Belgian Railways – A short history

When World War I broke out a lot of steam engines were evacuated to France. This operation met with a lot of problems because the French railway network was congested but nevertheless 1,915 steam locos belonging to the “Etat Belge” and 175 of the company Nord Belge were saved.
More than 1000 engines found shelter at Breteuil, Fouilloy, Mézidon, Caen, St Maur, Brive, Tours and Trouville. The others were at Adinkerke, Calais and Coudekerque. Also the Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the British army made use of the Belgian locos. The different types of engines were 1,2,4,8,15,17,18,23,25,28,29,30,32,32S,35 and 51. The types 36 and 10 were not frequently used because they were too heavy for the French railway network of that period.
During the German occupation Belgian steam locos were dispersed throughout Europe: they were found in Germany, Poland, Romania and Russia. Because the majority of Belgian railway men refused to work for the Germans, the German occupying forces took over the railway operations in Belgium.
An interesting issue was that of the “mad trains”: they rode without crew at full spead so that they derailed and hampered the traffic. This was a widespread form of sabotage the Germans had to cope with.
Directly after Armistice Day in 1918 the ROD brought steam locos to Belgium : they were painted black, grey or khaki and had in white letters ROD. Some of these engines belonged to the London and North Western (future class 32 of the LMS), others to the Midland Railways (class 480). A lot more British locos belonging to different railway companies crossed the Channel.

The period between the two world wars (1918-1939)
As a result of the Armistice Convention Belgium received more than 2000 steam engines from Germany. The result of this transaction was that the Belgian railways had at that moment an enormous variety of locos, also many of German origin. Some of the locomotives were in such a bad condition that very soon a lot of them were sent to the scrapyard. Especially some Prussian series were kept (class G8.1, the later Belgian type 81 and the famous P8, the later type 64). The latter is well known today because one engine is preserved by TSP and is still in use at the Chemin de fer du Bocq.
The Belgian railways started making great efforts to repair their network and replace locos which had suffered too much during the war activities. More than 200 engines were bought from the ROD and an order was placed for the Ten Wheel type 8 bis and the Consolidation type 33. The price of the latter was too elevated and the company opted for a much simpler version with two cylinders and simple expansion. This type 37 (later 31) was ordered in Britain. So most orders were placed abroad but the Belgian locomotive industry also built some engines. (types 33,8bis and 36 Decapod).
From 1926 the NMBS (Belgian Railway company) rationalized the number of engines drastically. They got rid of small series and adapted the braking system and the heating of the Prussian locos.
Among the best known locos were the famous type 1 which entered service in 1935 and the Atlantic type 12 in 1939. Type 12 broke a speed world record (more than 160 km/h).
Salzinnes and Mechelen (Malines) were the most important servicing places after the rationalization. As a result most locos covered between 100.000km and 200.000 km between two services.
The water quality improved steadily so that locos suffered less from impurities and became more effective.
In 1930 the NMBS took over the Belgian part of the private company “Gent-Terneuzen”. Autorails (diesel) were introduced on branch line because of the lower cost and less intense maintenance. There was also a project with steam autorails but this didn’t turn out successful.
In 1935 the first railway line in Belgium (Brussels-Antwerp) was electrified, although steam traction persisted on that line.
In 1936 speed was augmented from 90km/h to 120 on most main lines. Between Gent and Bruges (line50A) fast trains already reached 140km/h.
Some important types of locos from that era were: type 38,8bis(later 7),33,37(later 31 and 30). For the difficult line to Luxemburg Mikado type 5 was built for passenger trains and type 35 for freights. Especially type 5 was a monstrous and gigantic loco, one of the most powerful of that period. It weighed 130,5 tons and developed 2950 HP.

World War Two (1940-45) and shortly afterwards
When war broke out only 381 locos managed to escape to France but soon they were taken by the Germans. A few months later the Germans took over the exploitation of the Belgian railways. The abbreviation of the names of the depots was painted in large white letters on the doors of the smokebox and on the tenders of the locos. Later these names were placed in small letters preceded by “Bw” (Betriebswerk) on the engines e.g. Lö for Leuven.
The German invaders were only interested in their own transports, so they remained only responsible for the depots of Ostend and Bruges.
Traffic was seriously reduced because the Deutsche Reichsbahn claimed many engines for their own purposes. Several French locos replaced Belgian ones to answer the need of more engines.
In 1940 the NMBS (Belgian railways company) owned 3414 locos but after the Liberation only 1008 could still be used because war actions and sabotage had destroyed large numbers of them.
The severe winter of 1944-45 caused a substantial shortage of coal so that a lot of passenger trains were no longer able to circulate. The poor quality of the coal provoked technical problems for the locos.
After the Liberation locomotives commanded by the British and American authorities could be seen circulating on the Belgian network. Three loco types “Austerity” of British origin were chosen to enlarge the effective after repair. These simple locos with two cylinders were built at a low cost and were suitable for all purposes. They were painted khaki or army green and had white or yellow inscriptions. The symbol of the War Department: the point of an arrow, symbol of honour, with the letter W and D on both sides was painted in white on the tenders. Some locos also had the badge of the 21st Army Group: a blue cross on a red escutcheon. The American locos were painted black with the inscriptions: U.S.A. or U.S. Army or Transportation Corps U.S.A. always in white letters.
In 1945, when the war was over, many locos were “unemployed” and a great number returned to Britain.
Belgium as well as other European countries also used the famous German “Kriegslok” type 52 which had been built by the Germans during the war in enormous numbers (6303!!)also by Belgian firms. This loco was deprived of all unnecessary elements so that it could be built in a very short time. It became the Belgian type 25 and 26.after some modifications.
In 1945 nobody could have foreseen that so many Belgian steam locos would return to their home country. Therefore 300 new locomotives were ordered in Canada and the United States although the high number of the order was not strictly necessary. These engines would become type 29. The order was divided between Montreal Locomotive Works at Montreal, Canadian Locomotive Company at Kingston and American Locomotive Company at Schenectady. The American locos were shipped completely assembled. The most typical characteristic of this type 29 was the nice sound the steam whistle produced. Soon these locos were nicknamed “Jeep” because they could be used for all purposes. So they were soon found everywhere in the country.
Some characteristics : weight 92,95 tons,2000 HP, max speed 96,5 km/h (60 mph) but in reality these trains could reach 105 km/h and pull trains of 1200 tons. These engines were not modified during their service period. They were simple, strong and covered enormous distances without substantial repair.
29013 has been preserved and is still alive and kicking and frequently used for touristic excursions.
The Belgian Railway Company was the only company that used this type of locomotive.
In 1951 the first diesels were introduced, meaning the start of the end of the reign of steam in Belgium. The whole process took still some years but on December 16 1966 the very last steam train Ath-Denderleeuw was hauled by the 29013. At that occasion an emotional ceremony took place.
In 1967 some freight trains were still hauled by steam locos type 81.

– by Marc Bostyn

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