Trains and trams in Brussels and Belgium… any lessons for Melbourne?

My holiday blog is currently up to Brussels.

In this (lengthy) post I’ve looked at the many types of rail transport in Belgium, and I try and ponder lessons for Melbourne.

Belgian use of rail ranges from trams — street-based and on separate alignments as in Melbourne, but also underground “pre-metro” routes — the Metro, and suburban and long-distance heavy rail.

Trams

Brussels has quite a large tram network – apparently 16th largest in the world. Similar to Melbourne, the trams arrived in the late 1800s.

Some tram routes, particularly in the central city, run along the street, either in their own lanes, or in mixed traffic – pretty similar to all Melbourne tram routes.

Perhaps those in mixed traffic are the older routes, developed before motor cars were much of a problem – but they certainly cause delays now.

Brussels tram delayed by car

Brussels tram slowly makes its way past a truck parked too close to tracks

Where trams run in their own segregated lanes, they mostly seemed to have reasonable physical separation, though I suppose this might prevent emergency vehicles using them. Note the centre fencing, presumably to discourage pedestrians crossing where they’re not meant to.

Brussels tram route 82, near Midi station

Some of the older trams are high-floor, not level boarding/accessible. But much of the fleet is made up of newer accessible vehicles.

All of the trams in service seem to be are articulated, longer models, akin to Melbourne’s newer E, D2 and B-class fleet. (Melbourne will go that way, with the phasing-out of the Z-class fleet, and eventually the As, to be replaced by bigger trams such as the E-class.)

All the stops I recall seeing had platforms, even if they were just raised kerb extensions like this:

IMG_20170717_205622322_HDR

Most if not all stops also had screens with real-time information, something currently only available at major tram stops around Melbourne.

Stop spacing seemed to be wider than in Melbourne — it’s not clear to me if this was always the case in Brussels. Changing this could be controversial, especially if it moves stops away from intersections, which provide pedestrian access via neighbouring streets.

Further out in the suburbs of Brussels, most of the trams run along dedicated tracks, often alongside roads, though I didn’t see any in the middle of boulevards like St Kilda Road, Dandenong Road or Victoria Parade in Melbourne.

This one, route 3, is actually a “pre-metro” route, — partly underground (see below).

Brussels light rail/tram

Brussels light rail/tram

Where they had to cross roads, the trams seemed to have good priority – it seemed rare to have to wait at traffic lights. Wikipedia says that tram priority has been installed at 150 intersections, and it certainly shows.

Brussels trams have no conductors. Ticket validators were on the trams, with ticket machines at the stops – at least most of the stops, from what I saw. Stop spacing seems to be wider than in Melbourne, making provision of ticket machines more practical, though still expensive on a big network.

Apparently you can buy a single trip ticket from the driver, which is more expensive. I didn’t see anybody doing this.

Given it’s an open system, I assume there are random ticket inspections, though I didn’t see any occur.

Inside the trams are colour displays telling you which line you were on, the name of upcoming stops, and which tram, bus and metro lines you can interchange to at the next stop, along with an indicator showing which side to exit. Alongside GPS with Google Maps, it made it very easy to navigate, even for a non-French-speaking tourist newbie like me.

Interior of a Brussels tram

Trams waiting at the terminus would show how many minutes to depart, alternating with other information on the destination display. Very handy when there were several trams waiting. This would be great at termini such as Elizabeth Street or Acland Street.

Brussels tram terminus, with tram showing minutes to departure

Pre-metro

Some tram lines are completely segregated, with underground sections. This is known in parts of Europe as “pre-metro”: a transitional phase between light rail and fully-blown metro. In some cases these operate with signals and other heavy-rail-like infrastructure.

Edit: a chat with someone who knows about this stuff indicates that pre-metro may be found in Belgium but is rare elsewhere. Underground sections of tramways have been implemented in many cities to bypass congestion points, but most of these are done with no intention of later conversion from trams to metro as happened with Brussels Metro Line 1, built in the 1960s as pre-metro and converted to metro in 1976.

Pre-metro station, Brussels

Pre-metro stations are big like metro stations, with paid areas and fare gates. The platforms are low and short, to suit the trams using them, but ready for conversion later.

Pre-metro station, Brussels

Pre-metro tram interior, Brussels

Would this work in Melbourne? There were some proposals last century to bury tram lines in the city centre, though this was not part of a plan of conversion to metro later. The advantages are speed and capacity for trams, as they have absolute priority. But the disadvantage is it’s a longer process for people to enter the stations and board the trams.

