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Brussels tramways: the last three years

Three years ago Tramways and Urban Transit published a history of the Brussels tramway undertaking, the STIB, since 1945. This article describes some of the changes that have taken place since the beginning of 1999 and the prospects for the future. By Geoffrey Skelsey.

The Heysel plateau was the site of celebrated international exhibitions in 1935 and 1958, requiring special tramway facilities. The terminal was recently cut back and rebuilt, and now serves sporting, entertainment and commercial attractions. On a sunny February afternoon in 2001 trams stand on services 3/23 and 81 with the famous Atomium in the background.

Accounts of new tramway and light rail installations, especially those of the United States, France, and Great Britain, perhaps deflect attention from the continuing issues facing undertakings which stuck resolutely with the tram through its long period of denigration. What follows is a reminder of the ceaseless task of maintaining and updating such installations, a task which will inevitably face the new ones too. Since 1999 the STIB's renewal programme has continued unceasingly, partly to overcome arrears of maintenance - and especially deteriorating street paving - and also to fit the tramway into new road layouts and redeveloped areas. Usually the affected sections are closed completely for a period of months so that the whole street can be rebuilt, and often the opportunity is taken to incorporate shared use with buses in new segregated sections. Rolling stock, too, continues to receive substantial attention: apart from the 51 low-floor cars of 1993, the STIB tram fleet dates from 1952 to 1978 and a programme of refurbishment and reconstruction is proceeding.


Track renewal

Rebuilding at Place St Denis on 1 September 2001. Car 7903 passes the works for the new siding, with its unusual slip points. This replaces the former loop, which was also (until February 1964) the southern terminus of Brussels' only trolleybus route.

Typical of the renewal programme was the relaying undertaken on the St Lambert to Heysel section (services 23 and 81). This involved closure for six months from 1 December 1999 of a line built for the first International Exhibition on the Heysel Plateau in 1935, with private track and centre-pole overhead, and including a number of overline bridges. The route had badly deteriorated and with the European Football Cup coming to Heysel Stadium in 2000 it was decided to renew track foundations, ballast, sleepers, rail and overhead line. The result is a superb stretch of new tramway. A second example of complete renewal was the Place Docteur Schweitzer to Hunderenveld section (service 19), originally opened in 1948 and latterly renowned for some of the worst track on the undertaking. It was closed summarily on 28 May 1999 with service 19 cut back to an awkward temporary terminal at Schweitzer and a shuttle bus beyond. The tram service was not resumed until December 2000. This was an excellent instance of the thorough overhaul of the whole of the street environment as well as relaying.

The underpasses and underground junctions at Midi Station, opened in 1957, were the first post-war European tram subways and most of the installation remains in use today, mainly relaid in 2000. Here is the ramp leading to the Boulevard du Midi, with car 7806 on service 90, which at present terminates here. This unsatisfactory terminus will disappear in the 2002 changes.

Another planned renewal involved track replacement in the original 1957 tram subways at Midi Station, requiring their closure in the evenings and at weekends for several weeks in early 2000. The tramway rail has been replaced with ballasted track, and the layout simplified. It would be nice if the bronze commemorative plaque in the apex of Lemonnier station could be cleaned and illuminated as a reminder of the importance of this historic tram subway, 45 years old in 2002.

A final example of relaying is a major exercise, nearing completion in the autumn of 2001, in the Avenue Fonsny immediately alongside the Midi Station. Here there are plans for redevelopment to provide a more fitting setting for the reconstructed station and the tracks have been relocated on central reservation in place of the former scruffy side reservation. The connexion to the Avenue du Roi depot, and the adjacent street track in the Rue Th. Verhaegen - the latter had been in a particularly poor state - were also replaced. The 1957 tram station beneath the railway immediately adjacent to the Midi Station concourse has also at last been cleaned and renewed, with better lighting and glazed screens, an improved welcome to the STIB tramways.

These are just high-lights of the renewal programme. A day's tour of the undertaking in September 2001 saw at least six local renewal projects.


A closure - and a reopening

Breakdowns sometimes happen! Passengers alight from the 'wrong' side of defective low-floor tram 2049 to board replacement 7821 at the pleasant Fort Jaco terminus on 1 September 2001. There are not quite enough Tram 2000 class cars to work all services on the '92' group of routes: the planned new service pattern will permit their redeployment.

