Still very much a novice, I had great trouble finding about potential closures in Belgium. After lengthy phone calls to NMBS/SNCB I set out with a Threatened Lines plan, built around the BLS tour in Luxembourg, and hoped for the best. This was what happened.
Uneventful if tedious drive to Cambridge for 1130 to Stansted Airport [just to show willing with a bit of UK passenger track]. This last a 158, 17 minutes late at Cambridge (Reggie Perrin rides again). 60100 observed just south of Cambridge. Stansted Airport has 3 platforms; the 158 used the central (bay) one. Conductor confirmed that the service is to be reduced to one each way over the north curve which is single but electrified. On to Kent where I had supper with local adviser Bill at the White Horse, Bridge.
Dover has an airport style arrangement where you check in then wait in a separate departure lounge. A bus conveys foot passengers to the top of the vehicle loading ramp. Boat left exactly on time at 2200; smooth crossing on a civilised Belgian (Dutch? RMT) boat which though named Reine Astrid seemed to be ex British, and a punctual arrival at Oostende at 0330 (and wonder of wonders, a door in the side of the car deck so you could see the dock).
Delight at Oostende to find the first train is NOT the 0506; there is an 0354 EMU to Brussel Noord which (even better) goes via Aalst and is parliamentary from Brugge onwards. Eventually arrived at Aalst about 0515 to find the dawn chorus in full swing. Aalst station has a wondrous brick built castellated main building with stone pillars, hopefully phottable on return from Burst. On another side of the same square is a bar with the genuine all-Belgian name ‘The Dutch Inn’. The EMU from Oostende had some copies of the SNCB house mag ‘Railissimo’ which is printed in French and Dutch; cunningly printed opposite ways up so that each has a front cover. [This was probably my introduction to the dedicated linguistic equality practised in Belgium along with entrenched linguistic conflict!] One of the headlines for the spring 93 issue was ‘Yorkshire & Humberside par rail et mer’. The relevant article had much to say about Hull – never realised it was such an interesting place. What is a scrimshaw? [I found out, later] The writer also had ‘une pinte d’ale’ in York, poor man.
Re-examining the day’s schedule at Aalst, found it based on the 1059 Hasselt-Mol service which doesn’t exist (2 hourly, 0959 and 1159). Clearly some restructuring may be required depending on availability of trains from Burst to anywhere other than Aalst. Traction Aalst-Burst was a (seemingly) elderly railcar, hydraulic or electric [a 4400 in fact]. Performance far from startling. The line is single, predominantly rural but with some chunks of suburbia. Surrounding scenery is flat [all right, I wasn’t familiar with Flanders then] but quite pleasant for all that. Outer suburban trains Burst-Brussel are loco hauled. Caught a double decker to Haaltert then changed in order to do the line via Jette. Brussel Noord very bleak though concourse etc are quite smart. Centraal is underground, scruffy and unpleasant. After purchase of breakfast and phone card and call home, caught 0829 to Hasselt. 17 mins late agaian plus much agonising over which portion to sit in as the train splits at Landen. Chose correctly, fortunately, though the Ball atlas and the layout at Landen (sketch) keep you guessing until the last moment. Still 17 late at Hasselt so a few minutes to spare before 0959 to Mol, diesel loco hauled. Two 4 wheel open verandah passenger vehicles in the yard at Hasselt. Line is double until just south of the yard before Beringen but appears in good condition, carrying a reasonable amount of freight [at the time, this line was slated for possible closure]. Zero minute connection at Mol so no time for phot of diesel loco (6255).
