The International Steam Pages
“The Lowlands low” (“Benelux” circa 1963 – 1993)
Robert Hall writes of travelling through "The Low Countries"...
There is a relevant map at the bottom of this page.
I sometimes fear that readers of these “Tales” may weary on occasion, of my impassioned admiration for Bryan Morgan and his – in my opinion – master-work, “The End of the Line”. Apologies for boredom which may thus be caused; it’s just that the book concerned has been – for me -- since my discovering it at the age of fourteen, the total exemplar and distillation of Mr. Morgan as, to the ultimate, my kind of railfan, doing my kind of railwaying. And, the book opened my eyes to what an enormous, and delightful, quantity of light railways on both standard and narrow gauge, were to be found in Western Europe shortly after the mid-point of the twentieth century (to say nothing of the overall far greater wealth of same which had been there to enjoy in earlier decades).
The great work was published in 1955, and the author’s policy was to describe how things were light-railways-wise, in each country which he covered, as nearly as possible as at the moment of publication. (He complained that lines kept being closed “out from under him”, faster than he could amend the book’s proofs.) Regarding some West-European lands, he painted a picture of a sadly faded and depleted situation on this front, even as early as 1955.
The book’s “itinerary” starts with a chapter on the Low Countries – Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – in all of which Mr. M. depicts, as above, degeneration and decidedly slim pickings. In different ways concerning each country.
Netherlands – a one-time light-railway and, especially, steam-tramway paradise -- he describes as almost emptied of such treasures as at the early 1950s: with just one big and amazing exception – the wondrous 3ft 6in (1067 mm) gauge privately-owned Rotterdam Steam Tramway system. Belgium, in contrast, he found copiously served by metre-gauge lines of the country’s Chemins de Fer Vicinaux / Nationale Maatschappij van Buurtspoorwegen undertaking; but for him, early-fifties time, that scene had become mostly dull and dreary – the majority of it, made over into urban / rural electric tram routes. The non-electrified minority of the Vicinaux system was served by diesel conveyances trying to look as much like electric trams, as possible; and steam thereon was all-but finished. Morgan enjoyed electric trams just fine, in smallish doses – he gagged on them as a staple diet, though. Luxembourg, he tells of as more following the general European tendency where light railways were concerned, than its two rather larger neighbours. A one-time considerable array, for the country’s size, of metre-gauge secondary genuine railways, rather than tramways; which had however been progressively whittled down over the previous decade, till in ’55 just one line was left operating – and that too, closed soon after the book’s publication.
I have made fairly “glancing” visits to all three countries, pretty much at opposite ends of a thirty-year time-span. Netherlands was my first-ever venture outside Britain – a school trip of a week or more’s duration, in summer 1963. The holiday’s destination “not negotiable”; just my ill-luck that the target country was virtually the only one in Europe at that date, to have completely got rid of steam traction. Netherlands had a bad time in World War II, at the end of which its railways were in a comprehensively-ruined condition, requiring their rebuilding pretty well from scratch. On the 1435mm gauge state-railways system, all main lines not hitherto electric, were made so; lesser lines not rating electrification, were dieselised. By 1963, the state railways were steam-free – most rail travel in Netherlands was in EMUs, running to frequent and efficient schedules; but ugly things. On non-electric lines, for passenger, diesel multiple units were universal.
When Morgan was writing, Netherlands’s one-time host of light railways, on a variety of gauges – most in or tending toward, the non-electric-tramway ballpark, and privately owned – had very largely vanished (World War II had played a big part there). A few remnants were left; plus the extensive system of the Rotterdam Steam Tramway (RTM). “Who knows why and how” there was in the early 1950s, this one great survivor – but thus it was. Morgan proclaimed himself baffled but delighted – quoting him approximately, from memory: “it’s like going to a zoological gardens prepared for a duck-billed platypus or two; and finding oneself confronted, immediately on entering, with a healthily breathing brontosaurus.”
