This post is a follow-on from yesterday’s describing the ring of fortifications around Namur, and the siege that was taking place there 100 years ago today. Along with Liège, Namur is one of just two fortified cities in the east of Belgium. Why were these two cities chosen for fortification? I would argue it’s either directly or indirectly because they’re important transport hubs. Indirectly because the reason both cities grew to be so important was because of their transport connections, initially via rivers, and later via road and rail. And directly because they were (and are) both major railway hubs. In 1914 there were no heavy-lift aircraft, so the way militaries moved large volumes of men and equipment rapidly was by rail.

The short version of why Namur was so important is that in 1914 it had railway connections to Aachen in Germany and Maastricht in the Netherlands via Liège, directly to Brussels, to Paris via Charleroi, to Luxembourg, to Givet in north-eastern France via Dinant, and to the coal-rich north-east of Flanders via Tienen.


The map above shows Namur’s railway infrastructure as it was in 1914 (you can download the KML file to view the map in Google Earth).

I covered the big-picture history of railways in Belgium in some detail in my recent post on the railways in Liège in 1914, so I won’t repeat all that here. I’ll just quickly summarise to give some context for where things stood in 1914. Originally (in the mid-1800s) the Belgian railway network had been planned as a partnership between the state and private industry – the state would build the major arteries of the network, and private industry would fill in the rest. By the late 1800s things had changed, and the government were slowly but steadily nationalising the network. By 1914 the majority of the network was nationalised, but a few large private companies still remained, including the Compagnie du Nord – Belge which still operated services from and through Namur in 1914.

Namur’s Railway History

The first railway line arrived in Namur in 1843, and was built and operated by the Belgian state. The line was an extension of state’s main line from Brussels to Charleroi, and it terminated in Namur. This line between Namur and Charleroi remains open today, and is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 130 (FR).

In 1850 Namur ceased to be a terminus when a line from Liège reached it. The line was built by the short-lived Chemin de fer de Namur à Liège. In 1854 this company was taken over by the Compagnie du Nord – Belge (NL), the Belgian arm of the French Compagnie des chemins de fer du Nord who operated railways in the north of France.

In 1854 the Nord – Belge also took over the Chemin de Fer de Charleroi à la frontière de France (FR). This company built a line from Charleroi to the French border where it connected with the Chemins de fer du Nord. This line is still open and is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 130A (NL). By negotiating the right to use the stretch of state-owned line between Namur and Charleroi, the Nord – Belge was able to run express passenger trains between Liège and Paris. In 1896 an express passenger service was started between Paris and St. Petersburg in Russia, and the first leg of the trip from Paris to Liège via Charleroi and Namur was operated by the Nord – Belge.

In 1856 a third railway company reached Namur – the Grande compagnie du Luxembourg (FR). This company chose a route via Namur for their direct line between Brussels and Luxembourg. The section as far as Namur opened two years before the section from Namur towards Luxembourg opened. Although Namur was already connected to Brussels via Charleroi, this was a very indirect route, so the arrival of a direct connection to Brussels was significant, as was the international connection on to Luxembourg. This line is also still in existence, with the section between Brussels and Namur now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 161 (NL), and the section from Namur to Luxembourg as NMBS/SNCB Line 162 (NL).

Namur was now on a cross-roads of important international railway links, one from Brussels to Luxembourg, and the route from Maastricht in the Netherlands and Cologne in Germany (via Aachen) to Paris via Liège. However, there were still two more railway links to come.

The next line to open was the Nord – Belge‘s line from Namur to Givet in north-eastern France via the Belgian city of Dinant. The section from Namur as far as Dinant opened in 1862. The line is still open today as far as Dinant, and is now known as NMBS/SNCB Line 154 (FR), but the cross-border section from Dinant to Givet closed in 1989.

The final line to arrive in Namur was the Belgian State’s line from Tienen, which opened in 1869. This line provided a good connection to the north of Flanders, with Tienen being an important railway hub before the line closures of the second half of the 20th century. This line became known as NMBS/SNCB Line 142 (FR). Passenger traffic on the line ended in 1962, but goods traffic continued for some time. The line finally closed in sections between 1968 and 1988.

Another development of note is the opening by the Belgian State of the large marshalling yard and locomotive depot at Ronet (FR) just outside Namur on the line to Charleroi in 1895. This was followed in 1904 by the building of a large locomotive workshop a short distance away in Salzinnes. This workshop is connected to the station in Ronet via a short industrial branch line (NMBS/SNCB Line 283). The marshalling yard, depot, and locomotive workshop are all still in use today, with the locomotive works being the main locomotive works for the entire NMBS/SNCB.

Namur’s Railways in 1914

The Grande compagnie du Luxembourg was nationalised in 1873, so by 1914 the Belgian State and the Nord – Belge were the only two companies operating in Namur. All six of the lines that have ever radiated out of Namur were open and in use, giving Namur connections to Paris, Brussels, northern Flanders, Maastricht and Aachen via Liège, Luxembourg, and a second connection to France via Dinant to Givet. Given that the German’s reason for invading Belgium in the first place was to use it as a back door into France, the most important of these links was the route from Germany to northern France via Aachen, Liège, Namur, and Charleroi.

As the war dragged on, the locomotive works in Salzinnes would also have been important to the Germans – keeping the trains moving was vital to keeping the troops in the trenches supplied.

Changes Since 1914

Of the six lines which once radiated out of Namur, five remain in use today. Namur still has it’s connection with Maastricht and Aachen via Liège, it still has it’s connection with Paris via Charleroi, and it is still on the direct route between Brussels and Luxembourg. The line to Dinant is still open, but it no loner connects to Givet in France, though it does still provide an alternative route to both the north of France and Luxembourg via NMBS/SNCB Lines 165 (and 166) (NL) from Dinant to the point where Belgium, Luxembourg and France meet at Athus.

What has completely vanished is the connection north via Tienen (Line 142). This line lost it’s importance with the demise of the Belgian coal industry, and Namur still has a connection with the north of Flanders via Liège. Much of the alignment has been converted into a cycle path, and forms part of the RAVeL network (specifically RAVeL route 2).

While not that much has changed physically since 1914, one very notable difference is the absence of the Nord – Belge in Namur. It was the last of the railway companies to be nationalised, remaining private and independent until the end of WW2 (though for administrative reasons the nationalisation was officially back-dated to the day the war started). Of all Belgium’s private railway companies the Nord – Belge is the one most fondly remembered.