The very first railway
Shortly after its independence, Belgium opened the very first railway on the European mainland. That was the railway line between Brussels and Mechelen, festively inaugurated on May 5, 1835. We wrote history then and we can absolutely be proud of that! The king at the time, Leopold I was determined to construct an extensive railway network in our country to support the economy.
The Belgian railway network evolved a lightning speed. Both the Belgian state and private companies contributed to its construction and operation. At the end of the 1800s, the network already consisted of more than 3,000 kilometers of railroad. In 1885 the National Society of Local Railways was founded. Their mission was to connect small towns bij tram or local railway line to the national rail network. But then World War I broke out…
World War I
During World War I, the Belgian rail network fell for a large part into the hands of the Germans. They used the railway lines for the supply of goods and soldiers to the front. But the Allies also put down plenty of temporary railway lines between the Westhoek and France.
Both the German army and that of the Allies also used railway guns. The damage from the war was enormous: more than 1,000 kilometers of railroad took a hit, while many railway bridges were reduced to rubble. And sadly, 2,000 rail workers gave their lives during the Great War.
Founding of the National Railway Company of Belgium
In 1926 the government established the National Railway Company of Belgium (NMBS/SNCB). The railway company received a contract for 75 years. The nationalization of the Belgian railways was complete in 1958. The entire rail network has since been in the hands of the government.
From the 1930s, the steam trains were gradually replaced by electric railways. The first electric railway line was from Brussels North to Antwerp Central in 1935. The NMBS/SNCB also had ambitious plans for the rest of the railway network.
Unfortunately, the World War II threw a spanner in the works.
World War II
The railways also played an important role in the World War II. Travelers were barely able to take a train during the war – because most trains rode for the German army.
By the time the war ended, a large part of the railway network had been completely destroyed by bombings. For several years, the focus was on repairing the damage. There was no longer any question of the ambitions plans of the 1930s. Because at that time road traffic also started to take off, some smaller railways operated at a loss. These were removed.
The electrification and modernization of the railways
In the 1950s, the NMBS/SNCB resumed plans for electric railways. The diesel trains were gradually replaced by electric trains!
In 1952, the Brussels North-South connection, an underground rail connection between the Brussels South and Brussels North stations, came into service. This connection soon became the main artery of the Belgian rail network. The construction of the Kennedy tunnel near Antwerp was also an important step for train traffic in Belgium.
The liberalization of the rail sector
Rail freight transport was fully liberalized in 2005. This means that from then on, various private companies could transport goods via the rail network.
To make this free competition possible and to follow European directives, the Belgian railways adjusted their structure. Greater independence was needed between transport companies that offered passenger and freight transport, and an infrastructure manager who owned the rail network. This was the only way the various transport companies could have the same opportunity to use the rail network.
This is how the NMBS/SNCB Group was formed, which consisted of 3 independent companies:
- NMBS/SNCB, carrier or operator;
- Infrabel, infrastructure manager (learn everything about our activities here);
- NMBS Holding, responsible for personnel management, IT and the 37 largest stations and for coordination between companies.
Simplification of the Belgian railways
The NMBS immediately wanted to build its service around the customer. That is precisely why the three-fold structure of the NMBS/SNCB Group has been simplified. Since January 1, 2014, NMBS/SNCB Holding and NMBS/SNCB have merged. This merger also meant the creation of a dual structure with Infrabel as infrastructure manager and NMBS/SNCB as operator. HR Rail, then the new subsidiary, became responsible for the recruitment and management of the staff of both companies.