In 1955, Morgan’s publication date, the RTM – with passenger and freight services -- fanned out intricately west and south-westward from its Rotterdam headquarters, in a 60-km-odd arc over the basic Rhine-delta archipelago in that area – ferries between islands, featuring prominently. At time of book’s publication, operation was about 50% diesel, 50% steam – as I understand, the latter basically “skirted down below, ordinary locomotive above”, rather than the box-like completely enclosed steam-tram-loco type. Not very long after the book appeared, the system’s outer reaches were abandoned – leaving basically the “inner main lines” from Rotterdam to Oostvoorne and Hellevoetsluis, at or near the coast. I believe that this retrenchment allowed withdrawal of steam from regular service; henceforth steam locos were used only for special occasions / railfan charters.
In 1963, the RTM’s main lines as above, were still running with diesel traction. Being in Netherlands for better or worse, I was avid to experience what remained of Morgan’s “breathing brontosaurus”. Our (all-male) school party was based and accommodated in The Hague / Scheveningen, geographically very close to Rotterdam (which we visited one day, for conventional tourist doings). “The sorrows of the young”, “In loco parentis”, and all that – nobody else on the school trip, master or pupil, had any interest in railways. It was adjudged that at the age of fourteen, I was too young to be allowed to undertake a day-long solo expedition, which is what would have been needed to fully “do”, from The Hague, the RTM. Such a venture in company with a fellow-pupil, could have been considered; there remained the insuperable problem of trying to enlist a fellow-pupil for the enterprise. Begging and entreating achieved nothing ; none of such were even remotely interested, and I was given to understand that my sanity was gravely in doubt.
“Masters and pastors” finally relented, to the extent of letting me make an afternoon’s trip on my own, to Rotterdam. This time-constraint, plus time taken up by trial-and-error locating of the RTM’s route, allowed only the most minimal experience of the line. I was able to travel from one intermediate halt within the city, to the next, and back. Both trains used, were hauled by fair-sized diesel locomotives, bogie machines if I recall correctly. That on the outward train was in red and cream livery; that on the opposite-direction working, one of RTM’s timber-bodied locos, livery “natural wood”. If memory from, now, not far off half a century ago, serves me correctly: this section of the line was partly set directly into the streets, and partly on its own reservation.
Have difficulty deciding whether this “smallest possible helping” of the desired objective was better than nothing at all; or whether peace of mind would have been better served by not getting to see anything of the Tramway, as opposed to such a tantalising micro-glimpse of a fascinating narrow-gauge concern. The part of the RTM still active in 1963, survived a little longer, closing early in 1966. Some of the system’s motive power and stock has been preserved in working order – including several steam tram locos. For a considerable number of years, a preservation society has run services on a small section, at the coastal end, of a former RTM route. Until fairly recently, this exercise involved running over only a very short distance; but extending has taken place, and the route length served is now some 8 km – providing for me some slight incentive to possibly visit this venue, which had hitherto struck me as, for my tastes, too “small-time” to be of interest.
Trying to be just; the holiday did provide copious travel on rails of one kind and another – this being found, basically, the most expeditious way of getting around. We kept essentially to the “core” of the Netherlands, containing the most-renowned tourist bait: the area extending some 30 km inland from the stretch of coast between Hook of Netherlands, and the northern islands. Within these bounds, however, plenty of excursions were made, involving a fair number of state-railways journeys, albeit in functional but dull and aesthetically unexciting EMUs; and use of electric trams in various cities. There was then at any rate, a minor-league “interurban” tram route running the 10-odd km between The Hague and Delft. We made a visit to Delft, and used the tram to get there and back. We didn’t get to Utrecht, with its railway museum – probably as well, because had we gone there, nobody but me would have had any interest in said museum – further frustration...
