History of rail transport in Belgium

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Le Belge ("The Belgian"; 1835) was the first steam locomotive built in continental Europe

Belgium was heavily involved in the early development of rail transport. Belgium was the second country in Europe, after Great Britain, to open a railway and produce locomotives. The first line, between the cities of Brussels and Mechelen opened in 1835. Belgium was the first state in Europe to create a national rail network and the first to possess a nationalized railway system.[1] The network expanded fast as Belgium industrialised, and by the early 20th century was increasingly under state-control. The nationalized railways, under the umbrella organization National Railway Company of Belgium (NMBS/SNCB), retained their monopoly until liberalization in the 2000s.


Attempts to build railways in Belgium significantly predated the establishment of the first line. In 1829, the British-Belgian industrialist John Cockerill tried to obtain a concession from the Dutch king William I to build a railway line from Brussels to Antwerp, without success. Shortly after the independence of Belgium from the Netherlands after the Belgian Revolution of 1830, a debate opened on the desirability of establishing public railway lines using the steam locomotives recently developed in England, where the first private railway had been completed in 1825.


Following the Belgian Revolution of 1830, when Belgium split from the Netherlands, Belgium became a key site of railway development. In 1831, a proposal to build a railway between Antwerp and Cologne (in neighbouring Prussia) which would link the industrializing Ruhr and Meuse valleys with the ports of the Scheldt was considered by the Chamber of Representatives but was eventually rejected.[2][3] In August 1831, however, the government launched a big scale survey of potential sites for railways which, it was hoped, would help to regenerate the Belgian economy.[4] Particularly in liberal circles, it was felt that railways would not serve a purely economic function, but were also necessary part of forging Belgian national identity.[4]

Rail networks and railways[edit]

First railways[edit]

Painting of the opening of the Brussels-Mechelen railway on 5 May 1835

Unlike the United Kingdom, where early railways had been developed by the private sector, the state took the initiative in the development of railways in Belgium, partly out of the fear that large banks, like the Société Générale de Belgique could develop a monopoly in the industry.[4] Considering that the railways would be a major economic resource and a full national network would be necessary, the Belgian government was unusual at the time for planning a national network in advance before any was built.[3] In 1834, the Belgian government approved a plan to build a railway between Mons, an industrial town at the heart of the Sillon industriel, and the port of Antwerp via Brussels at a cost of 150 million Belgian francs.[5][4] The first stretch of this railway, between northern Brussels and Mechelen, was completed in 1835 and was the first steam passenger railway in continental Europe.[5] Another line between Liège and Ostend meant that the country had a full rail network planned nearly from the outset.[5] By 1836, the line to Antwerp had been completed and by 1843 the two main lines (which formed a rough north-south/east-west cross) had been finished.[6]

Early Belgian railways were heavily influenced by British designs, and British technology and engineers were extremely important. The engineer George Stephenson travelled on the first train between Brussels-Mechelen in 1835, and his company provided the first three locomotives (based on the Rocket design)[a] used on the line.[6] The rapid expansion of the Belgian railways in the 1830s was one of the factors allowing Belgium to recover from an economic recession which it had experienced since the revolution and served as a major force in the Belgian Industrial Revolution.[1]


Antwerp-Central station, built between 1895 and 1905.

Subsequent development of the rail network was also largely organized by the state rather than by private companies. Several lines were built by private companies, notably the Namur to Liège line built in 1851, but private railways were built on a twenty-year lease which would return them to the government after the period has lapsed.[6] Many of the lines were operated by the Belgian State Railways. Within ten years of its first railway, Belgium had more than 560 kilometres (350 mi) of railway lines, 80 stations, 143 locomotives and 25,000 pieces of rolling stock.[4] Belgium's first telegraph line was installed in 1846 along the Brussels-Antwerp railway.[7] Unlike canals, which made internal trade much easier than international, the railways also pushed Belgian companies to export their goods abroad.[7] The success of the railways both intensified Belgian industrialization and consolidated Antwerp's position as one of Europe's pre-eminent ports.[4]

Ownership and nationalisation[edit]

A train to Antwerp leaving the Brussels-North station in the 1920s

The Belgian government resisted attempts by foreign companies to buy up railway assets in Belgium. In the winter of 1868, against a background of French threats to Belgium and Luxembourg under the rule of Napoleon III, the French Compagnie des chemins de fer de l'Est attempted to buy up numerous railway lines situated in southern and eastern Belgium in the provinces of Liège, Limburg and Luxembourg.[8] The Belgian state, under Leopold II, felt that the takeover presented a military and political threat and intervened to stop the sale in 1869.[8] The decision outraged the French, and Napoleon III considered invasion, but the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and his subsequent overthrow, prevented war.[9]