Since the beginning of 1999 there has been one line closure and one reopening. As mentioned, the extension of the east-west heavy metro line 1B from its 1992 terminus at Bizet to the Erasme Hospital is to replace the final section of tram service 56, between St Nicolas and Erasme. This line, newly opened in 1982 on central reserved track with the only catenary overhead on the tram system, was discontinued from 12 January 1999. Tunnelling is now largely complete, all signs of the tramway having disappeared so that the metro could be constructed beneath and - for the last section-- on the former reservation. Service 56 at present terminates at the St Nicolas stop near the E10 motorway crossing, a few hundred metres beyond the original 1951 terminal at the CERIA educational campus.

The reopening was unexpected. The 800m long section in the Chaussée de Ninove - once shared with metre gauge SNCV trams - last saw regular public use by service 102 twenty years ago, but tracks remained for empty workings serving the Molenbeek Depot. From 1 September 1999 the partly relaid section was restored to regular passenger use, mainly to serve the large 'Arts et Metiers' further education college near the Porte de Ninove, with the diversion over it of part of the 82 service. The original 82 route via Clemenceau continued to be served mainly by short-workings between Midi and the loop at Mennekens. This dual routing led to confusion and from 21 March 2000 the Clemenceau route was re-numbered 83 and served daily by a Midi to Berchem service, normally three cars an hour. The new route via Chaussée de Ninove carried the Monday to Friday daytime service numbered 82, covering the complete itinerary from Montgomery to Berchem.


Rolling stock

While track relaying takes place the work is often protected from other traffic by temporary 'gates'. Here outbound eight-axle tram 7933 crawls through a gate in the Chaussée de Bruxelles in Forest.

The end of 2001 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the first '7000' class four-axle PCCs in Brussels: remarkably they are older than the last trams to enter service in Leeds and Glasgow. Some of the first 1951-3 batch (7001 -7050) remain in regular service, and on weekdays about fifty four axle cars (out of an original total of 172) still work on services 18, 39, 44, 82 and 83. Although mostly rebuilt, the marvellous 7000's are clearly not eternal and in the summer of 2001 the STIB sought tenders for forty new low-floor cars, for delivery in 2004-5. It is also intended to completely refurbish the final batch of 61 PCC-derived cars, the 7900 class. One car (7907) has already been fitted experimentally with new doors which make access easier and a similar change will be made to the whole fleet. Probably with new cars in mind an experiment began early in 2001 with a coupled set of adapted cars, numbers 7713 and 7786 which have been running on weekdays over part of new service 3, in effect a short working of 23 between Nord and RP Churchill. Most of the 127 cars in the 7700 series (the six axle cars built in 1972-3, all but one now double-ended) have now been refurbished and repainted.

Sadly with violent behaviour on the increase, attention is being given to the protection of drivers: some cars are being fitted with video-recording equipment and improved partitions between driver and saloon. Car 7733 has been experimentally fitted with a fully-enclosed cab.


Planned restructuring

Late in 2001 the STIB gave preliminary notice of a planned restructuring of the tram service pattern, which has remained largely unchanged since 1988. This will mean overdue changes to long-established itineraries - service 81, for instance, has been following much of its present route for over eighty years. Much of the present service network has grown up piecemeal, partly following metro opening between 1976 and 1988, and partly the previous major restructuring of services in 1967-8. No-one, for instance, would ever take present service 90 from end to end (its terminals are less than two kilometres apart but its route length is over 15 km). Route 81 is similar: it follows a huge arc around two thirds of the city. The new routeings seek to rectify some of these anomalies, and also to adapt services so that the segregated and subway sections are less affected by hold-ups on street track. The heavily loaded section between Pl Meiser and Buyl - all segregated - will have three services (23, 24 and 25) in place of the present two. Services 18 and 52 will follow more logical routes. Some minor trackwork will be required, including new turn-back facilities at Boendael station and Pl Meiser. Details of the proposals are given in the table. One sad consequence is that only one tram service will terminate at the much-diminished Gare de Schaerbeek, where fifty years ago there were five.

