Another perspective on the recent trip to Belgium, by Simon Bennett.
I travelled out on the afternoon of Wednesday 24th May on Sabena flight SN2178 16.15 Manchester to Brussels. There was the usual delay of between 15 and 30 minutes which seems to affect all afternoon flights to European destinations and this coupled with parking us on the hard standing at Brussels airport, meaning a bus ride to the terminal, meant that I missed the 19.04 departure from the airport station into Brussels. The plan off this service was to use the 20.12 service to Eeklo to meet the 51 hauled 20.09 ex-Eeklo at Gent Dampoort. Anyway the next departure from the airport was 19.20 with an arrival in Brussels Noord at 19.36. Change onto the 20.00 departure to Oostende with 1603 at the helm and arrive in Gent to meet Duncan Jennings and Tim "channel 16" Howlett at 20.36.
Viewed the 51 which was 5109 and went to check in to the handily placed Triannon 2 hotel in Gent. We came back out to view the 21.12 Geraardsbergen service which was not required but the 21.09 to Kortrijk turned up 2151 which was required. So a fast leap aboard and a run to De Pinte station for a beer or two before returning on the 21.45 return service with another required 21 at the front, 2124. We had been joined by another UK basher who had to return to Liege that evening and so having taken the opportunity to get something to eat we caught the 22.22 service from Gent (for Welkenraedt and Berlin) as this was Carl's train back to Liege and also Duncan required 2128 for haulage. Bailing at Brussels Midi for a beer in Sam's cafe and then onto the 23.10 Oostende back to Gent with 1601. Stumbled into bed at 23.50.
04.00 alarm call to get 04.51 service from Gent to make 5.28 off Brussels to spend Thursday mornings rush hour in Liege to cover the Statte to Liers/Liers to Statte and Jemelle to Liers services with (in order of appearance) 2365 on Liers to Statte, 2355 on Statte to Liers and 2353 on the Jemelle to Liers. Also had 2709 on the way down to Liege on the 04.26 Saint Ghislain to Vise service. After this it was across to Namur for Int 332 10.05 Paris service. This turned up 2201 so I flagged it to take the next EC service back to Brussels with required 2010 up front. A few short leaps in Brussels with 2702 on the 9.14 Koln to Oostende for 2021 back on EC97 12.15 to Basel and to meet up with the intrepid mob from England with whom I would be sharing a hotel for the next few nights.
After checking into the hotel the move was back to Brussels Noord station to get into position for the evening Brussels rush hour. This is always a frantic affair with 20 trains per hour in each direction over three pairs tracks between Brussels Midi and Noord stations. This action lasts for approx 2.5 hours so there is a lot to see, do and miss!! First move though was 2112 from Brussels Noord to Leuven on IC512 12.44 Oostende to Eupen for 2128 back on IC536 13.05 Eupen to Oostende. A unit move to Brussels Schuman for 2203 on P8001 15.25 Etterbeek to Poperinge back to Noord and then forward to Midi on 2223 P8901 15.51 Schaarbeek to Kortrijk. Next was 2514 on P8757 16.12 Midi to Charleroi Sud via Ottignies as far as Noord for what should have been P8003 16.26 Oostende service. This was shown as 15 late, not a position of strength in the rush hour so a fast sprint (yes I can move quickly when I need to...I just have trouble stopping) to the other side of the station put us on an AM75 unit back to Midi for 2507 on P8067 16.47 Midi to Aalst as far as Noord for 2723 on P8905 16.52 Schaarbeek to Kortrijk and then the big one of the evening. P8605 17.13 Brussels Midi to Jemelle has consistently produced old electrics from classes 23 or 26 during the past 12 months.
Tonight was no exception with 2632 taken to Noord for 2359 on the P8068 17.23 Midi to Dendermonde as far as Jette to take 2235 on P8068 17.31 Midi to Gent Sint Pieters. It was at this point that the group split up with many heading for the evening Paris to Namur train at Charleroi. This had also been consistently turning out Class 23 or 26 locos and on this evening it was 2601. Myself and Gary Thornton took the Gent train as far as Melle where we knew that a Geraardsbergen to Gent service would be just a few minutes behind our train. Sure enough a class 62 diesel came round the corner from Gontrode and to my great surprise and delight it was 6229, my last boilered 62 off Merelbeke depot. The 51 turn on Thursday evening was again 5109 so this was flagged and Gary returned to Brussels on the next service.
I went to Deinze behind required 2102 on the 18.28 Mechelen to Kortrijk and after a quick trip to the Frituur's it was back on the 19.19 Kortrijk to Mechelen with 2160. I returned to Brussels behind 1311 on IC519 19.44 Oostende to Eupen and then made a few moves between Midi and Noord to score 1323, 2125 and 2758. This took us up to 22.50 and as I had started the day at 04.00 I decided to hit the pit instead of going for a beer with the lads.
