Dernière mise à jour : oct. 6
Today Alexander, our night train expert with more than 230 rides on his counter, travelled with the #ConnectingEurope Express from Brussels to Namur for a breakfast round table discussion with among others the staff of Minister Gilkinet (Ecolo) about EuroCap-Rail. The abbreviation stands for Euro(pean) Cap(itales/capitals), Brussels (commission), Luxembourg, Strasbourg (parliament) and Basel (banks) or in other words the classic line Brussels - Basel via Namur, Luxembourg, Metz and Strasbourg. Recently, the Benelux Parliament recommended giving this axis the necessary attention.
One of the most important until the beginning of the 2000s
This axis was one of the most important European train corridors until the beginning of the 2000s, but after the liberalisation of the international passenger traffic by rail, it went downhill very quickly. This line can safely be seen as a symbol, an archival example of what has gone wrong with our European rail transport. The line crosses four countries, and if you include the extension from Basle via to Italy five, with six networks even, because in Switzerland the axis passes through Bern and the main line of the BLS, the Bern - Lötschberg - Simplon. This large number of networks is also one of the biggest handicaps for this axis, as we shall see.
Problem one: the trains get in each other's way
The line starts in Brussels, and that's already where the first problem starts: the first part of the line between Brussels and Ottignies is still only double track, while slow omnibuses, semi-fast goods trains and semi-fast and fast express trains all ride on it. All those trains get in each other's way, which makes this line one of the worst in Belgium in terms of delays and train cancellations. In 2010, a start was made on bringing this stretch to four tracks, but the promises quickly foundered due to a lack of money. Now, however, there finally seems to be some progress in the realisation of this complex project.
Departure board at Brussels-Luxemburg station at rush hour
Second problem: curvy section
The second problem follows between Namur and Luxembourg: this part is very winding and also in bad shape. That is why this stretch is being completely renewed, but the work is taking forever and no decision has yet been made about a possible straightening of the slowest stretch, between Jemelle and Poix-Saint-Hubert, which does not allow speeds above 100km/h.
On its website, Infrabel promises to save twenty minutes on the section between Brussels and the border with the Grand Duchy compared to the old timetable. It is high time, because the current timetable is twenty minutes longer than the one before the works started. If Infrabel keeps its word, it will soon be possible to travel from Brussels to Luxembourg city in two hours and nine minutes.
Third problem: cancellations due to works in Bettembourg
In Luxembourg, the locomotive has to be turned around, which is actually useful because it allows the locomotive to be changed from a Belgian locomotive to a French locomotive more quickly than if the train had continued in the same direction. However, this is where problem number three begins: the Luxembourg - Bettembourg line is also being completely renovated, which means that no train traffic can take place on it at the moment.
Further tracks through history
Past Bettembourg, the journey continues along the rusty remains of the Moselle department's steel industry, past Thionville, Uckange and Metz, which was voted France's most beautiful railway station.
Beyond Metz, the scenery becomes greener. You pass Réding, the station where the Paris-Strasbourg line connects, and which was the end point of the first European electrification to 25kV50Hz, the current worldwide standard. A little further on, the railway flirts with the Marne au Rhin canal, a 19th-century canal with numerous tunnels and sashes connecting the Marne with the Rhine. Beyond Saverne, the landscape widens again: we have reached the hard-won plain of the Rhine. Before the train enters Strasbourg, the Paris-Strasbourg high-speed line joins our line for a second time, and at Bisscheim, on the left, we pass a section of the test TGV 001, which was originally powered by gas and underwent high-speed tests in 1972 and 1973 on the Rhine plain. The factory of France's national train manufacturer Alstom ("Alsace-Thompson") is located nearby and the straight track was perfect for these tests. Beyond Strasbourg, the train continues through the Rhine plain at 200 kilometres per hour between the vineyards and the fortified castles that had to protect this plain. After Mulhouse (Cité du Train!) we are almost in Switzerland, and banking city Basel is the first station there.
