On October 1st, 2015, I arrived at Mons, Belgium by SNCB Train from Brussels. It was my first time in this southwestern Belgian City, and my impressions were skewed by the fact that the entire railway station was a construction zone.
Mons was only a brief layover for me, as I was traveling to Valenciennes, France (just over the frontier) to give my talk on railway photography to the European Railway Agency.
My host Mauno Pajunen explained that the Mons station had been under construction for several years and that the classic old station building had been demolished to make way for a modern facility.
Since I had a few minutes, I made a few photos of the railway at Mons, but with very little context to guide me; it seemed to be just a jumble of catentary masts, wires, temporary platforms, cranes, cables, concrete and steel.
A week later I was back in Monson, Massachusetts, after some complex and intensive travel involving four countries, a half dozen trains, a fair few trams, two aeroplanes, several buses, and a bit of driving.
55 years earlier my father and Jack May had visited Mons on their wanders around Europe. On arrival back in Monson, I searched the slide collection for some context. Here is one of the slides my father exposed on Kodachrome.
Belgium’s Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges (Belgian National Railways or SNCB) operates a top-notch passenger network with interval frequencies on most routes. This works on a hub and spoke system, where planned changes allow passengers a great variety of destinations.
On an August 2014 evening, I arrived at Ottignies from Charleroi on my way to La Hulpe in the Brussels suburbs. My journey itinerary gave me 13 minutes to change from one train to another.
Ottignies is an old school station with traditional platforms and canopies. While this can’t last forever, I’ll take its situation as a blessing. Refurbished stations are fine for passenger utility, but offer less in the way visual character.
Since I’d changed here previously, I had a sense for where the light would be.
That’s right! I had precisely 13-minutes to make photographs, and I was prepared to make the most of it! (And yes, I exposed some colour slides too. You know, for the record.)
My time in Charleroi had come to a close. My next destination was La Hulpe in the suburbs south of Brussels. While I anticipated taking an Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges (Belgian National Railways or SNCB) train to Brussels and changing trains there, the ticket seller convinced me to try another option.
“It’s cheaper and faster to travel to Ottignies.” Ok, why not.
When I went up to platform 3A at Charleroi Sud, what appeared to be the oldest train in Belgium rattled in to collect me. I ended up riding a line I previously didn’t even have on my map (this turns out to be line 140).
While the train’s inside was nicely refurbished, it retained openable windows, a rare treat in today’s world of train travel.
No sooner than I boarded the train and the rain began, again. But after a while the sun came out and so I made a series of images using my Lumix LX7, which I was able to hold out the window at arms-length while keeping a sharp eye on the rear display screen.
Among the Lumix LX7s features are a built in neutral density filter and image stabilizer. This allowed me to make relatively long exposures in bright daylight while keeping the camera steady.
SNCB’s track is flawless, and the heavy aged train provided a solid, nearly vibration-free ride, allowing me to expose a series photos using long shutter speeds intended to blur the tracks and countryside while keeping the train sharp.
At Leige (Liège-Guillemins) I boarded an InterCity train for Brussels and glided along in comfort along perfectly maintained track. At Bruxelles-Nord/Brussel-Noord (French and Flemish names appear randomly applied to Brussels stations—so far as I can tell) I changed to another express, this one destined for Antwerp.
I was aiming for Antwerpen Noorderdokken, a location I explored in March, where freight trains access the port of Antwerp. Another change of trains at Antwerp Central brought me to this station. As I walked toward my desired photo angle, I noticed a dark wall of clouds rolling in off the North Sea. (It had been clear and cloudless at Liege!)
Yet, I managed to photograph six freights before the sun vanished—mission accomplished. Boarding my eighth train of the day, I aimed to ride around Antwerp and then back toward Brussels.
By the end of the day, I’d visited eight locations and traveled on ten trains. Not too shabby for the first day of my August visit to Belgium.
