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.

Brussels from above

(Backdated. Posted 18/9/2017)

Monday! Our last full day in Brussels, and also a day when, generally, most museums in Belgium are closed.

It was raining in the morning for the first time on the holiday, apart from some drizzle in Penzance.

We got a little wet walking down to the Metro, and decided to use the closer station that required changing trams/trains along our journey. Again, this is no hassle because all the services run about every 5 minutes.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

A benefit of changing trains at Porte de Hal: spotting this interesting sculpture.

Sculpture in the Brussels Metro

We caught the Metro to a station called Simonis. Happily it had almost stopped raining, and we walked up through the Parc Elisabeth up to the National Basilica.

It looked like the park hosted civic events from time to time, and there were concrete blocks of the type distributed and derided around central Melbourne – pretty ugly, but presumably effective safety barriers to prevent vehicle access.

Bollards in Elisabeth Parc, Brussels

Brussels - National Basilica

We’d come to the National Basilica for the panoramic view from the tower, but the building itself is most impressive; a massive art deco church that took over 60 years to build, last century.

There weren’t many people around. A few staff inside the building keeping busy with cleaning and maintenance. Admittance to the lift/stairs to the tower was via a ticket machine and a gate – something I’ve not seen in a church before.

You could opt for lifts or steps. I decided to opt for the steps – all the way up. Getting to the mezzanine was a cinch. It had an informative display about the protracted building of the complex.

Then the main climb up to the viewing deck. It was good exercise, but let’s just say that completely took it out of me by the time I reached the top. Everyone else wisely took the lift.

But the climb was worth it for the view, which was terrific. It takes a good little while to make your way around, and even though the Basilica isn’t in central Brussels, there’s still plenty to see.

Brussels - view from National Basilica

View from the National Basilica, Brussels

Brussels - view from National Basilica

Brussels - view from National Basilica

One for the transport nerds: this bus lane in the middle of the road appears to flow in the peak direction. I assume no stops along this stretch, and it’s only intended for buses to bypass a specific congested section of road.

Brussels street - bus lane in middle

Brussels street - bus lane in middle

After heading down, headed towards a different Metro station, Belgica, along the way spotting something else for the transport nerds: tram works in progress on route 19.

Tram works, Brussels

We were looking around for some lunch. Eventually we found the Belgian equivalent of a greasy spoon. (Looking back on Google Maps, it appears to have been closed every single time a Google Streetview car has come past.)

They didn’t speak English, but with their willingness to help, and my few words of bad French pronunciation and a lot of gesturing, I managed to order lunch. It probably helped that of the four of us, I only had to order 2 x 2 identical dishes.

From there it was Metro and tram to my cousin J and his wife V’s place in the northern suburbs. And we found it without having to ring them. Achievement unlocked! (See, I told you a properly functioning phone with maps and GPS can help!)

Their neighbourhood (well, at the time – they’ve since decided to move) is interesting – mostly townhouses and apartments; what we might call medium density, with both street and off-street parking.

Brussels street

Brussels street

We chatted, said hello to the baby, and they filled us up on some traditional Belgian cake.

From there we walked with them through the nearby parks, along the way seeing the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavillion – very impressive, even if disused for the forseeable future because (as J told me) the authorities found structural problems with the buildings but they haven’t been organised enough (or well funded enough) to finish fixing them.

Admiring the Japanese tower, Brussels

We also saw the King’s palace — that is, where he lives. There’s another more central palace where he works. Which means he commutes. I doubt he takes the Metro.

Eventually we reached the Atomium. It’s a curious space-age structure, inspired by the components of an atom, created for Expo 58, and now a tourist attraction.

Brussels: Atomium

Supposedly the Atomium is an icon of Brussels. I can’t say I’d ever heard of it before. But we went up, and it’s pretty impressive. The various balls have different museum displays and views if the city. They’re connected by escalators or stairs.

Brussels: view from the Atomium

A plethora of solar panels on this building, visible from the Atomium:

Brussels: view from the Atomium

Also nearby, Mini Europe. Not really our thing; we gave this a miss. (See it bigger here if you want to go sight-seeing.)

Brussels: Mini-Europe

We could also see back to the Basilica where we’d been earlier in the day.

Brussels: Atomium - view towards the Basilica

After exploring the Atomium we headed back for the Metro. Nearby there was loud music playing, and a crane was holding a thing full of a dozen or more people, and every so often a balloon would be released from it. I assume it was for some reality TV show, or some sort of weird amusement ride.

Brussels: reality TV show in progress?

Brussels Metro

Back to the flat, then had dinner down in the square at the same Turkish restaurant where we’d eaten the first night in Brussels.

As we dined al fresco, we enjoyed the ambience, only interrupted a few times by clueless motorists driving into the mall, through, finding the way blocked, then driving back out again.