Still, for Brussels it’s an interesting step between trams and metros.

Melbourne’s metro tunnel will relieve St Kilda Road trams, but it’s main goal is providing heavy rail capacity to existing lines in the city centre, so in that context it wouldn’t work.

The Brussels Metro

Then there’s the actual Metro, which in Brussels has several lines, some developed out of pre-metro lines. The network is relatively new, with the first lines having opened as pre-metro trams in the 1960s, and heavy rail in the 1970s.

Metro routes are numbered, with the numbering being consistent with the trams. The rail network map includes both Metro and pre-metro routes. In this map, lines 1, 2, 5 and 6 are Metro, lines 3, 4 and 7 are pre-metro trams.

Brussels Metro and train network map

The Brussels Metro trains are bigger than trams, and as you’d expect, they use high platforms and signals (though some of the trams and pre-metro lines also use signals). Frequency is similar — for passengers, the main difference is the capacity.

Brussels Metro station

Most of the Metro fleet in Brussels is from a 1970s design, with very boxy carriages, but we found they were clean and fast. There are four sets of doors per carriage, and as seen in the video above, you pull a handle to open them. They close and lock before leaving the station.

The trains feature lots of orange, and feel a bit smaller than the suburban trains you see in Melbourne, but are larger than London’s deep tunnel Tube trains.

Newer Brussels Metro trains also have the orange colour scheme and hard seats that don’t look very comfortable, but aren’t too bad for short trips.

Interior of a new Brussels Metro train

To my surprise, there is a public timetable, but it appears few people ever look at it. The base frequency on the individual lines seems to be 10 minutes until late at night (about 6-8 minutes in peak hours), but much of the network has multiple routes sharing tracks, making a combined all-day frequency of 5 minutes at most stations (3-6 in peak).

This official page notes current upgrades will allow frequency up to 30 in some sections, with new trains starting to replace the old, and line extensions. This also appears to be associated with proposed future driverless operation of the trains.

Countdown clocks and/or train location indicators are provided on every platform.

Brussels Metro station train indicators

Crowd at a Brussels Metro station when a train went out of service unexpectedly

The in-carriage displays on the older, more common, trains are far more primitive than on the trams, but still manage to alternate between the route/destination and the next station name, and have an indicator showing which side the approaching platform is.

Brussels Metro interior

Some carriages had marked areas for bicycles, though they are banned in peak hours.

Brussels Metro: bicycle storage

As in many cities, only some parts of the metro were underground – no doubt where there was no other option, given the cost. Some areas were elevated, or at ground level. No level crossings, of course.

Brussels Metro

All the stations were gated – mostly requiring a card to enter, but one-way gates not needing a card to exit — reflecting the flat fares. Ticket machines were at all the stations, only a few of which had staff.

Fare gates, Brussels Metro

Overall the network seems pretty busy at most times of day. At some stations we saw soldiers on duty, reflecting that Brussels is at a high alert level following terrorist attacks.

Soldiers on duty at a Brussels Metro station

Heavy rail

And finally there’s the heavy rail network. This is completely separate to the Metro, and much older, dating back to 1835.

Brugge Station, Belgium

Train approaching at Brussels Nord (North) station

Around suburban Brussels, there’s the S-trains (with numbers, similar to German suburban trains), suburban services covering areas of Brussels mostly not covered by Metro and train.

Further afield are intercity and international trains, including high speed services. In some cases, the intercity express trains currently share tracks with the suburban trains, but we saw a lot of track expansion works, so in the future I’d expect to see more dedicated tracks for trains of different speeds.

Currently most of the suburban services are not very frequent — typically only every 30 minutes. The track expansion is part of the planned Brussels RER, which will enable higher frequencies.

While the Belgian network is completely state owned, other operators run their trains into and through Belgium, including state railways from Germany and the Netherlands, and private operators such as Eurostar and Thalys.

Dutch train in Brussels

German Railways ICE train in Brussels

In the Belgian fleet, there was a mix of ages of train. Some of the suburban fleet were modern and spacious, and we caught an intercity double-deck train that looked very new, perhaps built to cope with the big crowds we saw on some services.

There’s a mix of First Class and Standard Class accommodation on all trains, including S suburban routes.