From Mol to Antwerpen Centraal behind another 62xx diesel – these appear to work push pull. Antwerpen Centraal like St Pancras x 2 – magnificent with gilded stonework, moulded ceiling and all the business. A quick digression for chicken McWhatevers then on to Brussel and Charleroi Sud. Uneventful journey but interesting to see so much heavy industry around Charleroi. It looks as if there was more once – certainly mining seems to have ceased. Serendipity in charge at Charleroi as the next tram to La Louvière was in 5 minutes. And what a tram. As far as the Charleroi PTE boundary it is very much à la Metrolink but without any street running. Strange antics at Les Arts where the tram runs round a loop à la Stiege. All the street sections in Charleroi have ben replaced by reserved alignment, viaduct, tunnel etc at vast expense. But once out of Charleroi, a wondeful combination of street tramway (particularly in Binche), rural ‘interurban’ and traditional Belgian roadside tramway. Faultless and unmissable. The local back from La Louvière Central to Charleroi was an anticlimax.
On to Jemeppe in the hope that info from SNCB/NMBS London re non running of trains to Gembloux was duff. It was. Furthermore I arrived with 30 mins before last of the day so feeling faint, repaired to the hostelry over the road for a Verboden Vrucht/Fruit Défendu. Unfortunately I noticed after ordering the VV that they served Rochefort. Nonetheless a quiet moment to savour. Final serious grice of the day was the 1714 Jemeppe (where it reverses so you can’t do the main line connection, dammit) to Gembloux. [I did do it, years later]. A dull if picturesque little electrified double line enlivened by posters saying ‘my train, my station is also my liberty’. Emotive stuff for an anti-closure campaign. EMU was losing so much air it’s a wonder the brakes worked. Or do they? Watch this space…
They did. BLS member spotted doing high speed phots at Gembloux. Purchased vital supplies for Sunday’s railtour (2 x Duvel, 2 x Orval) then at last to the hot and packed to standing (got the last seat fortunately) 1807 to Luxembourg. This was somewhat late, and enlivened by a thunderstorm at Arlon which turned the sky almost black. Hotel Dauphin successfully located in Luxembourg despite incorrect directions.
Much refreshed by 9 hours’ kip, off to Libramont with two other BLS members. A third joined for the Bastogne Nord branch which is to close 23.5.93 due to track condition. After the first mile or so the track is very poor with rotting sleepers. Train crew very hospitable resulting in cab ride from Bastogne to Libramont. Guard informed us that SNCB intended to continue with timber traffic for a year. Bastogne Nord proved reasonably photogenic complete with buffer stops and line continuing beyond, towards Liège. From Bastogne the train runs through to Virton albeit with a long delay waiting connection from Dinant at Bertrix.
Eventual arrival at Virton 30 mins late but still adequate time for a wander up into town and a couple of pour it yourself (thank goodness) Duvels. Back up to Dinant to find that the connection to Namur ran later on Saturdays and the one from Namur to Liège didn’t run at all. Further replanning during a food and water stop, ending up with the decision not to risk the connection from Rivage into the last Jemelle – Luxembourg train. Return to Luxembourg was therefore direct, on 1822 ex Namur. Namur has a stuffed and mounted 0-4-0T oddly located on an isolated bit of track just off the end of platform 4/5. No thunderstorms in evidence this time and the trip to Luxembourg was interrupted only by engineering possessions and the arrival of a BLS party at Libramont.
A speculative visit to the dining room was rewarded by breakfast at 0730, this having previously been refused. Dining room full of BLS persons and breakfast very uninspired. The other hotel [used by the remainder of the BLS party] apparently had a proper one. Off to the station to find ‘Branche Line Society Train Special’ on the indicator and the usual merry throng. The tour left on time and thrashed very cheerfully up the climb to Troisvierges, then back down to Kautenbach, junction for Wiltz. At Wiltz the service train was in front so the tour got no further than the platform.
Returning to the main line we continued towards Luxembourg, reversing at Etterbruck to do the Diekirch branch. At Diekirch it became apparent that the CFL staff knew what was required as the DMU was taken to the bufferstops. [One of the units was ‘fabulous’ 208. Coincidence?] Back to Etterbruck and down the freight branch to Bissen where we stopped initially at the former station but then continued ½ km to the next set of points.
