Belgium has the honour of having organised the first public steam transport on the continent. On 1 May 1834, less than four years after the installation of the Liverpool Manchester Railway, the law decreeing the establishment of railways appeared in the Moniteur. It provided for the construction of a line from Mechelen to the Prussian border via Leuven, Liège and Venders, with a branch line from Mechelen to Antwerp and Ostend and to France via Brussels.
A year later, on 5 May 1835, the section from Brussels to Mechelen was completed and the inauguration was celebrated with great solemnity.
Contemporary accounts testify to the astonishment, admiration and enthusiasm that the sight of the new mode of locomotion provoked.
Since that memorable time, the Belgian nation has developed its means of communication to an extent not found in any other country in the world. Indeed, if one relates the total length of the railways to the surface area of the territory, one finds that Belgium has 28.8 kilometres of track operated per 100 square kilometres. The other European countries follow in significantly lower proportions.
As Belgium was the first country on the continent to operate steam railways, it was its duty to outline the development of traction equipment by presenting the essential features of the different types of engines, each of which characterises the needs or trends of a particular period. This is what it did at the Universal Exhibition in Ghent.
The retrospective exhibition of the Belgian State was divided into two important groups, one comprising passenger engines and the other goods locomotives. It also included the series of tending and shunting machines.
When the establishment of the railway network was decreed, there were several steam engine construction workshops in Belgium, but none, except for the John Cockerill establishment in Seraing, was capable of building a locomotive. So they turned to England, where steam transport on railways had been in operation for some years, particularly on the line from Liverpool to Manchester. At the same time, however, the Seraing workshops undertook the construction of a new engine which was delivered to the State on 30 December 1835 and named "Le Belge". A faithful reproduction of this venerable ancestor appeared at the Ghent Exhibition.
Next, in chronological order, was the De Ridder locomotive of the railway from Antwerp to Ghent via the Waes region, which was of narrow gauge (1.14 m). The Belgian engineer De Ridder, who can rightly be considered a precursor of our local railways, wanted to create a light, economical engine that could run on inexpensive, narrow-gauge tracks, a machine that was, in short, well suited to lines with little traffic.
The famous "Belpaire" machines, whose characteristics are universally known, were then developed. The passenger locomotive known as type I dates from 1864. For 25 years, these excellent engines provided the entire express and direct train service on almost all the lines of the Belgian state network. The most special feature of the type is the boiler with very short tubes and a very long firebox, with a steeply inclined grate allowing the use of small coals. The cylinders, drawers and distribution are internal; the side rails, made of cut sheet metal, are external; and the machine, as a whole, presents a general appearance of elegant simplicity.
Three years before the introduction of the type I passenger engines, the engineer Belpaire created the type 28. This very simple and robust locomotive was the origin of the Belgian State's classic freight engine for the period 1862 to 1884. As the loads to be towed became heavier, it was necessary to consider creating more powerful types, in order to be able to ensure the regularity of the service by also increasing the speed.
The freight engine, known as type 25, was designed and built in 1884 for the Luxembourg line: it was gradually introduced throughout the Belgian network, where it was used to tow trains in parallel with the more recent engines.
The type 12 express locomotive dates from 1888 and was substituted from that time onwards for the type I machines for towing high composition express trains. It is a large diameter four-wheel coupled engine with front and rear driving axles; the front driving axle has radial gearboxes.
Towards the end of 1899, even more powerful tractors were required and, as the dimensions of the grates had been increased to their maximum for the combustion of coals, the Belgian government reverted to the use of agglomerated fuel that could burn in much thicker layers. The application of this principle gave rise to types 17 and 18 for passengers and 32 with and without superheating for goods.
In 1905, the modern Belgian State locomotives appeared. They are of the Flamme type, characterised by the use of 4 equal cylinders with single expansion and superheating. These are type 9 represented by two examples built, one by the Société anonyme des Usines métallurgiques du Hainaut in Couillet. Two specimens of type 10 appeared at the Ghent Exhibition. They were built respectively by the Société Franco-Belge at La Croyère and the Ateliers de construction et grosses forges de La Hestre. An engine of this type is capable of developing a power of 2,300 horsepower; coupled to a tram of 385.5 tons, it was able to reach the top of the ramp from Namur to Rhisnes (6 mm. per meter over 6 kilometres) at a speed of 50 kilometres per hour.
The type 36 was represented in Ghent by three examples built by the Société anonyme du Thiriau in La Croyère, the Société de Saint-Léonard in Liège and the Forges, Usines et Fonderies de Gilly. This locomotive, which is the most powerful in Europe, is used to tow heavy goods trains on the rough lines of Luxembourg (Brussels - Arlon), Ourthe, Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse and Welken-raedt to Aachen via Bleyberg.
Finally, the latest arrival, the completely new type 13, was built by the Société des Ateliers Métallurgiques in Brussels (Ateliers Tubize). This locomotive is a trailing machine for frequent-stop trains, in particular the block trains that run between Brussels and Antwerp (44 kilometres). On this route, they can make three trips without taking on water; the bunkers are particularly large (14 cubic metres). The rear bogie, which carries a large part of the supplies, therefore has a variable load; it is therefore combined with the coupled axles by means of two balancers.
The major Belgian industries involved in the construction of traction and transport equipment had made it a point of honour to display, alongside the retrospective exhibition of the State railways, of which we have just given a too summary description, the most characteristic specimens of their manufacture, which they spread throughout the world.
The Société anonyme des Ateliers de Construction de la Meuse in Sclessin-lez-Liége, in addition to the large express machine mentioned above, had sent two industrial locomotives to the Exhibition, one of which was 18 tons, in service order. These locomotives are intended for shunting wagons in metallurgical factories, collieries, mines, quarries and various industries.
