There are still a few model trains on display at the Stoomcentrum, or Steam Centre, in Maldegem, but the real attractions are Fred and Yvonne. Fred dates from the 1920s but is still going strong. And though Yvonne is about 30 years his senior, she, too, still has a bit of life in her.
Fred and Yvonne are steam locomotives, and you can see them in motion at the Steam Centre, established by railway enthusiasts 26 years ago in the small town in East Flanders. Steam engines are not just restored to serve as museum pieces at the former train station site, some of them carry passengers between Maldegem and Eeklo on Sundays.
Volunteers at the centre are now preparing carriages of the luxury express trains created by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, reviving the times of the famous Orient Express line.
Entering the station of Maldegem is an instant trip back in time, as the platforms are filled with steam engines and carriages from around the beginning of the previous century. Visitors can board four of the steam trains and a diesel train and take a short journey towards the village Donk in open carriages on a narrow gauge railway of 60 centimetres wide.
In a stationary carriage serving as a cinema, you are taken back by archive images, short films and newsreels to an era when railway workers shovelled coal to produce the steam that drove the engines, and trains roared into stations while belching clouds of steam.
For once in a station, you can safely cross the tracks to visit the permanent exhibition sheltered inside the large on-site train shed. A variety of small objects and accessories are on show, including model trains, ancient schedules and a conductor’s uniform, but the eye-catchers are the huge steam machines.
You can get a closer look at the intricate mechanics of Marie, a steam locomotive, but also of an industrial steam engine from 1921. This machine used to drive all the looms at the weaving mill Van Themssche in Sint-Amandsberg, a district of Ghent. There is also a steam-powered fire engine built in 1910, which the fire department of Gullegem, West Flanders, could operate after seven minutes of heating, quick at the time. The collection includes a diesel train as well, a successor of the engines from the steam era.
The shed is not only a museum, but also the workshop of the railway enthusiasts restoring old engines throughout the year. At the moment, the volunteers are working on the Belgian steam engine Bébert, a recent acquisition.
One of the volunteers tells me it can take them up to three years to get an engine on track again. “They are often in terrible shape after spending years at a scrapyard, lost and forgotten,” he says. “That makes us all the more proud to see them in full force again, attracting the admiration of our passengers. It sure beats building model trains.”
That was exactly the thought of the pioneers of the Steam Centre, a club of a dozen model train builders, who took over the station site after the rail transport authority NMBS stopped freight traffic to Maldegem in the 1980s. Maldegem hadn’t seen a passenger train, meanwhile, since 1959.
After practising on the narrow gauge railway in the direction of Bruges, the enthusiasts also put the normal gauge to Eeklo to use again. Now the group of volunteers at the centre has grown to about 80 members, and railway activity is full steam again on Sundays and holidays. There are additional special train rides on Valentine’s day and around Sinterklaas. Both annual events, the International Steam Festival in May and the Railway Festival in August (see sidebar below) attracts many visitors of all ages.
Steam Centre president Jason Van Landschoot has been hooked on steam engines since he was a child and saw a tourist steam train. “I first heard a terrible racket, and then a giant black monster in a vapour cloud passed by puffing and hissing. It was a machine that truly seemed alive,” he recalls. “I was so excited that I decided on the spot to become a steam train driver one day. And so I did eventually, proving wrong the people who laughed at my dream,” he smiles.
The nostalgic value of the steam trains is enormous, as they refer to a time – that ended only half a century ago – when almost all Flemings went on holiday abroad by steam train, rather than car or plane. Travelling conditions were often less agreeable than now, however, especially on the wooden benches of third class. But steam engines were not slow: the fastest steam locomotive ever reached 203 km/h.
Erik Cooremans, a volunteer at the Steam Centre, tells me about family trips to Spain and Scotland – and also his honeymoon in Austria – all by train. “There was not as much comfort then, but every time you felt elated when that train dangerously thundered into the station, and you could get on it,” he says. “The several places where we stopped in different countries were always busy and colourful spots. I miss that romance in travelling today. Although I admit I don’t mind staying clean instead of getting covered in soot from the smoke.”
To revive the days of long-distance train travelling, but in absolute style, the Steam Centre is restoring carriages of the luxury express train company created by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers: the International Sleeping-Car Company. Their famous sleeper trains include the Orient Express that travelled between Paris and Istanbul and the Blue Trains between Calais and the French Riviera. The Steam Centre is now working to get a Blue Train into prime shape for passengers by next Valentine’s Day.
Steam trains required an enormous amount of technical knowledge and much more organisation by staff than today’s electrically powered trains, says Van Landschoot. “They didn’t just have to push a button and listen to the on-board computer,” he says. “The whole team had to ensure that the engine was constantly under steam. Every quarter of an hour, someone went to check and, if necessary, replenish the machine with water and coal or oil. It was a source of pride to maintain your train well; there were even awards for best machinists.”
Because the centre received so many inquiries from those who wanted to experience this teamwork, the Steam Centre lets people be a machinist for one day. You start early in the morning and, after polishing, greasing and stoking up the steam engine, you can take passengers on several rides from Maldegem to Eeklo and back. (The driving itself is always done by someone from the centre.)
Flemings were among the first in the world – after Americans and the British – to power and ride steam trains. Shortly after Belgium’s independence in 1830, mainland Europe’s first passenger line, between Mechelen and Brussels, debuted.
The region has also been active in the creation of the machines, most famously with the steam train builder Carels in Ghent, which produced first steam and then diesel trains for more than 160 years.
Flemish engineers revolutionised the technology and design of steam trains: Egide Walschaerts invented the Walschaerts valve gear, Alfred Belpaire the Belpaire firebox and the famous architect and designer Henry van de Velde innovated the interior of train carriages. The steam locomotives proved essential in transporting the freight that arrived in the harbour of Antwerp and the coal from the mines of Limburg.
The centre is planning to expand its exhibition space next year with a large hall for temporary exhibitions, focusing on, for example, the use of trains during the war or for the deportations of Jewish prisoners. “We don’t just want to restore the machinery of our trains,” explains Van Landschoot, “but also their history, with all its stories.”
The steam trains rumble between Maldegem and Eeklo through the green Meetjesland on Sundays and holidays the all year long. The trip is around 10 kilometres and takes half an hour, with stops. The trains on the narrow gauge line towards the village Donk ride on the same days and travel about two kilometres, which lasts approximately 20 minutes. Until the end of August, you can also enjoy a ride on board a diesel train on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The Steam Centre’s annual festival this month celebrates the establishing of the railway line from Eeklo to Bruges in 1862, and thus of the station in Maldegem. Apart from extra train rides on the normal and narrow gauge lines, a special exhibition will commemorate the history of the station site.
You’ll also get the chance to see antique steam trams of the vicinal rail system that crossed the entire country until the middle of the previous century, before buses came more into use. “Imagine a tram system like the coast trams throughout the whole of Belgium, pulled by steam engines,” says Jason Van Landschoot. “It is an essential image of the Belle Époque in Flanders.” The trams are on loan from the NMBS only for the festival. Several stands will also be on site for the festival, including one that offers the original Steam Beer.
Stationsplein 8, Maldegem