Back through Luxembourg and out on the Brussel line to Kleinbettingen where the tour reversed to do the Steinfort branch to the end of the headshunt some 1 km beyond Steinfort station. Excellent buffer stop phots were had. Back round the Luxembourg ‘avoider’ to Bettembourg where ‘on the day’ negotiations allowed first a run round the triangle then the replacement of the 1408 service train to Dudelange by our tour train somewhat to the confusion of the locals. ‘If I give you 50 francs will you be the 1408 to Dudelange Usines’? No money changed hands of course but the whole episode recalled ‘Three Men in a Boat’.
On to Rumelange for a quick visit to the buffer stops in France, beyond the station. Thence back to Tetange to reverse for the freight line to Langengrund. Quite South Walian struggling up the bank in the rain with only house backs and hillsides to look at. Equally South Walian to be stopped at the first set of points and sent away by A Man In A Suit. Another (this time expected) visit to France at Audun-le-Tiche, and SNCF station jointly financed and served by CFL. A desolate spot, too. The next stretch was steelworks country and included the legendary Differdange (no sign of the Red Boys FC stadium though), ending up at the small town of Rodange near to the Belgium/France/Luxembourg border.
From Rodange a fairly boring run on the direct route back to Luxembourg then via the avoider and the freight line ot Oetrange, to gain the Trier line to Wasserbilig where we reversed to do the Mertet Port branch. This too was successfully griced to the buffer stops and the opportunity taken to thank Hon. Organiser. He and CFL hadn’t finished, though, as we stopped briefly in Luxembourg and then took the goods lines through the east side of the yard to the new station at Howald (raison d’être unknown but might be a shopping centre). A quick phot stop here then a dash back to Luxembourg for the real end of an excellent tour.
Three minutes remained before the 1905 to Rodange so another mad dash, this time to the booking office for a Luxembourg day rover to get to Athus. Changing at Petange, the connection to Athus duly arrived from Luxembourg via Bettembourg and Differdange and took us ‘round the corner’ into Belgium to Athus where there was no option but to repair to the local hostelry for a glass of Primus (a Belgian pils, not to my taste at all. Not even a bit.) Return to Luxembourg was via Differdange, Esch and Bettembourg thus completing the triangle at the top of the Rumelange branch. And so to an excellent pepper steak and ‘coupe de frais’ in the Brasserie Ems, and bed.
Discovered belatedly that breakfast was at 7 but at least there was plenty of time to make 0831 Luxembourg-Jemelle, with BLS members scattering in all directions from Luxembourg. Some slight delays en route to Jemelle due to engineering works, also at Libramont while we waited for the late running 0814 Luxembourg-Brussel to pass. Belgian Control seems infinitely better at handling these things than BR, also they have more crossovers and bidirectional signalling. The train to Liège proved to be a diesel loco and three steam heated coaches. The picturesque run to Rivage was slightly spoilt by murky weather, Liège Guillemins was very disappointing – easily as nice as Derby. Loco hauled again to Brussel Noord and Brugge; fast and very punctual. SNCB/NMBS at its best, in conventional terms anyway. Engineering work at Aalter caused slight delay between Gent and Brugge, with arrival 2 mins late. Bus to town (40Fr each way) for a quick beer visit. Returned to the station to find 1454 Oostende conveniently running 15 minutes late.
Oostende seemed well organised in transport terms, with rail, bus, tram and ship all adjacent, not to mention the jetfoil. Ship was the Reine Astrid again; enquiry from P&O revealed that the reason 1700 Oostende-Dover and 2200 return have an extra 45 minutes is because Astrid can’t go any faster. Looking up from writing this we are going into Dover Harbour at 1959, 3 hours 57 minutes from leaving Oostende. Even allowing for manœuvres, somebody’s kidding. Docked by 2015, out of Customs by 2030, Bill located and so back to Telford. I’ll be back….
And of course, I was. It only took another four months before the bug struck again and I was off to Germany with some unfinished business on the narrow gauge.
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