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4. Building a better future (1945-1958)

Reconstruction

The Reconstruction was an enormous task. The lack of traction engines was compensated for by the purchase of 300 new steam locomotives from Canada and the United States.
As from 1949, the electrification progress got going again, namely between Brussels and cities such as Charleroi, Ostend, Leuven, Liege and Namur. Also, the first electric locomotives took to the rails.
Thanks to technical evolution the concept of carriages improved gradually. The rolling stock became safer and more comfortable. Wooden carriages were replaced with metal ones. Heating and sanitary facilities were added, the seats became more comfortable, and the suspension and soundproofing improved.

Poster promoting the electrification
(NMBS/SNCB), Capouillard,
end of the 1950s

 

  • Design for a North-South connection, Adrien Canelle (lithographer) and Victor Besme (architect), ca. 1850

  • Construction works on the North-South connection

North-South connection

Once the entire railway network was back in action, work recommenced on the construction of the North-South connection in Brussels. These activities had quickly stopped after the Second World War broke out.
The story of the North-South connection is quite a long one. The city of Brussels created a commission to investigate its feasibility as far back as 1837. In 1841, a connection was opened that ran along the main avenues. To avoid collisions, a signalman went ahead of the train with a flag and bell in order to warn passers-by. This connection was liquidated in 1871 when the western circular railway went into operation.
Even so, the importance of a direct connection between the North and South station grew ever clearer. Many plans were raised. In the period 1895-1901, three commissions developed specific plans. Finally, plans for the project were based on those by Frédéric Bruneel, an engineer at the Belgian State Railway Company. Due to long procedures for expropriation, work didn’t start until 1911. The job should have been finished by the end of 1915.
When the German army invaded Belgium on August 14, 1914, construction drew to a halt. Work had not got much further than a viaduct between Brussels-Chapel and Brussel-South.  In 1919, the North-South connection was returned to the table, including the layout. The almost straight line, intended to follow the avenues or parallel roads in the centre underground or with a viaduct, was rejected due to the marshy land and the disruption to the urban skyline. In the end, a more meandering line design was chosen with underground tracks in the higher terrain of the city.
Work did not start again until 1936, a year after the creation of the National Agency for the Completion of the North-South connection. Only to stop again a few years later during the Second World War.
On October 4, 1952, King Baudouin inaugurated the six-track North-South connection. This main artery of the Belgian railway network immediately proved very useful and it is now impossible to imagine the Belgian railways without it.

The car becomes king

In the fifties, the car quickly became the ultimate status symbol. Unlike the pre-Second World War period, cars were no longer a monopoly for those with lots of money. The hard-working common man could also afford one. A car still cost a labourer a year's salary, but you could save up for one or borrow the funds.
In 1950, there were already 273,599 cars driving around in Belgium. By 1960, this had increased to 753,136. NMBS/SNCB responded to this trend in 1956 with the launch of the motorail train.

 

The growth in motorised traffic demanded more and more space. Gone were the days of city life when children played, and people strolled and shopped. The car now ruled the roads. Cobblestones made way for concrete and asphalt, buildings were demolished, pavements narrowed, tram tracks dismantled, parks disappeared... The car was king and nothing could stand in its way. There was no question of careful planning. Signs of the first traffic problems appeared in 1958.

The railway saw a gradual decline in its market share. The exception was 1958, the year of the Expo. In this particular year, NMBS/SNCB transported 263.5 million passengers, 4.9% more than in 1957. The company had adapted its service for the Expo, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays. Those living in districts far from Brussels also got the chance to spend an entire day in the capital.
However, things were not looking good for the railways. The accounts were in the red. In September 1958, the government approved a four-year plan. Investments were made in things such as electrification and the replacement of wooden carriages, but the investments required for the outdated rail infrastructure, rolling stock and stations was far greater. The traffic minister himself was forced to admit in September 1959 that thousands of wooden carriages would still be employed during rush hour...
 

Steam train still sets the scene

In the year of the Expo, a third of all passenger trains and half of all goods trains were still pulled by a steam locomotive. Today's drivers can hardly believe the conditions in which work was carried out in the ‘romantic’ age of steam.
‘The driver's cabin was very Spartan, often with no seat and no screen at the back. It was therefore really hot at the front and often bitterly cold at the back,’ explains Maurits Vercauteren. In 1955, at the age of nineteen, he was successful in passing his final exam to become a stoker. ‘It was a tough job. During a shift lasting between eight and nine hours, I threw seven to ten tons of coal into the furnace. I did consider stopping at some point, but kept going thanks to my father, who was a train driver.’ Maurits became a driver in 1958 in the Aalst depot.
The driver and stoker were a team. They also had their own locomotive. ‘We cherished that locomotive,’ Maurits remembers quite vividly. ‘In fact it was like being married twice. And for most the locomotive came first. We even went to the depot on our days off to check that the locomotive was all right. We were expected to keep good time. A team that had lots of delays was put "out of action". You didn't know beforehand which shifts you'd be asked to drive.’
In 1962, Maurits switched to the diesel locomotive. ‘I was pleased to be rid of steam. Steam trains are lovely to look at. But anyone who's driven a steam locomotive knows better. It was hard and dirty work. These days, train drivers are spoiled in terms of comfort, with things like ergonomic stools and air-conditioning.
In 1958, there were 1,390 steam, 159 electric and 201 diesel locomotives in NMBS/SNCB's fleet.

The steam-train era was to continue for a while. It was not until 1966 that people finally said farewell to the steam locomotive and its often impressive puffs of smoke with the last train journey between Ath and Denderleeuw.

 

 

 

  • Poster promoting the 'train + car'
    formula (NMBS/SNCB), 1960

  • Poster promoting the car-sleeper
    service (NMBS/SNCB), Capouillard,
    1961

 

 

 

  • The engine driver and stoker in a
    type 10 steam locomotive,
    September 29, 1956

  • Sign warning the engine driver and
    stoker of the danger posed by the
    overhead contact wires,
    mid-20th century

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