The Belgian government has started parliamentary talks on plans to impose airline-style data registration on international rail and bus passengers as part of its response to recent terror attacks.
The so-called Passenger Name Records legislation, or PNR, is being discussed in the federal parliament Friday, and it could force train operators to send booking data to a central database 24 hours before departure.
“It would be pretty stupid to tell terrorists or violent extremists that you’re trying to catch them through aviation [controls] only. These people read papers too. They’ll move to other ways of transportation,” said Olivier Van Raemdonck, spokesman for Minister of Interior Jan Jambon.
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Thalys and Eurostar services heading north from France, and Deutsche Bahn services from Frankfurt would be covered, hitting international rail’s status as a check-free open system of travel. For rail, the measures will only affect services using Belgium’s high-speed lines, so the requirement would not apply to national operator SNCB’s services to Luxembourg and the Brussels-Amsterdam train that crosses the border 32 times a day.
“The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels changed everything,” said Benoit Hellings, a Green MP in the federal parliament. For him, the proposed rules are unwieldy and authorities will struggle to handle mass data efficiently.
PNR is just one of 18 measures announced by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel following the Paris terror attacks last year and an attack on a Thalys train in France in August 2015 that injured three people.
“It’s not only about getting hold of [terrorists] via lists that allow us to arrest them, but also about profiling, mapping the movements,” Van Raemdonck said.
The legislation is now in draft form, with parliamentary debates set to thrash out the terms of what could become four different laws — one each for rail, aviation, bus and boat travel.
The European Commission is taking a wait-and-see approach, saying only that it would respond once full legislation had been prepared.
The Commission’s Director General for Transport Henrik Hololei wrote to the Belgian permanent representative in the summer requesting to be kept informed. Hololei warned of a “profound impact” on overland travelers if new checks were brought in.
An EU PNR directive already covers aviation data checks, but it provides for national systems of mass collection to be implemented for other modes of transit. Data privacy watchers have challenged the existing aviation arrangements.
MEPs have refused to ratify the bilateral EU-Canada PNR deal in the European Parliament until a European Court of Justice judgement comes through on its legality.
An advocate general for the ECJ said in a recent opinion that there were serious concerns about the Canada deal in its present form.
“Privacy is not such an issue, we’ve worked a lot on that and negotiated. We know where the limits are,” Van Raemdonck said. “What’s important is that we have to be able to implement the systems” for sectors beyond aviation.