The reason the Germans decided to violate Belgian neutrality was to give them access to France, and the reason Liège was their first major target was because that city’s railroads were a great way to quickly and efficiently move men and supplies from Germany into France. Today Liège is still an important railway city, with international trains calling at its magnificent new station. While much is still as it was in 1914, a lot has changed in the last 100 years all the same, enough that I thought it might be useful to create a Google Earth map showing what Liège’s railway infrastructure looked like in 1914.

Setting the Scene – Belgian Railway History Condensed into a Paragraph

Today Belgium’s entire railway infrastructure is nationalised, owned and operated by the state-owned company the NMBS/SNCB. Historically though, things were more complex. From the very early days of the nation in the mid-1800s railways were seen as a vital part of the country’s infrastructure, and a plan was developed to grow the railways through a mix of state and private companies. The state would build the major arteries of the system, and private companies would build the veins that spread out from these arteries to service all parts of the nation. The state’s first objective was to build a cross of railways through the country. The first leg of this cross would run north-south connecting the industrial town of Mons near the French border with the important sea-port of Antwerp near the Dutch border via the capital Brussels and the near-by town of Mechelen. The second leg of the cross would run east-west, connecting the sea-side town and port of Ostend with the city of Liège near the Prussian (now German) border, via Mechelen and the university city of Leuven. This meant that Mechelen, rather than Brussels, was the hub of the original Belgian railway network. The first part of this cross opened in 1835, connecting Brussels with Mechelen, and by 1843 the entire cross has been built. In the late 1800s the state began a slow process of nationalisation that would continue to bring more and more lines under state ownership until the entire network was eventually nationalised in 1958. By 1912 the nationalisation project was well under way with the state owning about 5,000km of line, and private companies around 300km.

Liège’s Railway History

The first line to arrive in Liège was the state-built line from Ostend via Mechelen which opened in 1842. The terminus for this line has remained the city’s primary station, though the original building was located about 100m north of the current Liège-Guillemins station. The state’s station in Liège was always planned as a through station, and a state-built line connecting the city to the German town of Aachen opened in 1843. The section approaching Liège from Leuven now forms part of NMBS/SNCB Line 36 (NL), and the section from Liège to the German border near Aachen is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 37 (NL).

The next line to serve Liège was built by the short-lived Chemin de fer de Namur à Liège. As the name of the company suggests, their line was built to connect Liège with the near-by city of Namur, and their route followed the river Meuse which connects the two cities. Their line opened from Val-Benoît a little south of Liège-Guillemins station to Namur in 1850. This line is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 125 (NL). By 1851 the line had been extended to connect with the state’s line at Liège-Guillemins, and another line had been built running on the opposite back of the Meuse connecting a large new station called Liège-Longdoz(FR) with the original line at Flémalle-Haute. The majority of this line now forms NMBS/SNCB Line 125A (NL). By 1855 the Chemin de fer de Namur à Liège had become part of the Compagnie du Nord – Belge(NL), the Belgian arm of the French Compagnie des chemins de fer du Nord (of Gare du Nord in Paris fame). The Nord Belge, as the company was universally know, was one of the most significant private railway companies in Belgium, and, it remained so until it was finally nationalised at the end of the second world war.

In 1861 the Nord Belge‘s station in Liège-Longdoz also became home to the impressively named Compagnie du chemin de fer de Liège à Maestricht et extensions. As it’s name suggests, this line linked Liège with the town of Maastricht in the Netherlands. This company did not remain private as long as the Nord Belge, being nationalised in 1899. The majority of this line now forms part of NMBS/SNCB Line 40 (NL).

In 1865 a third private company opened a third major railway station in the city. The terminus for the Compagnie du chemin de fer Liégeois-Limbourgeois‘s (FR) line from the Flemish city of Hasselt was at Liège-Vivegnis to the north-east of Liège-Guillemins. This station was linked to Liège-Guillemins by the Belgian state in 1877. The Compagnie du chemin de fer Liégeois-Limbourgeois was nationalised in 1898. The line is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 34 (NL). I can find very little information on the fate of Liège-Vivegnis station, so I’m assuming the station ceased to be an important one when the connection to Liège-Guillemins opened in 1877. It was definitely still open in 1902 as I found a postcard showing the station(FR) dated to that year, but there is no station there now, and very few remains visible on the satellite imagery.

