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3. War and reform (1914-1945)

The First World War

On August 4, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. With four trains, armoured with naval sheet-metal and armed with cannons, the Belgians destroyed tracks and bridges in the Antwerp region to slow the enemy down. Entrenched behind the river Yser – where it would hold the front for 4 years – the Belgian army built a 130-kilometre network of train tracks to supply troops and transport munitions. In the rest of the country, which was occupied by the Germans, the railway administration refused all collaboration. So the occupiers had to run the trains by themselves.
In 1915, the Germans decided to build a new line between Aachen and Tongeren to get closer to the Flanders front. In just two years, they built a 45-kilometre line, with many bridges, including the one at Moresnet. Over one kilometre long, this viaduct remained the longest bridge in Belgium until 1993. At the height of the work, 12,000 people – mostly Russian prisoners of war – worked on this titanic project. Many of them died of exhaustion, starvation and disease.
At the end of the war, the damage to the railways was enormous: a quarter of the network was destroyed or unusable. One in three stations was inaccessible. Only a third of Belgian locomotives remained. But worse than that, 2000 railwaymen had lost their lives. With peace restored, as war reparation, Germany gave Belgium 2000 locomotives, accounting for 50% of Belgian rolling stock. They were nicknamed Armistice locomotives.
The Armistice was signed at Compiègne in France, in a carriage of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, a company founded by the Belgian Georges Nagelmackers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Founding of NMBS/SNCB

The First World War left deep wounds. People worked night and day to get the damaged railway network up and running again. In the twenties, the country found itself in a financial crisis. In an attempt to reduce the burden of debt, the government decided, in the law of July 23, 1926, to found the Belgian National Railway Company (NMBS/SNCB). The new company was granted operating rights for a period of 75 years.
By making the NMBS/SNCB an autonomous company with a system of shares it was possible to attract fresh capital. Thirty million shares were issued to the value of eleven billion Belgian francs. Private individuals bought around five billion francs worth of shares.
Another reason to found an autonomous NMBS/SNCB was the cumbersome government administration, which stood in the way of renovation and quick decisions. From the beginning, NMBS/SNCB offered its staff progressive social conditions. Furthermore, a national joint commission was created with extensive powers. The trade unions were given a seat on the board of directors. Meanwhile, the railways had to deal with an unwelcome inheritance. The fleet of wooden carriages was in very poor condition. Most of them were old and still lit by gas. Safety was dubious. The walls splintered in the event of a collision. The windows were fitted with ordinary glass.

 

  • Train for heavy artillery – Paul Pastiels Collection

  • Destroyed railway bridge in La Buissière (France), 1914

  • Ruins of Diksmuide station

 

Share issued on the founding of NMBS/SNCB in 1926

Poster promoting the electrification (NMBS/SNCB), Capouillard, 1960

From steam to electricity

During the Great Depression, NMBS/SNCB faced competition in goods' transport. Inland shipping in particular took business away. In 1927, 79% of the tons per kilometre were transported by rail. In 1939 this had dropped to 61%.
If the 19th century was all about steam engines, then the 20th century was the age of combustion engines and electrical traction. The first diesel railcars appeared on the network in 1930. They were versatile as local trains on secondary lines and useful for steep slopes. But there was not much in the way of comfort: with usually only third class, no luggage compartiment and no toilet.
The major breakthrough in diesel traction came in 1954, when new diesel railcars and diesel locomotives were used in great numbers to replace steam locomotives, which were really expensive to operate and maintain.

Meanwhile, electrification was also underway. On May 5, 1935, NMBS/SNCB opened its first electric line, from Brussels-Nord to Antwerp-Central. The electrical multiple units managed a speed of 120 km per hour.

 

 

The Second World War

The Belgian army capitulated on May 18, 1940. The German occupiers took over the Belgian railways. The Belgian National Railways was forced to call its railwaymen back to work to take part in enemy transport. Thus began a policy of avoiding the worst, yielding but without giving in too much, in the socio-economic interests of the country.
Railwaymen were torn between the fear of being deported to a camp, the need to feed the Belgian population, and the desire to hamper Germany's progress. Many of them joined the Resistance and 900 lost their lives.
In 1941, the Nazis stopped using their own train drivers and obligated Belgians to return to work, even forcing them to drive German military trains. Having become a key link in the Nazi logistics, the Belgian National Railways was forced to participate in the deportation of Jews and Gypsies from Belgium and northern France.
In 1943, the rail network was targeted by Allied bombing raids. Schaerbeek station for example was bombed no fewer than 19 times in just 9 months.
After the war, the situation was desolate: less than 50% of the network was operational, half of the country's locomotives and stations had been destroyed.

  • Changing of the guard, 1940 - Paul Pastiels Collection

  • Damaged railway bridge in Anseremme, 1945

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