Always of great importance
The line's first period of glory was after the First World War: the Lorraine and the Alsace were reunited with France and our line became the scene of a prestigious day train of the Companie Internationale des Wagons-Lits: the Edelweiss. This connected the Netherlands via Brussels with Switzerland in one day with luxurious Pullman wagons. This train was launched in 1928 as a "Latin" response to the launch of another luxury train with the same terminus but running on the other side of the Rhine: the Rheingold of the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Both trains continue to run until the Second World War and both return after the war. The Edelweiss became one of the first TEEs in 1957, a train category of luxurious daytime trains that linked the major European metropolises on a daily basis. Symbolic of the post-war cooperation was that in 1965 the Rheingold was also brought under the TEE umbrella. The Edelweiss was joined on this line by other TEEs such as the ''Iris'' Brussels - Chur, with the name of a Brussels flower instead of a Swiss one. But apart from the TEEs, countless other trains still run on our Brussels - Basel line. Classics are the night trains 298/299 Brussels - Milan, the 498/499 "Alpina express" Brussels - Switzerland, the 'leave train' "Freccia Del Sole" between Brussels and the Adriatic coast and the train Brussels - Rome (which was sometimes taken as a through train in the Edelweiss composition). Speeds continued to rise and in 1987 one could travel from Brussels South to Basel in six hours and five minutes.
Some historical trajectory indicators
Swan song in the 90s
The '90s are the swan song for the line: there are more and longer trains on the line than ever before, but the order of the day is no longer cooperation à la TEE but competition. That would be the deathblow for these collaborative trains: where the NMBS, CFL, SNCF and CFF used to work together "naturally", they are competitors in the new economic framework, and each operator would like to promote its own "brand".
The trains continue to run for the time being, but there is no investment, there is no common vision for these trains and the tickets on offer are becoming less interesting: there are rarely discounts or promotions. Speeds are also dropping because the carriages are limited to 160km per hour, whereas the French Corails run at 200 in Alsace, and especially because of the number of stops that keeps rising. In 2003 the night trains and the dining cars disappeared from the day trains, a decision made by Belgian railways boss Karel Vinck. Three daytime trains with no catering facilities remain: the Vauban (the successor to the Edelweiss), the Iris and the Jean Monnet, which leave Brussels in the morning, afternoon and late afternoon respectively. Of these trains, the Vauban has the longest journey: Brussels - Milan. Later, this was limited to Brussels - Brig and in the end even Brussels - Basel. In 2016, these three trains will also disappear. A lacklustre end to this important European axis...
Belgian inspiration in the Rue de France
...were it not for a formidable initiative from our SNCB. There, somewhere in the office in the Frankrijkstraat, sat someone who thought that this could not happen. On his initiative, it was decided that on the very last day of operation of these trains, they would once again be run as real international trains: with a working dining car. The Swiss CFF also joined the initiative by sending a panoramic car in the train. It was a resounding success, the beer and wine flowed richly and the train was packed (unfortunately none of us was present, if anyone has pictures from that day: they are very welcome!)
(Panorama carriage in the #ConnectingEurope Express)
Becoming a lifeline again!
However, we hope that this is not the end of train history on this line. In the "#ConnectingEurope Express" in Namur, we made a plea to put back through trains on this connection: daytime and overnight. That way, this line can once again become the lifeline of all the regions it crosses, not least the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg, which are now completely deprived of good international public transport connections. With the infrastructure work done, it will soon be possible to travel from Brussels South to Basel in a good five hours. With comfortable trains and an attractive pricing policy, there is a lot of potential in this axis, which connects all kinds of European capitals and business centres.
For your information, if you look at this axis on the map, you will notice a bend in the line at Strasbourg. In the interwar period, there was a plan to straighten the line by means of a tunnel straight through the Vosges via Epinal, Remiremont and Wesserling, but for some unknown reason the works were stopped in 1935. Twenty kilometres of track and a long tunnel are still missing. You can read the story on this (otherwise formidable) site: https://www.railations.net/tunnelvogezen.html