An intriguing and tantalising glimpse was afforded by another excursion. This involved rail travel between The Hague and Alkmaar (part of the latter’s tourist- attraction, I seem to recall, was “colourful” ceremonial stuff having to do with a cheese market). There followed a coach tour from Alkmaar, to the enclosing dam separating the North Sea from its one-time Zuider Zee inlet, and over some of the land whose reclamation the dam had made possible. Interesting in itself; with a bonus concerning my particular “brain-maggot”.
Aside from the astonishing anomaly of the RTM, a few other privately-owned light railways / steam tramways in Netherlands survived WWII, but succumbed during the 1950s or earlier. There was a 1435mm gauge light railway system centred on Alkmaar, which fell into that category. Its principal route ran the dozen km or so from Alkmaar, to the seaside resort of Bergen-aan-Zee: use by holidaymakers in the summer season kept that line going (all steam-worked) for some years after the war. This came to an end in summer 1955 – that likely accounting for the venue’s not being covered in Morgan’s “The End of the Line”, published that year. I knew, from an article in Britain’s “Railway Magazine”, that by 1963 Alkmaar – Bergen was no more; was also aware therefrom, that the system had included a line (freight-only by the 1950s) running north-westward from Alkmaar to Warmenhuizen. In the course of the coach tour, there was observed north-west of Alkmaar, parallel to the road, roadside-tramway-fashion, a single-track 1435mm rail line – looking in fairly good shape -- alongside which the coach ran for at least a couple of kilometres. Presumably the Warmenhuizen route, and presumably in 1963 still in freight use. Would be interesting to know when this line was abandoned – speculations as to its being still in “undiscovered-and under-the-radar” freight use at the time of writing, would be justly met with, “get real”.
My experience of the other two “Benelux” countries turned out to be closer to other end of biblical life-span. It couldn’t have been, of course, that 1963 school trip might have been not to Netherlands, but Belgium – which then still had state railways steam in action, and plenty happening on the Vicinaux / Buurtspoorwegen metre gauge. Life isn’t that obliging...
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I made several (mostly brief) visits to Belgium, in company with then-girlfriend. Lady concerned was, though not a gricer in her own right, indulgent about my obsession, and able to truly enjoy much in the rail-travelling line, especially through pleasant scenery; whence, thanks and “kudos” to her.
Thirty years after Morgan’s Great Work, what he had looked down on “then”, had become exceptional and fascinating “now”. In the 1960s, the undertaking which I will henceforth refer to for the sake of convenience, as the Vicinaux (no offence intended to our Flemish-speaking friends), decided to retire from the tramway game except for their route the nearly-70-km length of Belgium’s coast, and their suburban network around Charleroi : and having “said their say”, they “did their do.” I never made it to the latter (now, I gather, basically “gone”); saw plenty however, of the former. Running from almost-the-French-border at De Panne, via Ostend to almost-the-Dutch-border at Knokke (for the approximate 1930s / 40s period, beyond same into Netherlands), this route offers excellent electric tram fun for those disposed to find such scenes, fun – very frequent and efficient services end-to-end, with a mixture of own-reservation, and street, running – double track throughout. Good future hopes seen for the “coast tram” – not, for my money, the most thrilling narrow-gauge operation on the planet a decade into the 21st century – but enjoyable enough, and heartily wished well. This outfit currently brands itself as “De Lijn” – Flemish for “The Line” – feel that they could have been more imaginative name-wise, but they didn’t consult me...