In 1870, the Belgian state owned 863 kilometres (536 mi) of rail lines, while the private enterprises owned 2,231 kilometres (1,386 mi). From 1870 to 1882, the railways were gradually nationalised. In 1912, 5,000 kilometres (3,100 mi) were state property compared to 300 kilometres (190 mi) of private lines. Full nationalisation was considered at the time, but was not enacted until 1926 when the National Railway Company of Belgium (SNCB-NMBS) was started, replacing the earlier Chemins de fer de l'État belge.[b] By 1958 the network was fully state-owned. The SNCB-NMBS first introduced electrification on the 44 kilometres (27 mi) Brussels North to Antwerp Central line in May 1935.

During the German occupation in World War II, the SNCB-NMBS was forced to participate in the deportation of Belgian Jews to camps in Eastern Europe as part of The Holocaust.


In 2005, the NMBS/SNCB was split up into three parts, to facilitate future liberalization of railway freight and passenger services in agreement with European regulations. Several freight operators have since received access permissions for the Belgian network.


A Brussels tram pictured in 1937 by the photographer Léonard Misonne

The first Belgian-built locomotive, named Le Belge, was built under license by John Cockerill & Cie. (the foremost Belgian industrial manufacturing firm at the time) according to a design licensed by Robert Stephenson & Co. in 1835. Le Belge is considered the first locomotive produced in continental Europe. Led by firms such as Cockerill, Belgium became a major centre of locomotive design and manufacture before World War II. Other companies included the Société Anglo-Franco-Belge, La Meuse and the Ateliers de Tubize.

The SNCB-NMBS traditionally terms its locomotives as classes or types.


Belgium has a long tradition of tramways as part of the public transport of its towns and cities. Today there are seven tram systems operating in the country. The network in Brussels is one of the ten largest in the world and the seacoast line is the world's longest tram line. Horse-drawn trams operated from 1869 and the first electric trams appeared in 1894.

Belgians also played a major part in exporting tram components abroad. Baron Empain, a Belgian industrialist and major investor in railways, gained the nickname "Tramway King" for his company's work in Russia, France, China, Egypt and the Congo and is perhaps best known for his work on the Paris Métro.

Museums and heritage railways[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The three locomotives were named La Flèche ("Arrow"), L'Eléphant ("Elephant"), and Stephenson, after their designer. The first Belgian-produced locomotives were used after 1835.
  2. ^ The National Railway Company of Belgium was named the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges in French, and Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen in Dutch, following the format of the French SNCF.


  1. ^ a b Pirenne 1948, p. 78.
  2. ^ Witte 2010, pp. 151-2.
  3. ^ a b Pirenne 1948, p. 77.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Witte 2010, p. 152.
  5. ^ a b c Wolmar 2010, p. 19.
  6. ^ a b c Wolmar 2010, p. 20.
  7. ^ a b Witte 2010, p. 153.
  8. ^ a b Pirenne 1948, p. 213.
  9. ^ Pirenne 1948, p. 214.


  • Wolmar, Christian (2010). Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways transformed the World. London: Grove Atlantic. ISBN 9781848871717. 
  • Pirenne, Henri (1948). Histoire de Belgique. VII: De la Révolution de 1830 à la Guerre de 1914 (2nd ed.). Brussels: Maurice Lamertin. 
  • Witte, Els (2010). La Construction de la Belgique, 1828-1847. Nouvelle Histoire de Belgique (Fr. trans. ed.). Bruxelles: Le Cri édition. ISBN 978-2-8710-6535-7. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Nilsen, Micheline (2008). Railways and the Western European capitals: Studies of implantation in London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780230607736. 
  • Dambly, Phil (1989). Vapeur en Belgique [Steam in Belgium]. Tome 1: Des origines à 1914 [Volume 1: Origins to 1914]. Brussels: G. Blanchart & Cie. ISBN 2872020055.  (in French)
  • Dambly, Phil (1994). Vapeur en Belgique [Steam in Belgium]. Tome 2: De 1914 aux dernières fumées [Volume 2: From 1914 to last smoke]. Brussels: G. Blanchart & Cie. ISBN 2872020136.  (in French)

External links[edit]