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Belgium to collect data on travellers of planes, trains and ferries

A Thalys train at Gare du Midi in Brussels Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Belgium has announced controversial plans to collect information on all passengers of airlines, as well as cross-border trains and ferries, in the wake of the foiled attack on a train running between Brussels and Paris.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon says he has also pushed for a European-wide passenger name record (PNR) system at a weekend meeting in Paris of ministers from nine European Union countries.

The European Parliament has been considering a PNR system for airline travellers since 2011, but the measure sought by the United States has been held up by concerns among lawmakers.

Such shared data would include travel dates, contact details, baggage description and payment information.

MEPs opposed to the system argue that the widespread collection and retention of citizens’ personal information undermines fundamental privacy rights.

But Jambon stresses that it is necessary in preventing future terrorist attacks.

"My personal opinion is that it must be done for airline traffic but that we must also examine whether we can extend it to trains and other modes of transport, including boats," Jambon told a Belgian parliamentary commission.

"We must check whether the identity given is correct. If the name is on a blacklist we can arrest them before they board," he said, calling for the European PNR to be adopted “by the end of the year”.

Jambon said a Belgian system to collect passenger data should be implemented by the year's end.

Ayoub El Khazzani was arrested last month after boarding a Thalys train in Brussels armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, an automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter. He was overpowered by several passengers on the train in what authorities have called a thwarted terrorist attack.

The 25-year-old Moroccan was already on the radar of at least four European intelligence agencies, who had flagged him as a radical Islamist who made hardline speeches defending jihad and who had recently travelled to Syria.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who hosted the meeting of European interior ministers Saturday, insisted that information exchanges between members of the EU's Schengen open-borders zone must be made systematic.

He also suggested issuing tickets with passengers' names for long distance travel.

Britain, Italy and Spain already have a national data collection system for airline passengers. But Belgium is the first EU country to suggest extending the measure to trains and boats.

A European Commission spokesman told French news agency AFP that the issue of transport security would be discussed by EU transport officials on 11 September, ahead of a meeting of EU transport ministers on 7 October.

But it was "far too soon to think about extending" passenger data collection to other transport forms beside planes, he said.