New Brussels museum is a hymn to the railways


Train World in Brussels offers an engaging trip through almost two centuries of train travel and reminds us that the story of the railways is also a story about people

East, west, Schaarbeek’s best

Did you know that Mechelen was once the centre of this country’s fledgling rail network? That Antwerp’s beautiful Central Station was almost demolished after the Second World War? Or that Victor Horta worked on Brussels Central until he was 84?

As the oldest station still in its original state, on the oldest stretch of track in the first country in mainland Europe to have a railway, Schaarbeek is an obvious home for Brussels’ newest museum – a hymn to the railways and all who’ve travelled on them.

Opened last month by King Filip, Train World is an engaging trip through almost two centuries of train travel, from the early steam engines and the Belgian engineers whose expertise was crucial both here and abroad, to the sleek international models that now whisk us around the continent.

Your journey begins, appropriately, in the ticket office, light, airy and beautifully preserved. Here, models of old engines in glass cases satisfy the genuine train buff, while a collection of uniforms and adverts make for an interesting diversion into social history.

Next, visitors head outside, along the station platform and through a turnstile into a giant shed, full to bursting with magnificent steam engines, a lovingly restored station worker’s cottage from the 1950s and a charming “attic” stuffed with all manner of miscellany – almost 200 years’ worth of old benches, station signs, weighing scales and lamps.

An atmospheric hall full of ticking clocks with a galloping horse projected on to the wall illustrates the fact that the railways were responsible for the standardisation of time in Belgium. Until the mid-19th century, the young nation had as many time zones as there were towers with sundials on them – the arrival of the railways and the resulting need for a single, standardised national time changed all that.

Trains of days past

Throughout, you’re reminded that the story of the railways is also a story about people, and during the journey you’ll hear recollections from the people who lived it. Like the little boy who used to catch “Tommy the train” to town with his grandmother, or the son of the railway worker rocked to sleep each night by the sound of passing trains.

To immerse yourself in the history, you’re encouraged to clamber on board the various wagons, including a Red Cross train that was used to transport wounded soldiers, the post train – the first such service in continental Europe – and a telephone carriage complete with operator that briefly shuttled between Brussels and Charleroi.

The dark shed opens out into an airy, split-level gallery, with vast windows overlooking the tracks where the trains of today whizz past, heading around the country and beyond. Here you can poke around a luxury wagon-lit with its opulent dining car, and, as you inch towards the present day, you can even have a go at driving a train yourself on one of the simulators.

The journey ends with a cinematic vision of the railway of the future, in seats taken from the first-class carriages of Thalys, ICE, Eurostar and Japan’s Shinkansen trains.

Audio guides and information panels are in four languages and offered in well-written bite-size chunks, while children can follow an interactive comic strip as they play the role of a cartoon hero, with a little surprise at the end.

Photo by Marie-Françoise Plissart/NMBS