One tiny non-electric bit of the Vicinaux which has, owing to special circumstances, long survived and is to best of my information still operating today, is at Han-sur-Lesse in the picturesque Ardennes hills in the south-east of Belgium. There are here, a fascinating network of caves, of much interest to geologists / palaeontologists and just ordinary tourists – traversable on foot for several kilometres. The taking of tourist parties, accompanied by guides, through the cave-complex, is accomplished – and for long, has been -- as follows. Han used to be on a – never electrified – part of the Vicinaux, basically abandoned half a century or more, ago; since when the traveller without “his own wheels” has had to reach Han by bus. One Vicinaux branch from Han (details concerning routes, not known – as ever, would welcome information from those learned in such matters) ran, and in the relevant part still runs, from the village, to a point by the “outer entrance” of the caves. At Han station in the village, one embarks on a metre-gauge train – on our visit, formed of a red and cream diesel railcar, four-wheeled if I recall correctly, hauling three semi-open trailers. When full, this ensemble runs for a pleasantly rural 5 km.-odd, to the entrance to the caves. The punters disembark, and are taken on their guided walk, with commentary, through the caves – we managed to find such a walk, conducted in English. Exit from the cave-complex, is onto the village green at Han. The standard tourist set-up thus gives rail travel in one direction only. Perhaps highly single-minded gricers can make arrangements to ignore the caves and travel back again to Han on the empty-stock working; but with my having to consider “the distaff side”, that was not an option on my visit. This is a very small, but rather delightful, survival of what once threaded the whole of Belgium and complemented the very extensive standard-gauge system.
And at Erezée, not a great distance away from Han, there is a preserved 10 km section (physically isolated from the general rail network) of a Vicinaux metre-gauge line – the Tramway Touristique de l’Aisne. I have not visited this venue; but gather that it has interesting equipment, context basically diesel, and provides a worthwhile taste of what the erstwhile Vicinaux were like in their more rural non-electric reaches.
Belgium is, supposedly notoriously, “two countries unlovingly united”. For sure, there are differences between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south. From the “frivolous tourist” point of view, the scenery of the north is direly flat and dull; but it contains sundry beautiful towns to delight the art-and-architecture-buff (one of which, Ghent, had at least in the early 1990s, a metre-gauge town tram system). For attractive scenery, one needs to go to the south – which we visited only once, on an early-90s week’s holiday, travelling by ”all-line railrover” tickets – starting-and-finishing-point, Brussels.
We featured in this southern-Belgium holiday, what is mostly reckoned the country’s premier preserved line – the, with its various ramifications, “Chemin de Fer des Trois Vallées” – 1435mm gauge, due south of Brussels, in a very pleasantly scenic region where the Belgian / French border twists and winds tortuously, with at one time interesting effects on the area’s railways. “Back in the day”, Belgium boasted, if I have things correctly, the most dense railway network (state railways standard gauge, plus Vicinaux metre gauge) in the world. However: Meneer / Monsieur Beeching got to work in Belgium, relatively early (on the once-multitudinous state railways standard-gauge country branch lines somewhat earlier, I believe, than on the Vicinaux “metric”). Twenty years ago, and still today, there survived hereabouts, basically one state railways passenger line southward from Charleroi, terminating at Couvin a little way north of the French border. We stayed for a couple of days in Couvin, to cover the “3V” as it will henceforth, for brevity, be called. 3V comprises a couple of preserved branch lines, totalling not quite 30 km in length, connecting with the state railways at Mariembourg a little way north of Couvin. Essentially, one line runs west to Chimay, one east to Treignes, almost on the border with France and in days long gone by, a rail border-crossing-point. If I have things rightly – writing about how things were nearly two decades ago, without detailed knowledge of the position today – 3V’s “core” activity is on the line from Mariembourg to Treignes (workings west to Chimay, basically “occasional”); the undertaking’s railway museum is located at Treignes.
Our journeys were between Mariembourg and Treignes, steam-hauled: particulars, unfortunately forgotten. Regrettably, I have no memory-supplementing material re preservation / heritage rail doings experienced in this region, and what travelled behind / in, in course of same; must thus apologise for vagueness on the matter. Riding my Bryan Morgan hobby-horse to the max: BM, after all, happily identified himself as the absolute reverse of a “rivet-counter”, and could be very highly vague about what actually moved the trains that he loved. Such boning-up as has proved possible, would indicate that 3V has a large assemblage of steam and diesel locomotives – the majority “museum”, but some (both kinds) active. The great majority of 3V’s steam collection would appear to be of either industrial, or German, origin: very few specimens from the Belgian state railways. Seemingly, just the way things turned out. Public-service steam finished early in Belgium, in 1966; and the country lacks now -- and lacked considerably more back then -- the great numbers of railway enthusiasts to weigh in on preservation endeavours, enjoyed by Britain. Some Belgian state-railways steam locos have been preserved, working and static; regret felt, that they are not more numerous. From photographs seen, Belgian steam strikes me as having been characterful; with in addition, until very near the end, a fine variety of classes.
