The number of tonnes-kilometres travelled went beyond its lowest level during the crisis year of 2009.
Freight transport on Belgian territory is closely linked to the development of economic activity. In 2013, the Belgian economy has seen practically no growth, which translates into a reduction in the total number of tonnes transported.
For the railway sector, the economic stagnation is given as the principal reason for this decline which has had a serious impact on clients' wallets and which has led to various restructuring efforts and closures.
Due to the economic situation, certain subsidies for intermodal transport and combined transport have been removed. The removal of subsidies has led to the closure of the Main Hub and the dismantling/stopping of a certain number of structurally non-viable services including Narcon and Rail/barge.
On the face of it, the new entrants would seem to be less affected by the economic situation. They are not only increasing their market share, but also recording a positive growth in total figures (tonnes-kilometres). It is not impossible that the type of transport carried out by the historical operator plays a major role here. In particular this involves wagon load transport and the more traditional sectors (steel, bulk, chemicals). This type of activity has suffered more than others from the economic situation.
The Council of Ministers has agreed to the implementation of a help mechanism for railway freight transport, more particularly in combined transport and wagon load transport. For 2014, the overall amount approved is 15 million Euros. For 2014, the growth perspectives for the economy as well as for freight transport are moderately positive, with an announced growth in GDP of 1.5% (OECD) et 2% in tonnes-kilometres (TKM) .
During the period 2006 to 2008, a trend was observed where historical operators were transforming themselves into structures for integrated logistics. Over these last few years, private operators have also been appearing on the market.
2.2. International passenger transport
Since 1 January 2010, the international passenger transport market has been liberalised. The Regulatory Service has noticed that, like last year, a real dynamic is lacking on this market. The historical operator does not face competition and it is still a question of a near monopoly.
The only new operator is Eurostar Int. Limited, which operates the Brussels-London line. This undertaking is nonetheless a joint venture bringing together the SNCB, SNCF and LCR (London and Continental Railways). As the graph below shows, this company represents, alone, nearly a tenth of international passenger transport.
The freight transport market has around two new entrants per year. International passenger transport however, does not show a similar development. A certain number of obstacles get in the way of competition on the market. Let us mention, for example, the technological barriers, as well as high investment costs and interoperability requirements imposed on new operators, as well as legal requirements on cabotage. It is obvious that these restrictions are holding back the market dynamic.
From the SNCB's product placement policy, the consumer may get the impression that there are several undertakings active on the market. Products such as Thalys and ICE position themselves as individual brands for international travellers, in particular due to their trains and marketing. From this, competition on the international passenger transport market could appear to have increased despite, factually speaking, the sector still being a monopoly.
 OECD, Belgium: economic forecast summary (May 2014)
 Departement Transport en Ruimtelijke Economie Universiteit Antwerpen (freight transport predictions December 2013)