In 1866 a fourth and final private company linked it’s lines to the state-owned network at Angleur a little east of Liège. The Grande Compagnie du Luxembourg‘s (FR) line connected Liège with Luxembourg. This line did not stay in private hands long, being nationalised in 1873. The section of the line to Luxembourg between Angleur and Marloie is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 43 (NL).

In 1872 the Belgian state started work on a line from Chênée, a little further east from Liège on the original state line to Aachen than Angleur, towards Montzen (later known as NMBS/SNCB Line 38(NL)). This was a local line of much lesser importance than the other lines opened before it, and it took a decade to complete. There were also many small industrial lines in the area connecting the coal mines and other local industries to the rail network.

Liège in 1914

By 1914 there were just two major railway stations, and two railway companies in Liège. The state owned the lines to Brussels, Hasselt, Maastricht, Aachen, and Luxembourg, and operated out of Liège-Guillemins station, and the Nord Belge operated the lines south to France via Namur from Liège-Longdoz. A noticeable quirk is that all trains from Liège-Guillemins to Maastricht had to run forwards into the terminus at Liège-Longdoz, the locomotive then had to change ends and set off ‘backwards’ towards Maastricht. This did not change until the Germans built a short avoiding line connecting the old Compagnie du chemin de fer de Liège à Maestricht et extensions line north of Liège-Longdoz with the Nord Belge line south of Liège-Longdoz via a tunnel in 1917.

From a strategic point of view, the lines of most interest to the Germans were the state-built line connecting Liège with Aachen, and the Nord Belge line connecting Liège to France. Line 38 was also significant as it provided an alternative route between Aachen and Liège, providing redundancy and/or more capacity. This importance is underlined by the fact that the occupying Germans altered the end of the line so it would have a junction with a new direct line they built from Tongeren to Aachen which opened in 1917 (now NMBS/SNCB Line 24).

Also significant was the Nord Belge‘s massive locomotive and freight depot at Kinkempois, on the opposite side of the river Meuse to Liège-Guillemins at the point where the state line to Aachen has a major junction with the Nord Belge‘s line to France and to Maastricht (via the old Compagnie du chemin de fer de Liège à Maestricht et extensions which had been nationalised by 1914).

Note that while there are now three railway bridges across the Meuse in the Liège area, there were only two in 1914 (the third not being built until 1939).

You can download the KML file for the map here (can be viewed with Google Earth).

Changes Since 1914

The biggest change since 1914 is that the venerable Nord Belge is gone, as is their once magnificent terminus at Liège-Longdoz. The line to Maastricht now follows the route of the German-built avoiding line, and the grand station and the original lines to it are all demolished. The beginning of the end for the station came in 1956 when services to Maastricht were transferred to Liège-Guillemins, and the section of line from the station north to the junction with the 1917 avoiding line was closed. The last passenger train left the station in 1960, and the last goods train in 1988. The only remnants of the station you’ll find today are the marks it left in the street-plan of this part of the city. The curving route of lines that once formed a triangle with they German-built avoiding line are the easiest to spot.

Line 38 which started in Chênée is also gone, having closed in 1986 when the coal traffic came to and end. Most of the small industrial lines have also gone, as indeed has the entire coal industry! One industrial addition since 1914 that is still open is a goods-only line opened by the NMBS/SNCB in 1939 that allows freight trains to by-pass the city, avoiding both the busy passenger lines through Liège-Guillemins, and the punishing gradients on the original state-built line to the north of that station. This line is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 36A(NL). Building this line involved digging a lot of tunnels, and building a spectacular viaduct over the river Meuse south of Kinkempois.

More recently Liège-Guillemins station has been completely re-built in a very dramatic way. The new station opened in 2009 and will certainly go down in history as one of the finest railway stations of 21st century Europe. The routes from Leuven to Liège and Liège to Aachen have also been upgrade to full French-style high-speed lines. These lines follow a new, and much straighter, alignment, so they have no so much replaced the old lines as augmented them. Freight trains still go via the slower old lines, while passengers now speed through the Belgian countryside on HSL2 and HSL3.