The Société anonyme des Ateliers de Godarville, which is specially equipped to build transport equipment, has exhibited a mixed bogie car in Ghent, intended for the international service of the Belgian State Railways. This vehicle, which is 19.678 metres long, meets all modern requirements. It has a very elastic suspension, large water closet, electric lighting, steam heating, electric bells and horns. The workmanship is most remarkable and does the greatest honour to the Belgian industry so justly renowned abroad.
The participation of the "Ateliers Métallurgiques" in the exhibition was most important. It is true that this powerful company, which owns the Ateliers de Tubize, de Nivelles and de la Sambre, manufactures not only everything related to traction and transport equipment for railways and tramways, but also bridges, frames, metal hangars, etc. In the railway hall, this firm had the first specimen of the type 13 locomotive, Flamme patents, built in the Tubize workshops for the Belgian State. This very powerful locomotive has three coupled axles and two carrier bogies as mentioned above. Bile is designed to tow passenger trains and particularly the block train that runs a fast and intensive service between Brussels and Antwerp.
It is characterized by the double control; indeed, according to whether the locomotive is moving, forward or backward, the engineer finds, at the front or at the back of his cabin, the control organs of the running command, the moderator, the brake, the whistle, etc... It is therefore not necessary to turn this engine at the terminus.
A locomotive for the Compagnie des chemins de fer du Congo supérieur aux grands lacs africains also left the Tubize workshops. It is a "Mogul" type engine for one-metre track, whose boiler construction is reminiscent of that of the Belgian State. The fireplaces extend beyond the side rails, and the relatively large grate can burn wood. In addition, the chimney, of the American type, is equipped with a fireguard; the suspension is particularly careful in view of the bad colonial tracks.
The Ateliers de la Sambre, also belonging to the Société des Ateliers Métallurgiques, exhibited a wagon ordered by the Compagnie du Chemin de fer du Bas-Congo in Katanga. This vehicle has three hoppers with a total capacity of 25 cubic metres and a load capacity of thirty tonnes. The unloading is done in the axis of the track by three hatches placed at the bottom of the hoppers and opening downwards; the hatches are controlled by worms and gears, and the manoeuvre can be done indifferently on both sides of the wagon by means of a hand wheel.
The Ateliers du Thiriau in Ba Croyère exhibited a type 36 superheated Flamme system locomotive, and the Société anonyme des Ateliers de Trazegnies was represented by a beautiful freight train van of the latest Belgian State Railways type.
The Société anonyme de Beaume et Marpent in Haine-Saint-Pierre had a 40-tonne wagon with automatic unloading for the transport of ores, as well as a remarkable first-class car. The wagon is mounted on two pressed steel bogies with two sets of wheels each. The all-metal frame, specially shaped to accommodate the humpback floor, is made up of braced and cross-braced beams so as to combine maximum strength with minimum weight. Each side of the vehicle has three doors, held closed by cleats fixed to a shaft running from one end of the vehicle to the other, so that the opening manoeuvre can be done at the ends.
The Congo Railway Company had exhibited a relatively powerful engine of a new system. It was a Garrat-type tender engine built in the Ateliers Saint-Béonard in Liége. The locomotive has two three-axle bogies, each coupled, which carry the boiler between them.
This arrangement, which allows the centre of gravity to be lowered, gives the machine great stability; it also allows it to pass through small radius curves (50 metres in this case). Heating is by heavy oil (fuel oil) which, after spraying, is ignited towards the front; the products of combustion are then directed towards the rear in two burner cylinders; they then pass through the tube bundle. The fuel is then used as fully as possible.
The Société anonyme des Forges, Usines et Fonderies de Haine-Saint-Pierre had two locomotives shown in Ghent. The first, intended for the French Railway Company from Paris to Lyon and the Mediterranean, is of the classic type adopted in France. This machine-tender, designed for towing heavy passenger trains, had four compound cylinders, two outside at high pressure and the other two at low pressure inside the stringers.
The second locomotive was ordered by the Compagnie du chemin de fer du Bas-Congo in Katanga. It had the particularity that the boiler was built for optional heating, either with wood or coal.
The cylinders and the wheels outside the longitudinal members allow for easy inspection and maintenance, qualities that are essential in new countries.
The Société Franco-Belge de matériel de chemins de fer, whose workshops at La Croyère in Belgium and Raismes in France are among the most important, exhibited in Ghent a six-wheeled locomotive for one-metre tracks, an express locomotive, Flamme system, with 4 equal cylinders and a Schmidt superheater, a tombereau wagon with a sheet-metal body, as well as a two-axle first-class motor coach. All these products, with their perfect finish, clearly showed that this company has been able to meet all the requirements of modern construction.
The participation of the Usines métallurgiques du Hainaut was also very noticeable. This company, whose headquarters are in Couillet, has an annual turnover of 35 to 40 million francs. Its vast establishments, which were founded in 1835 and have been in transformation since 1908, include mines, blast furnaces, coke ovens, steelworks, rolling mills, workshops for the construction of stationary machinery and locomotives, etc. In the railway class it had a type 9 Flamme locomotive with four equal cylinders and a Schmidt superheater, as well as a six-wheel coupled machine with a separate two-bogie tender. This fine Belgian-made specimen was part of a batch of five locomotives that the Usines du Hainaut had on order for the Argentine Government.
The road travelled is colossal; but the ingenuity of the inventors will not stop there and a new exhibition will show us that the elite men of the different nations never stop on the road to progress.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle & Internationale de Gand 1913