The 3V has had some involvement with the state-railways line, long without regular passenger services, from Dinant along the scenic River Meuse valley, to Givet just inside France. Sometimes steam working on the majority-Belgian sector of this line, sometimes with diesel railcar right the way to Givet. We planned our trip, so as to be able to travel on one of the latter railcar workings – with a “vintage” vehicle -- through indeed splendid scenery, Dinant – Givet. Not a working with a very roaming-tourist-friendly pattern: we subsequently had to get a taxi back into Belgium and on to Belgium’s rails. Reckoned well worth it, though – this is a little-known and scenically lovely corner of Europe. A delightful land of wooded hills, plus the impressive gorge of the Meuse: the prettiest patch of scenery encountered in this tour; for my money, even nicer than the – attractive enough in its own right – Ardennes region further east. Can thoroughly recommend the 3V and the area in which it runs. This part of Belgium also featured in times past, metre-gauge lines of the Vicinaux, doing “box-and-cox” with the border and popping in and out of France; but that all came to an end some half-century ago.
Travel continued from Couvin ; next goal for “touristing”, Namur. I had wanted to see some fresh scenes by replicating as far as possible, the doings of rail branch lines closed decades earlier – by dint of starting this journey, going by bus (times were known) from Couvin to Dinant. My female companion disliked this idea, fearing its landing us in potential awful mess – she was for going the whole distance by rail, a slightly longer way round, but concerning which we knew the score for certain. Not wishing to get into a potentially foul quarrel, I gave way – so off we went, Couvin – Charleroi – Namur, rail all the way. Namur is a fascinating and very historic little city, scenically located at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Sambre. Its No. 1 tourist magnet is its extensive fortified Citadel, high above the town. Some decades back, the metre-gauge Vicinaux system had a line which served and actually ran round part of the Citadel; but – the endless sad refrain in these parts – by the 1990s, that was long gone.
In the 90s there was – I believe still is today – a funicular railway up to the Citadel (a “different ball-game” from the one-time Vicinaux section); we found, though, that at the hour when we were heading for the Citadel, the funicular had (contrary to official information) ceased running for the rest of the day – disappointingly, a bus had to be got instead. Stereotypes about nations / communities, often with a certain amount of truth to them: Belgium’s notorious division along north / south, and linguistic lines, with the “two tribes” being somewhat less than in love with each other... One of the prejudices associated with this situation, rather mirrors that seen by some, concerning the English and the Irish. Flemings are seen to correspond to the former category, and French-speaking Walloons to the latter: respectively (exaggerating wildly) tense, “anal” types obsessed with everything running with clockwork efficiency; and sloppy, dreamy folk, laid-back to the point of being unable to do anything properly. We did find something of a tendency in the south of Belgium, for things not always to happen on schedule or as promised (though railway timekeeping was exemplary) – a trait which can be, in various proportions, charming or exasperating, depending on one’s personal disposition and one’s circumstances. (While we’re “doing stereotypes”, I gather that a hundred years ago, it was the other way around: general perception of the Walloons as the country’s movers-and-shakers, and the Flemings as not-very-clued-up bumpkins.)
