History of the Belgian railways

Established in 2005, Infrabel is still a relatively new company. Infrabel came into being when the Belgian railways were reorganised to allow free competition. But we can trace the history of our activities much further back in time!

The first railway

Shortly after gaining its independence, Belgium opened the first railway in mainland Europe. This was the line between Brussels and Mechelen, which was officially opened on 5 May 1835. The former King Leopold I was determined to build an extensive railway network in Belgium to boost the economy. We made history back then, and that's something we're very proud of!

The Belgian railway network grew rapidly. Both the Belgian State and private firms were involved in its construction and operation. By the end of the 19th century, there were already over 3,000 kilometres of tracks. In 1885 the Nationale Maatschappij van Buurtspoorwegen (the Belgian national vicinal tramway company) was founded. It was their job to connect smaller towns to the national rail network by tram or local rail line.

Then the First World War broke out…

The First World War

During the First World War, most of the Belgian rail network came under the control of the German occupying forces. They used the railways to transport goods and soldiers to the front. The allies also built many temporary railway lines between western Flanders and France.

Railway guns were used by both the German and the allied armies. The war devastated the railways: over 1,000 kilometres of tracks were destroyed and many railway bridges were reduced to rubble. Around 2,000 railwaymen lost their lives in the Great War.

Establishment of SNCB

In 1926, the government established the SNCB - the national railway company of Belgium. The rail company was awarded a 75 year operating contract. The nationalisation of the Belgian railways was completed in 1958, leaving the entire rail network in the hands of the Belgian state.

From the 1930s onwards, electric railway lines gradually replaced steam trains. The first electric line ran from Brussels-North to Antwerp Central from 1935. SNCB also had ambitious plans for the rest of the rail network. Unfortunately, the Second World War put a stop to this.

The Second World War

The railway network once again played a vital role in the Second World War. Passengers could hardly use the railway network during the war as most trains were commandeered by the German army.

As a result of the war, large parts of the network were totally destroyed by bombing. For years afterwards the focus lay on repairing the damage. The ambitious plans of the 1930s were shelved.

Since there was also a strong increase in road travel during that time, several minor rail lines started running at a loss and were closed.

Electrification and major infrastructure projects

In the 1950s, SNCB resumed its electrification plans. Today, most of the country's railway lines are electric.

In 1952, the Brussels North-South connection, an underground rail link between the stations of Brussels-Midi/Zuid and Brussels-North came into service. This connection soon emerged as the major artery of the Belgian railway network. The construction of the Kennedy Tunnel near Antwerp was another major step for rail traffic in Belgium.

The liberalisation of the railway sector

Rail freight traffic was fully liberalised in 2005. Henceforth, various private companies are allowed to organise freight transport on the railway network.

To enable this free competition and comply with the EU directives, the Belgian railways adapted their structure. Commercial activities had to be separated from infrastructure management tasks in order to enable a free market mechanism to operate on the railways. This led to the formation of the SNCB Group, consisting of three independent companies:

  • SNCB, carrier or operator
  • Infrabel, railway infrastructure manager
  • SNCB Holding, responsible for human resources, IT and the 37 largest stations as well as coordination between the various companies

Infrabel was created in 2005 and is the manager and operator of the Belgian railway infrastructure. 

Simplification of the Belgian railways

In order to place the customer at the centre of its services, the three-part structure of the SNCB Group was simplified. On 1 January 2014, SNCB Holding merged with SNCB, creating a two-part structure with Infrabel as railway infrastructure manager and SNCB as operator. A new subsidiary, HR Rail, is responsible for the recruitment and management of the staff of both companies.