Flemish railroads: whiter than white?


  • Keeping railroad surroundings clean apparently costs €15,000 less in Flanders.
  • The bill for Liège and the south comes to €300,000.

For many years, graffiti (drawings), tags (personalized signatures), frescos and other pictorial expressions of varying quality have formed part of the railroad scenery on the fringes of train stations and towns. Over the past few months, a clear contrast has become evident on the Eupen-Ostend line that passes through all the regions and Communities in the country. On the outskirts of Leuven and other Flemish train stations, heading towards the capital, passengers are met with the sight of walls, bridges, pillars and signal boxes that have all been repainted white. And they tend to stay white. The opposite is true for the journey from Liège or from Brussels, especially where it is difficult to make out two square meters of undecorated concrete.

Infrabel, which manages the Belgian railroad infrastructure, has admitted that such a “whitewash” along French-speaking parts of the track is no longer on the agenda and may even be unthinkable. Is this due to fatalism or discouragement? The truth is even more negative. Painting such a visible surface white would be akin to provocation, an invitation to re-cover the newly blank canvas. In Flemish suburbs there has been a diametrically opposed reaction with the clean-up encouraging a more respectful response. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule on both sides of the linguistic divide.

Beyond the sociological barriers suggested by such a difference in behavior, this twin-track approach to graffiti produces serious financial consequences. In Liège where the battle has become a veritable priority, the 2012 graffiti bill came in at €200,000. It is likely to reach €300,000 in 2013. In Brussels in 2012, the cost of cleaning the 1,400 m2 of tags and graffiti from the Gare de Bruxelles-Chapelle (part of the North-South connection link) was estimated at €75,000. One year later, the amount is believed to have already doubled.

While the tunnels of the North-South connection form a type of natural barrier (especially as graffiti artists tend to place their creations in locations which will ensure they are seen by the most people), efforts have been concentrated on preventing explosions of color in Brussels North and Brussels South themselves. There is neither the budget nor the will to defend the huge number of routes in and out of these stations.

At the same time costs for Leuven and surrounding areas have dropped from €4,000 in 2012 (including €3,000 worth of paint) to around €1,100 in 2013. Ghent, Bruges, Kortrijk push the bill up by €13,000. The Flemish total (excluding Antwerp, for which no overall figures appear to be available) therefore adds up to less than a tenth of the expected total for Liège alone. The fight against graffiti is, in fact, mixed in with the budget as a whole, as it is not viewed as significant enough to constitute a separate entity.

In the southern district that covers the province of Liège and part of the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg, it would be fair to say that everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown at this anti-social problem. As soon as possible, dissuasive measures such as fences placed at a distance away from signal boxes and underpass walls that actually prevent the use of spray cans are set to be introduced. This obviously explains the high sums involved.

In Brussels, Infrabel has been stressing the speedy reactions of certain municipalities in terms of cleaning up in the vicinity of train stations such as Schaerbeek, and the planned controlled demolition of abandoned railroad buildings that act as magnets to graffiti lovers. Here too, the bill comes to around €100,000 per year.

A country’s railroads are generally a reflection of itself. It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of visitors to these two very different images.



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One Response to Flemish railroads: whiter than white?

  1. Paul says:

    The cleanup “costs €15,000 less in Flanders”? No: it costs €15,000, period. I’d have thought journalists would pay some attention to the subject they write about. Journalistic misrepresentation needs to be severely kept in check: after all, it’s all about the perception of the public, and journalists bear a heavy responsibility, as surely they know, or should. Sometimes, I wonder. Did they foresee that the journalistic work of insiduous fiction “Bye bye Belgium” would cause such positive effect on Belgian politics?

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