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1. The early days (1830-1835)

The first industrial railways

Long ago, long before Belgium had a railway, people's mobility depended on the power of their own two feet. Those who were wealthy could afford a horse and carriage or travelled by stagecoach. As from the sixteenth century tow barges, pulled by a horse from the tow path, were used as the first form of public transport. These travelled at only 3 to 4 km per hour, but were very punctual. The skipper stuck to a schedule and did not wait for latecomers. The oldest tow-barge service known in Belgium dates back to 1618 and travelled between Brussels and Antwerp. Until the invention of the iron track, this was the most comfortable and reliable form of transport between towns and villages located along waterways. The train caused a revolution in terms of speed and capacity: in the 19th century, steam engines reached the incredible speed of 60 km/h.


The two most important components in the railway – the track and the locomotive – were developed during the industrial revolution (1750-1840). The first railway line in the world dates back to 1825, when George Stephenson connected the towns of Stockton and Darlington in England by rail. The line was intended to transport coal. The wagons were pulled by steam engines. Passengers were transported by horse-drawn carriages. The first railway lines in France, Saint-Etienne to Andrézieux and Saint-Etienne to Lyon, were industrial railways as well.


A real railway with a regular service for passenger transport did not appear until 1830. In that year the first railway line between Manchester and Liverpool was opened. This double track was exclusively for steam locomotives.

  • Coloured image of a passenger train of the 'Liverpool and Manchester Railway', towed by steam locomotive Jupiter, Isaac Shaw.


  • Drawing of a tow barge on the Nieuweramstel around 1700-‘25

  • George Stephenson with the locomotive Rocket



  • Manufacturer sign of the Société Cockerill in Seraing from 1924



  • Medal in honour of laying the foundation stone for the Brussels-Nord station on September 27, 1841


  • Pierre Simons (1797-1843)

Not a canal but a railway line

In 1821, the Englishman Thomas Gray, who was an ardent railway fan, launched a request to King William I of the Netherlands. He proposed to create a railway rather than a canal for the transport of coal between Charleroi and Brussels. His petition was ignored.
At the beginning of 1830, the British industrialist, John Cockerill, stated that ‘a number of capitalists are of the opinion that it would be extremely useful to lay railway tracks between Antwerp and Brussels like those from Liverpool to Manchester’. Cockerill saw the railway line as a huge potential customer for iron.
When Belgium became independent in October 1830, the Provisional Government soon faced economic issues. Trade between Antwerp and the Rhineland was done along the Dutch waterways. Once the country became independent, this passage was no longer guaranteed. A cross-country connection was urgently required. For example, by canal: the one started by Napoleon known as Noordervaart, from Antwerp via Herentals, Weert and Venlo to Neuss on the Rhine. However, work had stopped on this canal in 1811 due to conflicting interests with Dutch engineers from Waterstaat. Besides the Noordervaart, another suggestion was for a railway, similar to the one from Manchester to Liverpool.


King in favour of the railway

The idea of an iron track was launched and, for the next five years, became an important element in establishing and developing the new kingdom. King Leopold I, who had experienced the development of the railway in England, was a great fan of the railway.
On 24 August 1831, the minister of Internal Affairs instructed Pierre Simons and Gustave De Ridder, two young engineers at Belgium’s highways department, to make plans for a railway between Antwerp and the Rhine. They travelled to England, the birthplace of the railway. Back in Belgium, they developed a number of proposals.



The roots of the Belgian railway network

The final layout went from Antwerp via Mechelen, Leuven, Tienen, Liege, Verviers, Aachen and Düren to Cologne. A distance of 248 kilometres. A branch line was planned from Mechelen towards the capital. This aimed to provide additional passenger and goods transport. Simons and De Ridder were very keen on construction by the state. Referring to England and France, they pointed out that, with a system of concessions, the state would not share in the profits, but would be responsible for any losses.
Train lift between Ans and Liege 
Obstruction ahead: between the plateau at Hesbaye and the Meuse valley, the railway was required to bridge a height difference of 110 metres over a distance of about five kilometres, and do so at a time when locomotives had too little adhesion weight and insufficient braking power to tackle such a slope. The solution proposed was a train lift, operated by a fixed steam engine. Simons and De Ridder contracted the work to Henri Maus, an engineer from Liege.
The distance between the highest and lowest points was divided into two almost equal parts with a horizontal plane in between. Each slope was served by a fixed steam engine with a capacity of 80 HP, installed on the horizontal plane. Using a cable, the steam engine was able to lift or lower a train with twelve carriages in less than seven minutes.

Attention and patriotism

The green light for the railway, however, had yet to be given. On June 9, 1833, Leopold I called a meeting of parliament to dedicate its attention and patriotism to the project connecting the sea and the river Scheldt with the Meuse and the Rhine. Ten days later, minister Rogier submitted a draft bill concerning a loan for the state's installation of a first section of iron tracks from Mechelen to Verviers via Liege, with branch lines to Brussels, Antwerp and Ostend.
On March 11, 1834, discussions began on the draft bill in the Chamber. No less than seventeen stormy sittings – tensions ran high - were required to reach a decision. Some members feared that the coming of the railway would disrupt daily life, causing skippers on inland waterways, post masters and horse owners to lose their livelihood and rebel.


‘The milk will turn into buttermilk’

Reference was made to October 1830, when angry workers destroyed the industrial railway at the coal mine in Grand Hornu near Mons. They were upset by worried waggoners, who had become partly unemployed. The arrival of the railway had sent the number of horses from 160 down to 24.
Declarations by the people's representatives P. Eloy de Burdinne and De Robaulx captured the imagination even more. The MP declared that milk transported by rail would arrive as buttermilk. To which his colleague added: 'The eggs will arrive as omelettes.’
There was also fierce opposition from Hainaut. People in this region feared competition from the mines in Liege. Discussions continued on canals versus railways, and concessions versus implementation by the state and whether such a large loan was a good idea.
On March 28, 1834, a vote was taken in the Chamber: 56 for and 28 against the railway. The Senate voted on April 30: 32 for, 8 against. On May 1, 1834, King Leopold I signed the law supporting the creation of the Belgian railways.
From then on everything moved fast.


  • Cartoon on the decline of the mail coach services due to the rise of the railways – Collection Instituut voor Financiële Archeologie (Mechelen)









According to the first article:

‘A system of iron tracks shall be installed in the kingdom with Mechlin at the centre, reaching eastwards towards the border with Prussia via Leuven, Liege and Verviers, northwards to Antwerp, westwards to Ostend via Dendermonde, Ghent and Bruges and southwards to Brussels and the French border across Hainaut.’

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