Brussels - Clueless motorists enter pedestrian mall

Brussels - Dominos delivery bike

After dinner we went for a walk to explore the surrounding streets, finding a food truck festival – damn, that would have made a good dinner option too.

Back to the flat. The next morning we’d be on the move again, back to London.

Two hours to Brussels

(Backdated. Posted 26/8/2017)

Good morning! It’s 5:30am! Here’s your breakfast tray!

Actually the sleeper train wake-up call was not as perky as that. And it was fine getting up, despite being early, because I’d set my phone to beep 10 minutes beforehand.

I pulled up the blind and looked out the window. We were sitting in Paddington Station in London. I felt like I’d had a great sleep, and I certainly have no recollection of any noise as we arrived.

By 6:30am we were all dressed and leaving the train.

Having missed it the week before, we found the Paddington Bear statue – right next to where we’d arrived on platform 1, and decorated with cards and momentos due to the recent passing of author Michael Bond.

Paddington Bear statue at Paddington Station

At the Underground station we bought one Oyster card, and loaded some money on it, but the rest of us used credit cards, which despite being from outside the UK, worked perfectly for this short hop and for our travels around London the following week.

The tube to St Pancras didn’t take long, even with a change at Edgeware Road, because the Circle Line isn’t a proper circle anymore… hmm, Wikipedia describes it as a spiral.

I’d booked Eurostar tickets from London to Brussels which seemed pretty good value: 33 € (A$50) each on the way over, 41 € ($62) on the way back the following Tuesday. It’s hardly surprising that Eurostar has won a huge market share from the airlines.

It took a couple of goes to get the machine to work, but I collected our tickets (they look like airline boarding passes; perhaps no coincidence) and we joined the queue.

Eurostar ticket

Our train to Brussels was due to leave at 8:04. Eurostar staff were calling out for people for the earlier train to Paris to help them skip to the front of the queue, as their earlier departure time was approaching.

We went through a security check – presumably not quite as strict as airports, since there’s no checked-in luggage, so they can’t ban all sharp objects.

Then we went through border control: one UK (departing) and one France (entering). I guess with France and Belgium having an open border, it doesn’t much matter. In fact our train was scheduled to stop at Lille in France along the way.

At the desk adjacent, a lady with a recently expired passport was pleading with the French policeman to be let through. I could see him shaking his head, though later on I think I spotted her, so she must have convinced him.

We sat in the departure lounge for a couple of minutes, then they called us up for our train; we found the appropriate escalator for our carriage and up we went to the platform and onto the train.

St Pancras Eurostar station

I think we scored a new train; even in Economy/Standard class it had WiFi, powerpoints, and little TVs on the ceiling showing our speed and location. (The train back a few days later didn’t have these.)

Eurostar used to run along high-speed lines with overhead power in France, but revert to lower speeds and third-rail power in England. This all changed last decade when the fast line (known as High Speed 1) from the Channel Tunnel to St Pancras opened. High speed domestic trains use the line too.

As we zoomed through the countryside at about 270 km/h, I was reading Twitter about the Metro meltdown occurring at home. A fault in the train control system had shut down the entire network. Yikes.

Normally I don’t live-tweet my holidays; I like to save most of it up for these blog posts later. But in this case, I felt obligated to post a sympathetic message.

I didn’t notice any Eurostar announcement when we reached the tunnel; I just noticed the windows had gone dark. Shades of that scene The Goodies “Orient Express” episode.

We zipped through Calais (lots of barbed wire around the rail lines to guard against unauthorised entry from attempted immigrants) and before too long reached Lille.

It appeared a group of 2 French and 2 Belgian police were on the train patrolling together. I don’t know if they share duties or they check who’s got jurisdiction (depending on location) if they need to apprehend anybody. It’s not so long ago that an armed attacker on a high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris was stopped by passengers, which did result in calls for more security on cross-border trains.

It was a reminder that Europe (including the UK) has suffered from terrorism a lot in the past few years. In Belgium we would see numerous troops on the streets, and as I write this on 26th August, there are reports of a man attacking soldiers in Brussels with a machete.

Brussels Midi station

We rolled into Brussels Midi/Zuid (South) (why does it have two names?) on time at 11:05 — discounting the time difference, that’s 121 minutes after leaving London.

Signs in four languages greeted us in the station, as well as a two Tintin murals – one a moderate size, one huge.

Tintin at Brussels Midi station

Despite the prior warnings of pickpockets galore around the station, I saw no signs of trouble – perhaps the strong presence of police and army personnel had chased the pickpockets elsewhere.

We walked to our accommodation, an AirBNB flat in nearby Saint-Gilles. Yes, I’d deliberately chosen something in walking distance from the station.

