The former station of Mechelen, the arrival point of the first train journey on the European mainland | Regionale Beeldbank Mechelen

Landscape, Environment & Mobility
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The First Train Journey

The Railway Opens Up the Country

On 5 May 1835 three steam trains left Groendreef station in Brussels. On board were nine hundred guests, spread over thirty carriages. When they arrived in Mechelen just over an hour later, a huge popular celebration erupted. The first train journey on the European mainland had gone off successfully.

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The inauguration of the first rail connection had been meticulously prepared for. Leopold I had come personally to inspect the engines. However, the king did not himself travel on the 22 kilometre-long route. Who was on board one of the carriages was George Stephenson, the British engineer who had invented the steam locomotive.

The train journey from Brussels to Mechelen was not a world first. In Great Britain trains had been travelling around for several years. But on the European mainland Belgium played a pioneering role. For the young country the building of a railway network was a way of projecting itself as a modern state and emphasising its industrial ambitions.

Station Klein Sinaai

The former station of Klein-Sinaai in the Waasland. For decades workers took the workmen’s train from Klein-Sinaai and other Flemish villages. In the last few years many smaller stations have closed.

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The Railway Opens Up the Country

Belgium had been independent for scarcely four years when the government decided to build a national railway network. Mechelen was to be the hub. Soon Belgium had a widely branching train network. After the building of stone-surfaced roads and canals in the previous decades, this was a new important step in the opening up of the country.

The train was a boon for industry. Raw materials could henceforth be transported fast and in large quantities overland. Through the expansion of the rail network the demand for coal, iron, wood and other building materials rose. Partly because of the rail network little Belgium was able to develop into a major industrial country.

Other European countries also invested in trains. Towns, villages and regions were connected with each other via railways and their inhabitants profited from the increased mobility. Thus the railways played a part in the formation of modern nation-states, while also promoting international contacts.

Through their knowledge and experience, Belgian companies had ample opportunity to collaborate in the expansion of railway networks. They exported locomotives and other railway material to all corners of the world. In the Congo Free State too they laid rails to be able to exploit the riches of the Congo. Forced labour and the appalling working conditions caused many victims among the Congolese workforce.

Focal points


Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven, KFA5988

The so-called workmen’s trains were cheap but the degree of comfort was minimal.



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To Work on the Train

In the 19th century the rise of factory-based industry lured many poor country-dwellers to the towns. They hoped to find work and a place to live. So new workers’ districts grew up in the towns. Because living conditions were often wretched, politicians were afraid that they would become hotbeds of social revolt and moral decay. In 1869, in order to stem the flight from the countryside, the government launched the plan for ‘workmen’s trains’. If workers could commute to and from work, they no longer had to move to the towns, and could stay living in their familiar village surroundings.

The cheap workmen’s trains were a world first. They were a huge success, although they offered little comfort and passengers sometimes spent hours over their journeys. By the turn of the century one in five Belgian workers took the train to work. Servants and officials also turned out to prefer commuting to moving to the town where they worked. Because of the growing number of metropolitan office jobs the train traffic to Brussels especially increased greatly. With the completion of the North-South connection from Schaarbeek to Anderlecht the capital became, from the 1950s on, the central hub of the Belgian train network.


Brussels, collectie NMBS – Train World Heritage

During the heyday of the train, important stations had to have an aura of grandeur. For the design of Antwerp Central Station (1899) the Bruges architect Louis Delacenserie (1838-1909) based himself on the Pantheon in Rome.

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Decline and Comeback

In the 19th and early 20th century Belgium built an impressive rail infrastructure, with majestic stations like the Central Station in Antwerp. Since the train was the means of travel par excellence for commuters and travellers, stations grew into important and sometimes prestigious places.

From the 1950s on the car broke the monopoly of public transport. The car symbolised progress and so the government preferred to invest in motorways rather than in rails. Train use declined and station districts became characterised by empty properties and decay. The train’s best days seemed to be over.

However, from the late 1990s on the train made a comeback. The introduction of high-speed lines was coupled with large-scale projects like the rail tunnel underneath Antwerp Central Station. In addition, the increased car traffic had led to queues, air pollution and clogged-up towns. In order to tackle all those problems, policy-makers again looked towards rail.