Belgian Intercity train at Brugge

Belgian double-deck Intercity train at Brugge

Interior of Belgian Intercity train, lower deck

Platforms also vary. At many stations, you have to climb steps up into the trains. Unlike the tram and Metro networks, there doesn’t seem to be any current effort to implement level boarding.

Low platform/high floor on a Belgian InterCity train

Louvain-la-Neuve station near Brussels

Passenger information was provided by displays in the newer carriages, but this was lacking in the older ones. At busy stations, information was excellent. A bit mixed at the minor stations. Information was generally provided in two languages (French and Dutch/Flemish) or even three (add English).

Brussels S-train interior

Brussels Nord: delays on the trains

The trains themselves were mostly spotless — same with the trams and Metro carriages. But unfortunately, occasionally you did see one with extensive graffiti on carriages, such as this one, which includes covering part of one window, as well as the destination display. (As is often the convention, I’ve pixellated it so the vandals don’t get their work displayed by me.)

Tagged train, Belgium

Some stations have massive bicycle parking facilities, holding many hundreds of bikes. This is at Brugge:

Bicycle parking at Brugge station, Belgium

Brugge station, Belgium

The Brussels Mobib card used on the trams and Metro is valid on some parts of the heavy rail network within Brussels (all of the S/suburban services, I assume). On most other services, paper tickets are dispensed from vending machines, and checked by conductors on all the trains, including suburban trains. There are no gates at stations.

Belgian rail ticket: Brussels to Brugge

Outside the Mobib/suburban area, there are a variety of fare discounts – far wider than what we see in Australia for just children, low incomes and pensioners: There are special deals for journalists, military personnel, families, and even pregnant women get free upgrades to First Class.

Belgian train ad. Loosely translated: "To all travellers, don't put your bag on the seat, unless you believe objects are alive. Mutual respect is class."

…and yes, they have a train to the airport.

Brussels: train to the airport departs Midi (Zuid/South) station

Brussels: looking down at Heysel Metro station and tram terminus frrom the Atomium

Lessons for Melbourne

So what are the good things that the Belgians are doing that could be translated to Melbourne and Victoria?

The Brussels Metro being a completely separate rail system to the heavy rail network is, I think, not something that is terribly useful in a Melbourne context. Many European cities adopted separate metro systems to get rail into historic city centres where heavy rail couldn’t go, for reasons of cost or political barriers — think of London’s heavy rail vs Underground systems. That’s not an issue in Australian cities.

In any case, the trend recently seems to be to extend heavy rail underground through city centres — the Brussels RER will include tunnelling to connect existing heavy rail lines; London is doing it with Crossrail to connect urban rail through the city; Zurich recently completed a cross-city rail tunnel — all of these are similar in principle to Melbourne’s metro rail tunnel project.

Separating out rail routes, as Melbourne’s tunnel will help do, can help transition the Melbourne suburban network into a big city metro. For passengers, the primary benefit of the Brussels Metro over Melbourne’s suburban trains is frequent service all day, cutting waiting times and making interchange easier. We can do this too.

The use of double-deck trains on busy intercity and commuter routes is perhaps something that should be considered here. There’s a dwell time impact that means they are less attractive on frequent routes (eg Melbourne’s metro/suburban lines), but V/Line’s commuter services might benefit from them, provided dwells can be managed — the current V/Locity fleet isn’t great for this either, though it may be less of an issue in the context of the busiest station being the terminal at Southern Cross, with lots of platforms.

Passenger information, particularly on Brussels trams, is something we could adopt — with colour screens showing next stop and interchanges to train/tram/bus. Gold Coast Light Rail has put colour screens in its trams, and in fact Yarra Trams is starting to trial these on some trams — good to see.

There’s clearly room for improvements to information at tram stops, railway stations, and on-board buses and trains too.

Tram priority in Brussels and other European cities might be where we can learn the most. Proper separation of dedicated tram lanes along streets is rare, resulting in a lot of motor vehicles getting onto the tracks.

In Melbourne, trams spend an unbelievable 17% of their time simply waiting at red lights. So we not only have the world’s biggest tram network, we also have the slowest. I haven’t found any hard data for Brussels, but from the tram rides I took — primarily on reserved track — this seemed far lower.