Friday morning and a big day as this was the day of the first of the two railtours arranged for the weekend by Mercia Charters. First though the morning rush hour had to be covered starting with P7519 6.29 Schaarbeek to Tournai with 2134. Then a swift change at Midi and back to Noord on P7902 5.34 Kortrijk to Schaarbeek with 2210. By this time more faces had started to appear to do battle with the rush so off it was on P7073 5.58 Gent Sint Pieters to Brussels Midi, then 2757 on P7512 5.52 Mouscron to Schaarbeek as far as Centraal for 2747 on P7800 5.51 Quievrain to Schaarbeek forward to Noord. Next 2248 P7967 6.26 ex Zottegem for 2735 on P7904 6.50 ex Zottegem which nicely dropped onto a slightly late running 2363 on P7094 7.12 ex Dendermonde taken to Centraal for 2501 on P7014 7.17 ex Gent Sint Pieters. There should have been time for another short leap to Brussels Centraal behind a required 2211 but this was flagged as it was just a little too tight to make the 8.35 unit to Namur and this was the last connection for Int 332 which today was running for the last time.
After 2201 turned up on the Thursday I was less than hopefull that Int 332 would be an old electric but thanks to a word in the right ears from Mercia Charters the final run of Int 332 was behind 2626. The move was to Charleroi for loading with baguettes for the afternoon jaunt on the freight and to have a beer in the bar there and then back to Namur on the next unit to catch the tour. Now I am not going to give full details of the tour and what went right or wrong with it . (if you are interested in the exploits of Mercia Charters two tours in Belgium then you can read two excellent write ups elsewhere on "Six Bells Junction"). Cheers for the compliment Simon! Gary.
What I will do is say that there was great dissappointment amongst many people that the freight consist did not run as part of our train. This was no fault of Mercia Charters but I was concerned that people were not given the full facts or the opportunity of a refund and detraining at Namur after we had been to Ronet depot. It was quite obvious from the continuous moaning of some people on board the train during the afternoon that they would rather have been somewhere else than charging around the Ardenne in 2 passenger coaches and no freight. On the customer care side stewards did pass through the train after we had left Namur to explain what had gone on with the people at SNCB and why we were running as we were. I was particularly pleased that we did the route as advertised as I wanted all of the track south of Bertrix. I also scored 5401 and 5216, and would have scored 5407 if it had made it to the train. All in all I enjoyed the Friday trip as did the people in the party I had organised.
Saturday was a different story. What a TOP day out. The inclusion of the PFT buffet car in the consist is a master stroke. If anything goes wrong "have a beer" and forget about it. Absolutely no complaints about Saturday at all and particularly thank you to Mercia Charters for having the courage to apologise for Friday's events. Not enough tour operators do this if something goes wrong and a sorry can go a long way to ensuring that people book on future tours as well. I am now looking forward to the next Belgium Extravaganza organised by the good men of Mercia.
Sunday was Kayak day. Down to Namur on EC91 7.16 Brussels to Milan, surprisingly behind 2716. Not a good omen for the day this. Gary has covered the Kayak trains and the farce on the Couvin branch in his review so I will not repeat it here. After we had returned to Charleroi there was a parting of the ways as some people went to Liege and some went to Brussels. I took the 13.27 plug unit up to Brussels Midi. The plan was too leap around Brussels for a few hours then cover EC295 17.08 Brussels to Basel before going to the airport for my flight home. First move was 2151 on the 14.30 TAA service to Rome as far as Noord for 2106 back on IC536 13.05 Eupen to Oostende. The highest numbered class 13 I saw working was 1325 which I had on IC514 14.44 Oostende to Eupen (although 1327 was quoted as working a few days earlier).
Then the farce started. I received a message from Duncan in Liege that there were major delays on the line to Brussels through fallen trees. The next Oostende service was shown as being 15 late at Noord but this gradually increased to 90 mins late. So as there were no loco hauled services to get me across Brussels I hopped onto a break unit and mad Brussels Midi station with time to spare for the 17.08 EC service. This had 2022 on it but on the adjacent platform was required 2024 on TAA1375 Oostende to St.Raphael Valencines. I asked the Chef du Train if I could hop on to Brussels Noord which he said I could. Then having watched EC295 depart on time at 17.08 he decided to tell me that the train would be delayed waiting a driver. As my train to the airport was at 17.25 from Brussels Noord I started to wonder if I had made the right move but after a few minutes the driver arrived, the right away was given and I was treated to a fast 5 minute run for the 3.8km through the tunnels under Brussels. I made the airport train without any problem and by 19.30 I was back on British soil.
All in all it was a great way to spend 5 days, despite the little hic-cups with the tour on Friday. The people who I travelled with were good company and we all had a good laugh and joke around. (Didn't I hear someone say we were the advance party ahead of the Euro2000 hooligans...? Gary.) What it was, was tiring. A hectic pace was kept up for all 5 days but this is part of the fun of Euro bashing. If you have not tried it then I suggest Belgium or Portugal as good places to start. At least you get access to good quality diesel thrash in both countries on service trains. This will not be the case in the UK for much longer.
Thanks to all at Mercia Charters for their organisation. Please take the criticism constructively. I am not doing this to make enemies!!!
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