STIB Proposed alterations to tram services from September 2002
Service NoPresent routeFuture route
18Dieweg-Danco S. Denis-S. Gilles-Midi-Yser-Houba de StrooperS. Nicolas CERIA-Midi-Yser-Houba de Strooper (partly replaces 56).
24New service Place Louise-Ave Louise-Buyl-Montgomery-R Meiser (replaces part 93, supplements present 23).
25New service Boendael Station-Buyl-Montgomery-P Meiser-P Liedts-Nord-Rogier (replaces part 90, part 93, supplements present 23).
51New service Parking Stalle Marlow-Vanderkindere-S. Gilles-Midi-Nord-Esplanade (replaces part 91, part 52: new line on Quai des Usines).
52Drogenbos-S. Denis-Midi-Nord-EsplanadeDrogenbos-S. Denis Midi-Nord-Schaerbeek Station (replaces part 93; replaced by part 51).
56S. Nicolas-CERIA-Midi-Nord-Schaerbeek StationWithdrawn. Replaced by part 18, part 52.
81Montgomery-Flagey-S. Gilles-Midi-Nord-Bockstael-HeyselWithdrawn and not replaced. Covered by part 23 and 82.
90Rogier-P. Leidts-P. Meiser-Montgomery-Buy]-Churchill-MidiWithdrawn. Partly replaced by new 25.
91Parking Stalle-Marlow-Vanderkindere-P. LouiseWithdrawn. Partly replaced by new 51.
93Mane Jose-Buyi-Ave Louise-Rue Royale-Schaerbeek StationWithdrawn. Partly replaced by new 25, 24, 97.
97New service. Dieweg-Danco-S Denis-S Gilles-P. Louise-P St Marie (replaces part 18, part 93).

Longer term plans

Many ordinary suburban streets have been rebuilt with new tram tracks and other street equipment. Here in the Chaussée de Neerstalle in Uccle car 7954 on service 18 passes over ner track with built out tram boarders giving also parking bays of residents’ cars.

Late in 2000 the Minister of Transport for the Brussels Capital Region announced plans for investment to improve mobility in the period to 2004. Total investment will amount to about 2.5 billion EUR, and will concentrate on improved priority for public transport, with more segregated sections, and with better facilities for cyclists and pedestrians. Two significant tramway developments are envisaged. One is a 750m extension of service 55 from its northern 1993 terminus at Bordet to the NATO headquarters. Another new line will enable present service 52 (new 51) to be re-routed, avoiding the street track around Pl Verboekhoven. This will involve about 900m of new tracks on the Quai des Usines alongside the Willebroek Canal, from the Avenue de la Reine at the Sq Jules de Trooz to the Pont van Praet on the Esplanade line. There is already a segregated bus lane along the Quai with a ramp up to the Blvd Lambermont. More distant prospects are a further extension beyond NATO to Dieghem, and a 1.1-km extension of service 55 from its present southerly terminus at Silence to a new Moensberg railway station, although this will involve negotiations with three neighbouring communes!

The present north-south tram subway, opened in 1976 and extended in 1993, was intended to form the central section of a third metro line in due course. The Regional Government have initiated studies of the best long-term use of this subway, whether as tramway, upgraded light rail, or as the basis for a north-south metro. The last would, needless to say, affect the tramway network profoundly but would be immensely expensive. The outcome of these studies is still awaited, and in the meantime the STIB are committed only to completing the Bizet - Erasme line (metro route 1) and completing the inner ring (route 2) by building the Clemenceau to Beekkant link.


Conclusion

At the end of 2001 the Brussels tramway is in good shape and good heart. Traffic on tram services reportedly rose by over ten per cent in 2000-1, far more than on other modes in the undertaking, and the prospect for new cars and lines is good. Above all the massive programme of renewal and consolidation is evidence of long-term intentions to retain and develop the tramways. If there is a small cloud on the horizon it is the EU-inspired requirement to tender operations on large urban transport networks, and to identify and limit the level of revenue subsidy. This may be a painful process.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Yves-Laurent Hansart and Tim Figures for advice on the text and for many enjoyable days spent touring the STIB network. Further information came from the pages of the Brussels paper Le Soir, and from STIB press releases which can be seen at www.stib.irisnet.be as can up-to-date maps and timetables.

At least for those in southern England a day trip by train to view this fascinating tramway is easily possible. The writer has prepared a short introduction to the system, with an itinerary and map, which is available in return for a large SAE sent to Geoffrey Skelsey, The Old Schools, Trinity Lane, Cambridge CB2 1TN, or by e-mail to sncv@hotmail.com.

All pictures by Geoffrey Skelsey


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