Does Belgium offer one western Europe’s best-kept secret railway experiences?
In 1835, Belgium was first on the Continent to adopt the steam railway. It subsequently developed one of the densest railway networks in Europe. Today, (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges—Belgian National Railways) operates one of the best national networks.
Although, often overlooked in favor of more scenic countries, Belgium is a great place to ride trains. I’ll be honest, while I’d made a few trips to Belgium in the 1990s, in recent years I’d generally ignored it in favor of other places. Recently, I’ve been stunned to find what a pleasant place it is to ride trains.
The railway is well integrated with other modes. Services run frequently on regular intervals across the network. On most routes there’s a good mix of local and express trains. The equipment is varied and generally comfortable, and the staff are very professional, courteous, helpful, and smartly dressed.
On the downside, I found that some stations, especially un-staffed smaller ones, were neglected and in a poor state and this tended to detract from the overall experience. By contrast, other stations were in very nice shape.
I’ve made two trips to Belgium this year. Last week (August 2013), I made good use of a 10-ride ‘Railpass’ ticket that I purchased for 76 Euro back in March.
This is an open-ended ticket where you write in your starting station and destination with date of travel for each journey. From my experience its an excellent value, and especially valuable for wandering.
My goal was to make a circular trip to explore potential photographic locations while traveling lines I’d not previously experienced.
Beginning in a southern Brussels suburb, I rode south via Ottignies (see yesterday’s post) and Namur to Marloie, and then eastward over a scenic secondary line to a small station called Esneux, where I spent an hour making photos.
From Esneux, I rode northward to Leige, where I found a stunning surprise . . .
On the morning of August 16, 2013, I was changing trains at Ottignies, a suburban station south of Brussels on the line toward Luxembourg. I had just under an hour to explore and make photos.
For many ordinary passengers, I expect that changing trains is a purgatorial experience, but I’ve always found that is a great time to make photos and helps break up the journey. Such was the case this day.
The sky was bright and blue, and Ottignies was entirely new to me. The station has several platforms, and at regular intervals trains converge to allow passengers to change from one train to another. In addition it serves the local population.
I made this pair of photographs of a northward express train led by a SNCB (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges—Belgian National Railways) class 13 electric. What impressed me about this location was the slight jog in the track on approach to the station and the immense proportions of the overhead footbridge, which combined give the image greater depth.
My quandary in editing is deciding which of the two photos I prefer. The first offers a view with signals and more of the footbridge, while the second is more focused on the locomotive and train.
Both were exposed digitally with my Canon EOS 7D and 100mm lens. The train was moving swiftly and I had only moments to make my composition before it blitzed the platforms.
Making the most of a Belgian Rail-Freight Hotspot.
Mid-Morning on Friday March 22, 2013, I took a SNCB (Société National des Chemins de fer Belges—Belgian National Railways) local train from Antwerpen Centraal to a suburban station at Antwerpen Noorderdokken. This is an important junction north of central Antwerp, where routes toward Amsterdam diverge from the principal freight line to Antwerp Port.
I was following the recommendation of a friend who had previously explored this junction. As one of Europe’s busiest ports, Antwerp is a large source of rail freight, and this route is famous for both its volume and variety of traffic.
In addition to SNCB’s freights, open access arrangements allow for a variety of private rail operators and other national railways to serve customers. In a little more than 4 hours, I witnessed nearly 35 freight moves (including light engines) under partly sunny skies. In addition I also photographed a dozen or so passenger trains.
My preferred locations were in a field about a 15 minute walk from the Antwerpen Noorderdokken station. Here, the freight line makes a sweeping ‘S-bend’ that allows for a variety of angles favoring the light.
After 4 hours of intense photography, I was cold and hungry, so I retraced my steps and headed back toward Brussels. In addition to digital images exposed with my Canon EOS 7D and Lumix LX3, I also made a number of color slides with my Canon EOS-3.