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Train Commute in BXL: We Might Miss a Connection… The Human One

Today, we are yet again roaming train stations' platforms, coffee shops, and halls in search of a personal look at the experiences of taking the train in Brussels. In this article, we’re talking to a young professional. It’s Wednesday, around 4:30 pm, and the first wave of professionals finishing work is streaming into Brussel-Schuman’s entry hall. Brussels-Schuman lies right in the heart of the European quarter. It is named after Robert Schuman, who was one of the early founders of the European Communities which later became, you guessed it, the European Union. Despite being one of the smaller stops of Brussels' vast public transport network, the station seems very much alive today. Bustling with commuters rushing, even running, to get to their connection.

Naturally, a lot of the commuters at Brussel-Schuman are here concerning the European Union. This is how we meet Tina, waiting on the same platform we arrive on. Tina is a blond 30 years old woman, working as a senior advisor for the Finnish Ministry of Finance. She’s catching a train to Zaventem after a day of negotiation with the working council parties. Her main impression of her journey by train is its intuitiveness: “It’s easy to buy tickets, the signs are informative too.” Furthermore, she doesn't seem to miss anything during her journey as it has gone smoothly so far. Pats on the back for you NMBS! It’s a good exercise to test how people, who aren’t necessarily familiar with Belgian public transport, navigate their way through it.

When we make our way towards the main hall, we are greeted by the evening sun streaming down the escalators. Slowly a group of people gathers underneath the blue displays. All of them hoping for their departures to show up without a hint of red, marking a delay. A young woman yo-yo-ing between the displays and the ticket booths catches our attention. She introduces herself as Ornella; her eyes wrinkling, hinting at a smile hidden behind her mask. She’s a young professional working in children's psychiatry but also studying social work. Today she’s going to Namen and taking the train as it’s the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally-friendly option available.

“I usually take the subway to work but I feel safer using the train.”

When we ask her what she might miss during her train journey she tells us that she misses contact with people, like when the ticket booths are closed. “And yes, the machines work but I’m also thinking of people with disabilities and older people who might not be able to use them.” She emphasizes that the presence of humanitarian assistance and service people, in general, are of significant value, and contribute to a pleasant train journey. She’s right in this sense. Studies have confirmed that the implementation of highly automated systems in public transport tends to neglect to address the social impacts. Leaving humans more and more out of the loop can even cause stress and anxiety. Ornella also adds that it’s important that she feels safe taking the train: “I usually take the subway to work but I feel safer using the train. I see a difference in comfort and the commuters too”, she says.

Moreover, her general experience with train journeys is positive: “I’ve actually met many nice people on the train. During the summer holidays, I met a couple from Bruges who was about to visit Namen. I heard them speaking Dutch, which is not very common on a train to Namen. So I asked them where they came from and what their plans were.” Visibly enjoying the memory of the story, Ornella reveals she usually starts a conversation with people when they seem open to it. “When the weather is nice, the sun is shining, people seem more accessible for a chat.” The one thing that would make her happier at the moment, is the disappearance of the masks: “so you can see people communicating, non-verbally too, smiling…” she says.

“Thanks to him I really got to know myself”

But when the train is too busy, “there's no place to sit, you’re wearing headphones…” or “after a day of work you sometimes don’t feel like talking.” This is when Ornella likes listening to music, reading a magazine, or a book. But it’s not just your regular kind of book: “I’ve read a Crimibook recently. You, as the reader, have to solve a murder! It’s very interactive with QR-codes and an online environment.” Music-wise she’s currently listening to Stromae’s new album but also to her boyfriend's music. Aviv-A is his artist's name. Ornella tells us he’s one of the most influential people in her life: “We were very young when we met, so we basically grew up with each other. Thanks to him, I really got to know myself.” She’s a little hesitant when she admits she can sing as well, as it’s something people might be surprised to know about her. “I’m waiting for my coach to contact me, to start my first singing lesson. I usually don’t tell people, because they will ask me to sing for them”, she admits with a nervous smile. “I just want to see how far I can go and get some new experience.”

Ornella is definitely a people person: enjoys socializing and naturally thinks of others when asked to evaluate a situation. She feels safe and is generally happy with the comfort of the train journey that Brussels provides. She especially appreciates the humanitarian assistance from the workers at NMBS. This leads us to her point about the decrease in presence of staff in the stations, which is obviously not only a trend in Brussels. A possible solution to this would be a focus on human-centric design instead of pure automation and the availability of a skeleton crew to assist if needed.

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