The railways were given more resources and the number of travellers increased spectacularly. Towns, municipalities, and developers also rediscovered the stations. A portion of redundant rail lines is now being given a new chance, either as a bicycle highway, or as new form of rail travel like light rail.

Spoorweg Congo.
Tervuren, AfricaMuseum, Railway Chaplains in Lower Congo,

At the end of the 19th century the Belgians built a first railway line in Congo. Indigenous labourers carried out the work under particularly harsh conditions.

Spoorwegarbeiders bouwen in opdracht van een Belgisch-Frans consortium een brug over de Gele Rivier in functie van de spoorlijn Beijing-Hankou, aangelegd tussen december 1903 en mei 1904. Rond de eeuwwisseling legden Belgische ondernemingen wereldwijd spoorlijnen aan.
Archives de Monsieur Jean Jadot

Railway workers construct, for a Belgo-French consortium, a bridge over the Yellow River, as part of the Beijing-Hankou rail line, completed between December 1903 and May 1904. Around the turn of the century Belgian companies built railways worldwide.

Ostend, Beeldbank Kusterfgoed. Fonds ‘Photo Antony d’Ypres/Oostende, erfgoed Oostende en de kust’

At the end of the 19th century rail lines for lighter trains or trams appeared After 1945 most local railways were replaced by buses but the Kusttram (Coastal Tram) still runs.

Reproductie van de affiche ‘Les Plages Belges’ ter promotie van het kusttoerisme, 1910, naar een ontwerp van Florimond Van Acker (1858-1940). Toeristische abonnementen maakten een verblijf aan de kust toegankelijk voor brede lagen van de bevolking. (Brussel, Collectie NMBS – Train World Heritage)
Brussels, Collection NMBS – Train World Heritage

Reproduction of the poster ‘Les Plages Belges’ (The Belgian Beaches), promoting coastal tourism, 1910, from a design by Florimond Van Acker (1858-1940). Special tourist fares made a stay on the coast accessible for a wide cross-section of the population.

File Drongen.
Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo011264, Henri De Jonghe

Sunday tailback to the coast near Drongen, around 1960. The decline of the train was not unconnected from the rise of the motorways in the 1960s in the same period.

Suske en Wiske de fluitende olifant.
Antwerpen, Standaard Uitgeverij @2023, Willy Vandersteen

The first train journey won a place in popular visual culture. The strip album De fluitende olifant (The Whistling Elephant) in the Suske and Wiske series (2021) refers to L’éléphant, one of the three steam locomotives from 1835.

Discover more on this topic

Eerste Treinrit
Labyrint – Haven van Antwerpen

Bron: VRT archief, Felixarchief Antwerpen e.a. – 26 maart 1985


Bron: VRT archief – 4 okt 1962

De Zevende Dag

Bron: VRT archief, Train World – 27 sep 2015


Gent op het spoor: stations maken de stad

Snoeck, 2011. 

Brasseur Camille
Paul Delvaux. De man die van treinen hield

Snoeck, 2019. 

Geheugen Collectief
75 jaar toerisme (in) Vlaanderen

Toerisme Vlaanderen, 2014. 

Gillieaux Louis
De geschiedenis van de Belgische Spoorwegen. Gisteren, vandaag, morgen

Lannoo, 2017. 

Rogge Georges
Het Gentse Zuidstation en de impact op de stad

Snoeck, 2016. 

Rogge Georges & Pieters Denis
Het Sint-Pietersstation en de ontwikkeling van de zuidkant van Gent

Snoeck, 2018. 

Van Der Herten Bart (red.)
Sporen in België. 175 jaar spoorwegen, 75 jaar NMBS

Universitaire Pers, 2001. 

Van Meerten Michelangelo, Verbeurgt Greta & Van Der Herten Bart
Buiten-sporig Brussel: 50 jaar Noord-Zuidverbinding

Lannoo, 2002. 

Wagemans Stan
Centraal Station, spoorwegkathedraal. Antwerpen op de rails, toen en nu

Davidsfonds, 2011. 

Welter Herman & Wagemans Stan
Het grote Belgische stationsboek

Davidsfonds, 2012. 


Van Gucht Peter & Morjaeu Luc
Suske en Wiske. De Fluitende Olifant (nr 388)

Standaard Uitgeverij, 2021. 

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