Much of the way was uphill, and it always seems further when you’re not familiar with the geography, let alone hauling luggage. A pattern emerged that would become common for the rest of the holiday, in the big cities: I and J would storm off ahead, with M and myself falling a little behind. I’d be navigating via my phone, and I’d occasionally get looks back from the boys for guidance as to which direction to go next. Mostly they didn’t miss any turns and have to double back. Mostly.

Chaussee de Waterloo, Brussels

Post box, Brussels

It was about 11:30. Officially check-in was at 18:00, but our host was only too happy for us to drop the bags and come back later after the place had been cleaned.

We went to have a walk around. I wanted to find an ATM to get some cash in the local currency, and by this time we were thinking about lunch.

I haven’t travelled all that much, and even less in non-English speaking countries. Actually in Brussels (no doubt in part thanks to the EU headquarters) most people speak English, but bear with me.

Having not been in a country where English was not the first language is something I hadn’t done since 1999.

Millions of people are in this situation every day, of course, having to live and work in places where they don’t speak the language.

But I found it confronting. And humbling. I was in a strange place, without a clue as to how to do something as simple as order a meal. I’d glanced at a phrase book on the train, but my French was pretty much nonexistent.

Tintin headlines in Brussels

We resolved the lunch situation by finding a chain store called Hector Chicken. Even I, not speaking a word of French and having no cash, could deal with saying “Chicken burger” and “Fanta” and handing over a credit card.

It wasn’t brilliant food, but it kept us going while we steeled ourselves to explore some more.

And the more we explored, the more we discovered how many Belgians speak perfectly good English.

We went into a metro station to buy a “Mobib” public transport smartcard. In fact we lucked out finding a staffed station – the bloke in the booth was enormously helpful, letting me know that we didn’t actually need to buy four of them – you can just touch the card multiple times to let multiple people through the gates, and pay the appropriate number of fares.

This was extremely handy for our group of four tourists. One card to buy and top-up, and it also means you more easily get the discounted bulk rate: 10 rides for 14 Euro (one ride is 2.20). I’m not sure any of the other PT smartcards I’ve used (London, Singapore, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, and certainly not Melbourne) can do this.

ATM not working, Brussels

But we still hadn’t found an ATM. Unlike in Australia where ING is an online-only bank, with no branches, ING branches were all over the place, and at least their familiar name made it easier to search on Google Maps for branches – since a search for “bank” or “ATM” or “cashpoint” didn’t seem to be working well.

One ING branch had all its ATMs out of service. Another one I tried didn’t like my card (though happily didn’t eat it, as had happened in Bath). Eventually we found one that worked.

Tram at Place Royale, Brussels

At a tourist information place we got a few brochures to look at later. We’d be in Brussels for 5 nights, so we’d need to find some things to do!

Nearby we spotted a gallery holding an exhibition of artworks by Belgian surrealist Magritte. This was a good escape from the heat, and as a bonus, I+J got in for 2 euros apiece, as they had a cheap “youth” (under 25) admission.

Near Place Royale, Brussels

Mont des Arts, Brussels

Mont des Arts, Brussels

After that we kept walking around. It was pretty hot, and at one stage I tried to order an ice cream cone from a street vendor (who unlike almost everybody else, didn’t speak English, and didn’t know the word “cone”), but managed to order waffles instead. Okay, my fault — roll with it. Tasty.

We looked in the very impressive Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (arcade) and the nearby Grand Place, which has some stunning 17th century buildings.

The Grand Place, Brussels

The Grand Place, Brussels

Near The Grand Place, Brussels

From there we headed back to our accommodation, spotting the Tintin mural along the way, as well as the Mannekin Pis, in a street teeming with fellow tourists, and (less interestingly) a supermarket to get some supplies.

Tintin mural, Brussels

Mannekin Pis, Brussels

Peak hour traffic in Brussels

A bit of a rest, then we went out hunting for dinner. At first we found a brasserie that had been recommended… but discovered they only serve drinks and dessert. Obviously in Belgium a brasserie doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as in Australia.

Sint-Gillisvoorplein, Brussels

Eventually we found a street nearby with lots of restaurants. And — jackpot — a whole row of ATMs!

We settled on a Turkish place, and ate well.

It was getting late, but not too dark – by the time we headed back to the flat it was 11pm. Time for some rest. With 26,000 steps behind us for the day, we’d earnt it.

Video from my trip to Europe in 1998

15 years ago I got back from my first trip to Europe. Here, finally, are the video highlights.

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

Includes England (south-east, London, and York), Scotland (Edinburgh, Inverness, Plockton), Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam.

Worth noting…

  • The blog posts written at the time are available here: Europe 1998.
  • This was pre-Oyster. Most of the travel around London was old mag stripe travelcards.
  • I can’t help noticing how red my face got when walking in the wilderness of Scotland.
  • Sorry about the picture quality. This was filmed on Video 8, and has come via VHS. This edit excludes most of the footage from visiting my family in England.