On the Hunt for Belgian Museums

Belgium is perhaps one of the least likely countries to visit for fans of the steam locomotive. In a way, this is rather surprising, as two of its engineers gave their names to inventions used around the World. Firstly, Alfred Belpaire designed the square-topped firebox that bears his name, whilst Egide Walschaerts produced the valve gear used on locomotives everywhere. At the same time, they did produce locomotives with square chimneys, and at one desperate point, turned to Scotland, and purchased five Dunalistair II locos from Neilson Reid. They even had them painted in full Caley livery, and thought so much of them that one was preserved. It is notable that not one example of the large number of Caley 4-4-0s has survived in their native land.

Having said that, steam was ruthlessly eliminated from Belgium by the mid 1960s, and many classic locos disappeared. Not only that, many steam enthusiasts were disgusted when Belgian Railways recently scrapped a McIntosh-type 0-6-0, practically the twin of the Class 812 on the Strathspey. The caravan expedition to the Continent in 2008 wound up in Brussels. A frantic perusal of various tourist guides advised of a small museum in the village of Treignes in the south of the country, and linked to a “ligne touristique”, the “Three Valleys Line”. The wife was persuaded that this would be a pleasant way to see the countryside, so early one morning we set off along the M-way south.

After about 40 minutes of driving (I take back everything I’ve ever said about French and Italian drivers), we turned onto some very small back roads. This was an interesting section, with narrow roads that wound their way through tiny villages and the occasional farmstead. Eventually, we rolled down a steep hillside into a wooded valley, and the view of buildings that could only belong to a railway. Further, there was a glimpse of a rusty “Kreigslok*” and three or four small tank engines. We had arrived at Treignes.

The large station building was beautifully restored, the rooms being used by a local university for outdoor research. Across the tracks, a huge barn of a building was the Museum. The four tracks inside played host to a variety of mostly Belgian stock. The majority were small tanks, a French centre-cab electric Bo-Bo and a “Picasso” railcar, some coaches, and a large Diesel. The star was clearly the Belgian pacific loco of class ‘1’, the last survivor of a class of 35 locos built in the thirties. The huge firebox was fed by two firedoors, no automatic stoker here! The full-size exhibits were complemented by a number of beautiful models, my favourite being of a Flamme pacific.

Whilst going round the exhibits, a guttural throbbing announced the arrival of the morning railcar from the other end of the line. Seeing a gentleman in uniform, I decided that he must be a member of the Museum staff. In fact he was the driver of the railcar. I asked him about the preservation of locos in Belgium, and if one of the high-speed “Atlantics” was still around. This brought forth a tirade against Belgian Railways, and it did not require a grasp of French to understand. The word “scandal” appeared several times, and he was clearly bitterly angry about the way that the SNCB (Belgian Railways) had scrapped numbers of historic locomotives, without giving the preservation movement a chance to save the most important. The museum here, he said, had more industrial and French locos than from the SNCB, and the “Three Valleys Line” depended on engines purchased from Eastern Europe. To be fair, most British enthusiasts could easily produce a long list of locos. missed by BR.

There was still plenty of time to look in at the other end of the building, the repair shops. This was a bright, clean, two-road shed, long enough to store a tender and tank engine on each line, where preservation work could carry on in warmth and comfort. Complete with a cafe set in the middle of the building, this museum is certainly worth a visit in its own right, but the preserved railway line alongside gives it extra value.

*Kreigslok – literally “war locomotive”, an austerity 2-10-0 built in Germany before and during the Second World War. With detail differences, over 10,000 were built, and in several different countries. They could be found from Norway to Turkey and the Soviet Union (though regauged), and around 200 are preserved.

By Ken McKee

Posted in Ken McKee.