|Vicinal – what’s that?
Vicinal comes from the latin “vicinus”, something which belongs to
the local area. Nowadays one would talk about local rail transport,
with all that suggests in the way of an alternative form of mobility
for our fully motorised society.
|For what purpose?
can be proud to have inaugurated the first public railway on the
continent in 1835, and to have developed a national network, limited
in the first instance to the flatter parts of the country, private
capital later providing the rest of the network, public authorities
neglected to provide services to rural areas which were too poorly
populated to guarantee dividends to private companies. The law which
founded the SOCIETE NATIONALE DES CHEMINS DE FER VICINAUX – S.N.C.V.
(National local railway company) was finally passed in 1885 by King
Leopold II, who was anxious to encourage the metallurgical
industries and maintain Belgium’s position as second world economic
power after England.
|The largest “little” railway
in the world!
|The idea of
constructing light railways at minimum cost to connect areas not
already served by railway, using money raised by the state, the
provinces, local authorities, and some private capital, was, frankly,
revolutionary. These light railways were to run by the side of the
road and through the countryside in order to offer a passenger and
goods service even in the most remote areas. The lines were financed
on the mutual principle, the lines which provided a profit being
used to finance the less profitable lines and the transport of
agricultural or raw materials guaranteeing moderate passenger fares.
The rolling stock manufacturers in the Walloon industrial area
designed simple and robust locomotives for the Vicinal, and went on
to provide similar products to colonial railways and tramways
throughout the world.
The vicinal network will grow to reach 5000 km lines in 1935, the
year of the world fair in Brussels. At this time the vicinal count
more kilometers that the 'big' railway.
|The Vicinal century (1885 –
A unique centenarian
public transport company, by 1985 the S.N.C.V only operated a few
hundred kilometres of railways (the coastal tramway, the Charleroi
network and the Grottes de Han line). In the 1950s the company had
to face both fierce competition from cars and lorries and the fact
that in view of increasing road traffic it would have cost a sum
considered exhorbitant at that time to move the tracks from the
For a century the Vicinal was part of the Belgian scene: narrow
tree-lined roads, with cobblestones and metre gauge rails. Stations
were rare, as the economic Vicinal preferred to stop near the local
café, where both passengers and luggage were in good hands. The
steam trains of the first years were joined by electric trams in
1894. The success of this new method of traction lead Julien Dulait,
owner of the “Electricité & Hydraulique” company (the later ACEC) to
produce everything necessary for the new electric tramways. The
quality of these products led to the worldwide fame of Charleroi.
Another financial magnate, Edouard Empain, operator of the coastal
tramway, attempted in vain to extend it to the networks at Lille and
Valenciennes, which were also in his ownership. Just before the
first world war he foresaw the strategic role which Vicinal light
railways could play on the Yser front and created a special
organisation to operate them. In the occupied part of Belgium, where
the railways were “confiscated” by the enemy, the Vicinal assured
the majority of passenger traffic and even introduced night trains
and services between towns which allowed the hungry population to
gain the countryside to buy food. By 1918 half the Vicinal network
was destroyed and the private companies which operated some lines as
concessionaires on behalf of the S.N.C.V. wanted to end their
concessions. The SNCV reconstructed and modernised the network,
using modern diesel railcars to replace the steam trams, designed a
spacious and comfortable standard electric tramcar and encouraged
tourism when the first paid holidays were introduced (1936). The old
steam locomotives were kept for goods traffic, which remained
profitable. In 1940 these locomotives were again to be seen on
passenger trains, as there was no petrol available. During periods
of bombing raids it was the tram which kept running, being less easy
to locate than the main railways. Peace returned to a changed world,
which would see individual motorisation supplant other means of
transport. The centenarian company was dissolved in 1991.
|THE ASVi AND THE “ CENTRE DE
DECOUVERTE DU VICINAL” (Vicinal Discovery Centre)
1972 a group of tramway enthusiasts created the educational charity
ASVi (Association pour la Sauvegarde du Vicinal) in order to
preserve and operate old vicinal tramcars. Over the years the
association has preserved a collection of more than 40 vehicles, the
oldest dating from 1888. Since 1978 the ASVi has operated its trams
on the Lobbes – Thuin tram route. In 1984 it took over the
maintenance of the line. In order to exhibit the collection and to
present the history of the SNCV in an interesting way, the project
to create the Vicinal Discovery Centre was started in 1994. The
first building was inaugurated on the 1 October 1994, thanks to the
efforts of the members and financial aid.