On May 5th, 1835, the first train ever to run on the European continent began her maiden voyage between Brussels and Mechelen. ”Le Belge” took her place in history as the first steam railway locomotive built in Belgium. Brussels thus became the first capital in the world to have a railway connection.
On September 24th, 2015, Train World, a new museum dedicated to the world of Belgian Railroads, opened its doors to the public.
With an eye on the past, present and future of railroad transportation, Train World goes beyond being yet another museum; it is one of these rare wondrous places where education meets entertainment and a mere museum visit becomes an unforgettable, delightful experience.
It all starts modestly at the oldest part of Schaerbeek Station. Tickets in hand, your way will bring you through the brasserie onto a large welcoming space, the former main entrance and ticketing hall. Bathed in light and completely restored, with a great collection of objects, posters, uniforms and locomotive models, it will whet your appetite for more, even if you are not a train lover.
A courtyard connects the original, Flemish Neo-Renaissance building with the new, purpose-built square metal-and-glass extension.
Here is where the magic really begins.
Exit the ordinary, the mundane and the placid every day scene. Enter the fantastic world of François Schuiten who – those familiar with his work will know – doesn’t just draw magnificent fictional worlds; he creates whole parallel universes.
For this project he was joined by composer Bruno Letort and the fruit of their collaboration is a stunning scenography where light, sound and moving image become integral to the sensory experience.
François Schuiten: “It will be in no way a dusty old museum, no matter of simply aligned pretty locomotives in a hangar. No, today we must look beyond, to challenge in some ways. In Train World, I want that one is surprised, amazed, piqued people’s curiosity. We must constantly renew the interest of visitors. I wanted this ambitious and even audacious. An emotional experience. A railway Opera!”
Mr Schuiten has most certainly succeeded. For this is the part where your sense of wanderlust is ignited, your imagination excited and the child in you awakened.
Here you can see, hear, smell and touch some of the most beautiful locomotives and carriages, coming directly from an era when design was paramount and aesthetics had not yet been sacrificed in favour of practicality and profit.
The Atlantic type 12 engine cut for speed with its spectacular aerodynamic fairing and designed in the late 30’s for the Belgian railroads, delivered in only six copies just before the War World end its career. The type 12 was designed to travel at 140 km per hour but actually achieved a top speed of 165 km, amazing for its time. They were intended to pull the express trains between Brussels and Ostend.
When Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers was a young man, he fell in love with an older cousin. His love remained unrequited and, heart-broken, he traveled to the United States to seek solace. There he came across the Pullman carriages, sleeping cars that were built and operated on most U.S. railroads by the Pullman company. Realizing there could be a market for Pullman type carriages in Europe, Nagelmackers returned and established the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, in 1876.
The Orient-Express was inaugurated in 1883 and went on to conquer Europe and Asia with the most luxurious and comfortable trains in the world. It inspired countless real-life adventures and stories of mystery and suspense, with the most famous of them all the ”Murder on Orient Express” by Agatha Christie. Ms Christie herself traveled on the Orient-Express several times, on her way to the Middle East.
Louise Maréchal, Train World: ”The attention to detail was quite amazing. I shared a compartment with the daughter, while the mother and father each had their own. There were two beds, one above the other, and we had our own washbasin. The walls were decorated with marquetry, turning each compartment into a work of art. There were starched sheets and woollen blankets. And even a button to summon the butler!
Colourful carpets, white table linen, champagne buckets, crystal glasses and carafes, silver cutlery and bone china plates.
Someone told me that the metal dining cars were built in 1925 and decorated in art deco style, with geometric, floral and animal patterns. The marquetry consisted of wooden panels, inlaid with tropical woods, ivory, mother of pearl and precious metals. The comfortable chairs were upholstered in real leather.”
I’d never thought about it before, but it was interesting to learn that all clocks in Belgium are synchronised thanks to the train!
Although timeliness is, alas, no longer one of the Belgian railway’s virtues (and the heavy budget cuts will continue to have an impact on their punctuality and reliability), back in the 19th century it was owing to the railways and train timetables that all clocks, from Ostend to Arlon, were synchronised.
And, while we are at it, although the Museum suggests to plan 1,5 hours for your visit, I would highly recommend at least three hours – the place is enormous and there is so much to explore, you’ll probably want to be there all day.
5 Place Princesse Elisabeth/Prinses Elisabethplein
Images by Konstantinos Implikian
29 October 2015