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All aboard? A decision-making instrument for the future of the Brussels North-South railway connection

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from Geert te Boveldt and Cathy Macharis, published on May 28th, 2018. Read the article.

Many Brussels mobility projects stagnate for not only technical but also political and administrative reasons. Decisions are taken laboriously or not at all due to the fragmentation of competences across a large number of stakeholders on different administrative levels. The Brussels North-South connection is emblematic for such projects.

With 1,200 trains a day, this connection is by far the busiest stretch of the Belgian railway network. The three busiest stations of the country are located there and the slightest disruption has a direct impact on the entire network. Different studies have predicted an increase in passenger traffic by train to and from as well as within Brussels, and the capacity of the connection will be put under even more pressure with the full commissioning of the Municipal Express Network (GEN).

From an administrative and political standpoint, the North-South connection involves primarily the (federal) authorities responsible for rail transport, but also others (regional and municipal) in the area of urban planning, regional planning, local public transport, economy and environment. The problems related to capacity of the connection are the responsibility of different authorities, bound to different territories and to different levels of government (municipal, regional, federal). Even the cooperation of authorities with a relatively small role in the project is necessary, as they can block it up to a certain point.

In the 124th issue of Brussels Studies, Geert te Boveldt and Cathy Macharis from Vrije Universiteit Brussel (MOBI centre) discuss the issue of the capacity of the North-South railway connection, with a methodology which attempts to go beyond the obstacle of decision-making in a context involving multiple stakeholders, whereby, in the end, instead of opting for the most socially desirable solution, the lowest common denominator among the interests of the stakeholders is chosen.

When planning infrastructure, governments mostly rely on evaluation techniques such as cost-benefit analysis or multi-criteria analysis. With these instruments, they weigh the expected utility of the different project variants against each other. In their classic form, however, these techniques are less useful for cross-border projects, which have different effects in different locations. So what matters always is whose costs and benefits and whose criteria are used to evaluate a project. In such projects, decision-makers must therefore take into account the spatial dimension and the levels of authority.

In order to address these limitations, the authors propose the use of the COMCA (Competence-based Multi Criteria Analysis) participatory method. The different stakeholders are structured according to their role in the project. The various aspects of the project are then tested according to the criteria presented by each of the stakeholders. Thus, the appropriateness of each aspect is evaluated for each stakeholder, as well as for each group of stakeholders, who are responsible for a specific task in the project.

The Brussels Studies article describes the application of the method to a choice of infrastructure solutions to extend the capacity of the North-South railway connection in Brussels. Rather than the much researched 'doubling' variants of the current North-South axis, the variants allowing for other connections are promising. This would involve a better use of the existing railway lines which run through Brussels or which bypass the city.

The consultation described in the article by the VUB researchers does not offer a final solution, but instead designs an evaluation and consultation structure that provides input for the political decision-making process, which in the end should also integrate the modes of operation of the network (frequency, connections, destination of trains, etc.). But it is already a significant step in the institutional context of Brussels.

te Boveldt Geert, Macharis, Cathy, “All aboard? A decision-making instrument for the future of the Brussels North-South railway connection”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 124, 28th may 2018. URL:

Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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