From my small experience of Belgium, and perhaps unrealistic Pollyanna-ish nature: would suspect that while the tensions between the two communities exist, for sure; the situation may be less miserable than in some folk’s perception. Am inclined to think that people almost anywhere, are mostly more sane than the news media (focused on nasty stuff – things going harmoniously, isn’t “news”) would have us believe. No glaringly obvious displays witnessed on my visits to any part of the country, of inter-communal hatred; I would guess that very many Belgians “of both sorts”, get along fine with “the others”. And the picture got by me is that many Belgians, especially if with a reasonable level of education, are fluent in both languages. While in “3V” country, a timetable muck-up on our part caused us to get a lift by car, from kindly folk, from Mariembourg to Couvin. These bods were volunteers on the preserved line; they were Flemings from the north, who plainly liked the railway and its surroundings, and thus sunk their differences with the Walloons down here by the French border, and in whatever way, coped with the language difference.
After Namur, south-east on the main line though the Ardennes – calling in at Han-sur-Lesse as described earlier (bus from and to Jemelle, the nearest main-line point) – and onward to Luxembourg. To be honest – difficult to be enthusiastic about the last-named. Little time to get an accurate impression -- one night spent in Luxembourg city – but on that admittedly not exhaustive basis: while not finding it an actually repellent place, it struck us both as probably the most boring town, for its size, that we had encountered in all our lives. (Supper that evening was dull and disappointing, too.) I have little doubt that more extensive acquaintance would have revealed interesting and appealing features; but such was not included in our schedule – nor, to be frank, much desired.
Bryan Morgan, I recall, was not hugely taken with Luxembourg either; at any rate, he found it far from as chocolate-box-pretty and quirky, as he had been hoping and anticipating. “This, alas, is not Ruritania,” he remarks; and he isn’t referring to the journal “Railway World” ‘s celebrated April 1st prank... At least Morgan had a couple of then-surviving metre-gauge lines to liven things up. We left Luxembourg city early in the morning, heading for home – first change of trains, Liège. At all events, the mini-land’s countryside was hilly and delightful; and when over the border into Belgium, things became yet better scenically. The “Belgium is boring” tag: as regards the southerly parts of the country, certainly not true where scenery is concerned – and I gather second-hand, that Belgium’s “far east” near the German border, gets not far short of mountainous. That area contained for a while, a spectacular preserved standard-gauge steam line, which sadly failed to prosper – its demise (very much seeming permanent) about ten years ago as at the time of writing.
A little before Liège, we passed through Poulseur; a place of some moment for light-railway lovers. “Way back when”, one of the Vicinaux’s few standard-gauge sections had run from Poulseur approximately ten kilometres east to Sprimont, where it turned north to another junction with the state railways east of Liège, whose name eludes me. This one gets no mention from Morgan in “The End of the Line”, because its passenger services were withdrawn in virtually prehistoric times – I think I have read, before World War II. A couple of idiosyncracies on Morgan’s part, were that if a line no longer carried passengers, but continued in use for freight, he wrote it off – for whatever reason, he simply “didn’t do” that particular scene. And in “TEOTL”, he tries to exclude references other than in highly-general terms, to lines which had been closed to passengers by the book’s 1955 publication date. As mentioned earlier, he attempts (as he admits, an unachievable aim) to give an as-up-to-date as possible “sitrep”, for those who might wish to follow in his footsteps. With these things obtaining – as far as Morgan was concerned re “TEOTL”, the Sprimont line of the Vicinaux, didn’t exist.
The section north from Sprimont was abandoned far back in the past – maybe at the same time as the end of passenger services. Sprimont – Poulseur, however, survived long, thanks to an odd traffic niche: carrying stone quarried near Sprimont, to the main-line junction, for shipment onward to Netherlands for land-reclamation work there. This continued – steam-hauled along the roadside line, by Vicinaux tram engines – until the mid-1960s; a lucky few got there to witness it, and I’ve seen the pictures.
We returned to Britain via Eurostar, with brief “touristing” breaks in Liège and Leuven. A return to Belgium, occasionally mused on – back to the Chemin de Fer des Trois Vallées maybe, scheduled for when a run on its Chimay line would be possible...