Tram delays at traffic lights - international comparison

This article has some detailed information on how Brussels has achieved its tram priority, noting that absolute priority for trams isn’t politically achievable, but maximum priority is:

Therefore, in the eyes of regional representatives, remote controlled traffic lights cannot represent a point of contention and must constantly lead to a compromise with respect to the physical and temporal sharing of space. The priority given to public transport is a relative – and not total – priority. It is an explicit political choice. Brigitte Grouwels explains that:

“the system of remote controlled traffic lights functions according to the principle of “maximum priority”, and not absolute priority. During the design of traffic light plans, certain limits have been imposed on the system: no traffic light cycle longer than 120 seconds and no blocking of successive crossroads.” [BCR parliament, 2010].

And in Melbourne? We’ve had numerous trials. Technology doesn’t seem to be a barrier. It comes down to politics.

It’d be nice to think there was the political will to systematically cut delays to Melbourne’s trams. It would mean much more efficient use of our huge tram network and its fleet, and increasing service frequencies for “free”, and make public transport a quicker more attractive option.

The border incident, and London sightseeing

Backdated. Posted 21/9/2017

Time to head back to London for the last few days of our holiday. We packed up our stuff and left the Air BNB flat.

A word about the flat. It had been chosen for its location (walking distance to Brussels Midi/Zuid station), which along with the price, which were its best features.

The layout was curious (one bedroom on the ground floor, stairs up to a small living area/kitchen, more stairs up to a second bedroom and bathroom). Outside the living area was a courtyard, and across from there was another flat, where our host lived.

The facilities themselves were basic, and while I shouldn’t have to, I had ended up spending a few Euros to buy an extra mug and some toilet paper, as it didn’t seem our host had thought to provide enough of either. That’s okay – he was friendly enough, and like I say, it was pretty cheap.

The flat, Brussels

The cat in the flat, Brussels - quite nice actually

And did I mention the cat? I didn’t catch the name or the gender, but he or she would regularly drop past for pats, and was mostly friendly (friendlier than this photo would suggest!), though didn’t like being told to get off the table.

The flat may have been low budget, but it had been a great stay in Brussels. The weather had been mostly kind. We’d overcome enough of the language barrier to manage fine, and personally I found it a bit humbling having to adapt to make myself understood. It was a learning experience. And we’d got to meet my new cousin!

Eurostar leaving Brussels

Brussels to London

Rather than walk, we used up some of the spare rides on the Mobib ticket to catch the Metro back to Brussels Zuid/Midi/South station.

At the station, we joined the queues for admittance into the Eurostar terminal. Through bag security… through the Belgian (exit) checkpoint…

At the UK checkpoint, over on the other queue, one family group from Thailand was getting quizzed by a UK Border Force official. No such problems for us, and we got through quickly.

Then I realised.

I’d left my bag behind. Across the border. In Belgium. Back at the security screening point.

For a split second, I actually considered simply leaving it behind. But no, that would be silly, and could cause all sorts of problems later.

Putting on my most polite, humble voice, I backtracked and told the UK official about it. He thought about it for a second, and said OK, to go back and ask his Belgian colleague. He in turn said sure go and get the bag.

It was right where I left it, thank goodness, and I grabbed it, and they waved me back across the border.

Yikes. At that point I think I’d almost had a heart attack.

After calming down, I ducked into a shop in the departure lounge to spend the last of my Euros on some snacks to eat on the train, while M did the same with her money and bought us some coffees/hot chocolates.

The train was a few minutes late leaving – there had been some disruptions on Eurostar earlier in the day, and looking at the real-time updates, I saw one of the services head of us had been altered to not stop at Lille, in order to make up time. Yes, station skipping.

Eurostar service disruptions

Old Eurostar carriage interior

Our carriage this time was older – gunzels may be able to age it based on the fact that the interior was decorated in brown, and there was no Wi-Fi.

At least the toilet was classy.

Eurostar toilet

View from Eurostar of wind turbines in Belgium

View from Eurostar approaching Calais

When you get near to Calais, the wind turbines in fields, and rickety fences separating the farms from the rail line give way to serious looking security, obviously designed to keep unauthorised people from getting into the tunnel and/or onto the trains.

Apparently the lineside flag in the picture above is part of the in-cab signalling system.

High Speed 1 commemorative stone at St Pancras International Station, London

Back in London

The train zipped along, and arrived in London just a few minutes late.

We’d booked another AirBNB, in west London, and headed there on the Tube – the tiny trains of the “deep tube” Piccadilly Line, with a change to the District Line along the way.

