Did you know that the first train ride on the European mainland took place in Belgium?
On 5 May 1835 the very first train to travel on the European mainland departed from Brussels. It's was heading for Mechelen, 22 km away. Despite ceremoniously opening the railway track, King Leopold I was not allowed to climb aboard. For safety reasons.
All thanks to Belgian independence
When Belgium managed to split off from the Netherlands in 1830, our northern neighbours took drastic economic measures. They closed the canals connecting the northern provinces and even blocked off the port of Antwerp. This put an end to any transport between Antwerp and Germany via the Dutch waterways. How could Belgium become a strong industrial country under such circumstances? By digging a new canal or developing a rail network for example.
Belgium's new monarch, King Leopold I, was more of a rail fan. A few years earlier he had already witnessed a steam train puffing by between Manchester and Liverpool, in the north of England, and this had made a big impact on him. So he asked the Belgian government to find out if it was possible to connect Antwerp with the German Ruhr district by rail. In 1831 two engineers, Pierre Simons and Gustave De Ridder, were put in charge of developing a proposal. The order to start work on the rail network was issued in May 1834. The state took care of its building and operation.
On 5 May 1835, less than a year later, the first railway track on the European mainland was officially used for the first time. For the occasion 900 guests were invited to travel in a convoy consisting of three trains, each pulled by a magnificent new steam locomotive (La Flèche, Stephenson and L’Eléphant). The trip lasted 50 minutes and went from Brussels-Groendreef, more or less across the Senne valley and Vilvoorde, to Mechelen. The passengers sat in 30 carriages, decorated in the three colours of the national flag. There were standard open and covered carriages with benches. But also a number of 'diligences' (stagecoach) and 'berlines' (sedan coach) for important guests. It was quite a spectacle: spectators came to witness it en masse. Even the trees and roofs were packed with people. You could hardly describe the crowd's elation: it was as if they knew it would be the beginning of a new era.
‘It didn't turn the milk sour’
However, the construction was not without its setbacks. Heavy debates were heard in parliament and studies took place in quick succession. Opponents claimed it would put people such as coachmen and sailors out of work. The general public was scared that it would stop you breathing. The farmers were even concerned that their eggs would arrive like omelettes and that it would frighten the cows grazing in meadows near the tracks into producing sour milk, at the shock of seeing the smoke-spitting giant as it thundered by!
Further networks was added later, namely a north-south route (Antwerp-France) and a west-east route (North Sea-Germany), each time with Mechelen in the middle.
Find out all about it on: www.trainworld.be