Trains and trams in Belgium: history and future

December 20, 1966: the last steam train in regular service in Belgium runs from Ath to Denderleeuw

Railways in Belgium - A brief History

Belgium was among the first countries to build an extensive railway network. In 1870, the total length was already exceeding 3100 km. In 1912 the length was increased till more than 5000 km. This will remain so till 1948. From then on loss-making routes were gradually closed, while the core network was modernized and electrified. In 1962 the thousandth kilometer was electrified.

Currently, the length of the railway network is 3578 km of which 3000 km is electrified and less than 800 km is only single track. (1)


Brief history of narrow gauge in Belgium

In 1884, the Belgian state created the "National Company for Vicinal Railways". Its task was to build and to run local railways (or trams) in areas not covered by the major railways. The first lines were opened in 1885 and the network expanded very rapidly. In 1925 it reached its maximum length of 5200 km. By comparison, the total length of the "normal" Belgian rail network is now - as mentioned before - 3578 km.

From 1953 on lines were systematically abolished and replaced by buses. When in 1991 this company was disbanded and replaced by "De Lijn" (The Line) in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia, there were still 105 km of tram line in operation by them. The best known is the coastal tram line, which is currently the longest tramway of the world (67 km).

In the heyday of the Vicinal Railways the following was written: "The vicinal railway is closer to the people than its big brother. It never had the intention to change the landscape, rather it adapted to it. It runs along the same roads as people do, it uses the same bridges as we do. It runs through village streets and stops near our local café". 



The Vicinal Railways started already in 1894 with the wiring of their network in Brussels. Thus they were not only the first tramway company in Belgium to do so, but also this was long before the "big” railways even started to think about it. Just before the First World War the Vicinal Railways had  about 200 km of their lines under electric traction.

source: Georges Colet on wikipedia

Red line: total length of electrified lines

Green line: total length of not electrified lines

Purple line: total length of network

By train from Brussels to Liege in 1947

On July 31, 1978, the last vicinal railway lines of the Brabant region were closed down. These were the lines BW (Brussels-Wemmel), G (Brussels-Grimbergen) and G crossed (Brussels-Het Voor). The BW and G crossed were introduced only in the 70s. Before the lines W and S followed the same road. Mostly the separate lanes of these lines are now transformed in cycling tracks.

Het Voor (or in French: Beauval) is a borough of Vilvoorde.


The 50s of last century: trams loaded with beets to the sugar refinery ....

The coast tram: the longest tram line in the world.


The photo at the left is a rare testimony of line M. This line connected Brussels with Mechelen via Melsbroek, Kampenhout, Haacht and Keerbergen. The part between Keerbergen and Haacht was only completed on June 1, 1949. Only eight years later - on June 1, 1957 - the exploitation of the part between Mechelen and Keerbergen was already abolished. A year later, no tram anymore between Keerbergen and Haacht. The last tram between Brussels and Haacht ran in April 1960.

Below this article you can see a picture of  the Antwerp "polder tram" In this case it was line 77, which connected  Antwerp with the Dutch border in Zandvliet. He ran through the polder villages Wilmarsdonk, Oorderen and Berendrecht. Not only the tram disappeared but also the villages Wimarsdonk and Oorderen. They were completely wiped out of the map in 1965 in the context of the expansion of the port of Antwerp. No wonder that - as far as I know - no one can locate this picture. 


Further reading

This article is about a typical Belgian subject. So I recommend people understanding Dutch (or people satisfied with translators like Google translator or Babylon) to take a look at the Dutch version of this article. It is also interesting for people searching photos or so of Belgian trams and trains of the past or the present. But for now let's look at a good starting point on wikipedia in English: Transport in Belgium, where you find references to other interesting articles.

For a vision for the future you can read this publication "The fifth conference MOVE - The future of mobility in Belgium" (129 pages). 

The coast & the Coastal Tram: about present and future of the coastal tram and more

You can read about infrastructure projects of the "normal" railways at the site of Infrabel.


A bit of history

Les gares belges d'autrefois: site in French language, with photos of old (mostly demolished) Belgian railway stations. This site also contains a historical map of the Belgian railway network. This is a remarkable picture of the station of Woluwe on the line between Brussels and Tervuren, the first electrified railway in Belgium. On the photo you see one of the first electric trains in Belgium. These trains ran previously on the Paris metro.

Passenger transport on this line was abolished at the end of 1958. Freight traffic was ended in 1970, when the line was broken up.
BelRail is another site with a lot of information about the Belgian railways. Recommended ! 

NMVB Tramways in Belgium with very accurate information about all lines and vehicles of the Vicinal Railways.

World Tramways is a site making it possible to follow the evolution of tram networks in several cities (including Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp) by showing network maps over the years. The Vicinal Railways are also showed on these maps (for the Belgian cities). This site often links to UrbanRail.Net, a gateway to any information related to metros, subways, or similar urban rail transit systems around the world. It gives you a general overview of each city's metro system and links you to other relevant sites.

TRAM TRACKS - TRAMSPOREN - TRAM TRACES - One group mentioned on this site is totally fake. Can you find out which?

TRAMANIA  has a little business with a database containing 6200 old photos. This database can be viewed. The pictures are small and marred by an ugly watermark in the middle. You can buy photos for € 2 each. You'll get the pictures by post after six weeks. Maybe you can download your pictures also on your computer, but that's not really clear in their explanation. Such photos - and video clips also, for that matter – should belong to the common heritage in my opinion. But I've learned that many people think otherwise.


Museum Lines and museums

There are several historical lines in Belgium, both standard gauge and narrow gauge. I will cite here two. Through the link pages of these sites you can easily surf to other lines or museums:

- Stoomcentrum Maldegem: this beautiful and informative website also has a wonderful rich page of web links.

- Association pour la sauvegarde du Vicinal (ASVi)



A tip for anyone interested in detailed maps of the network of the railways in Belgium, go to this page on de site of Infrabel, and choose C.Maps in the right column.


References (as far not mentioned in previous links)

(1)      Statistieken van de FOD Economie, KMO, Middenstand en Energie