The flat was in Chiswick, near Turnham Green station, chosen for being the right side of town for a quick getaway to Heathrow later in the week, as M needed to head there earlier than the rest of us (a long story involving separate flight bookings).

This flat was less central, more expensive, but in much better condition, with much better facilities. And it was spotless.

View from our flat in London

Escalator warning, London Underground

After dropping off the bags, we got some lunch in a local sandwich place in Chiswick, then caught the Tube back towards central London to explore for a bit.

First stop, Earls Court, where I+J finally got to check out the Police Box just outside the station. According to Google Maps, it’s bigger on the inside.

Personally, I was equally fascinated by the facade of the station entrance, with its beautiful signage.

Earls Court Station, London

Piccadilly Line, London

Next stop, Covent Garden, and the London Transport Museum.

The LT Museum is expensive, but for someone like me who is generally fascinated by public transport, it’s very interesting. (Tickets are actually valid for a year, so if I make it back before July 18th 2018, I can get back in.)

M wisely opted out of the museum, choosing to go for a walk instead, but the rest of us explored the museum for a bit, before we all met up again in the gift shop.

London Transport Museum

London Transport Museum: Why you should travel Metro (Metropolitan Line)

Early London Underground map, London Transport Museum

From Covent Garden we walked down towards the Thames to see what we could spot: the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses or Parliament – all the sights.

London bus on the Strand

Waterloo Bridge, London

London Eye

Cycle superhighway, London

We walked west along the river. There’s one of the cycle superhighways along there, and it was rush hour by now, and incredibly busy with cyclists zooming along en masse – very impressive to see.

We spotted Cleopatra’s needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk that is one of a set of three (the others in Paris and New York) stands out. Interestingly, despite the name, it was about 1000 years old in Cleopatra’s lifetime.

Cleopatra's Needle, Embankment, London

We listened out for Big Ben’s chimes – a few weeks later they would stop for some years for refurbishment of the bells.

Big Ben, London

Entrance to Houses of Parliament, London

At Westminster, numerous armed police were on duty – understandable given recent events.

Near Houses of Parliament, London

Westminster Abbey

We went past Westminster Abbey, then walked through St James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace, London

Near Buckingham Palace, London

Replenishing the Bike Share, London

From there we walked to Victoria Station and hopped back on the Tube to Turnham Green (we were very quickly starting to learn about the various branches of the District Line). We decided to grab fish and chips along the way for dinner.

Taking out cash in London: which currency?

To pay for dinner, I needed to grab some cash from a nearby ATM cashpoint. Something I saw at a few of them in the UK: they offered to convert my UK pounds withdrawal to Australian dollars, rather than let my home bank do it. I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, so I declined.

Anyway, we went back to the flat to eat our fast food and watch some telly before bed.

UK/Belgium holiday in planning

Very busy the last few weeks, which is why the blog has been so quiet.

Long-time readers would know that I like to write about my interstate and overseas holidays in almost excruciating detail. Well brace yourself for another one – I’ve got a European holiday in planning for later this year.

It’s looking like England, Wales, and Belgium, with catching up with various family scattered around the place being a key priority.

It’ll be the first big family holiday in many years, and my first time in Europe this century — previous trips were in 1999 and 1998.

Eurostar hadn’t even opened the last time I was there, so you can be sure we’ll be using it to get to Belgium! It’ll be my first journey on an actual High Speed Rail service (I used the Brussels to Amsterdam high speed “Thalys” in 1998, but it was at regular speed due to flooding) and my first time using Oyster card!

Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

Obviously the terrible events in Manchester this week (and previous incidents in London, Brussels and elsewhere) are a concern, but ultimately you can’t cower at home because something might happen.

On the list of touristy things already are various sights in London, Cardiff, Brussels, probably Bath and perhaps Stonehenge or Avebury since we’ll be visiting relatives in that part of the country.

Any must-see suggestions?

More notes as I ponder:

  • London transport accepts most overseas PayPass cards, which will save us buying Oyster cards for everyone.
  • I’m wary of Britrail passes – it sounds like roughly the same cost if you prebook flexible fares a few weeks in advance.
  • We’re looking at Air B’n’b for places we’ll be staying more than a day or two, as it’s useful being able to easily cook some meals and do laundry. Hotels for 1-2 day hops.