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.)
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.