Europe with Bike – Belgium
The railways in Belgium offer the full range of rail services, from high speed international trains to slow moving local trains. Prices are low. The nationalised company is very cyclist friendly, even tandem friendly, and the majority of trains take bicycles, but not always very many. Belgian Railways are known as NCMBS (Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen) in Flemish or SNCB (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges) in French, in this country divided by language. Oddly enough the railway company does not seem to have a name at all in Belgium’s third official language, German.
The system has about 3,300 km of standard gauge track, mostly electrified. Trains in Belgium normally run on the left, showing the British involvement in building the rail network in the nineteenth century. How times have changed.
Belgium has a policy of cheap rail travel. Citizens in Belgium, especially students and the elderly, are offered incentives and cheaper fares to alleviate road congestion. Public sector employees and many private sector employees receive subsidised season tickets. The great majority of trains, except high speed trains, offer bicycle transport, which means these facilities are not mentioned in official information. An unfortunate side effect is that it is almost impossible to pinpoint those trains which do not carry bikes. These however are few in number. On some domestic IC trains there may only be room for two bicycles. We have discussed matters with a German cyclist living on the border with Belgium who regularly transports his bicycle on Belgian trains. He wrote that outside of rush hours one can store the bike in the entrance area of a carriage. His advice was then to stay near your bike and act friendly when the conductor-guard comes around. (Thanks to the ADFC Aachen for this information.)
Travelling to Belgium is described in ‘Taking your bicycle by bus, train and ship across Europe’.
There are a number of international High Speed Trains: Thalys, Eurostar, SNCF TGV, DB InterCity Express (ICE) which can whisk you across Europe at high speed and in great comfort, but these trains do not accept bicycles except bagged folding bikes or partly disassembled bikes in a bag. Bagged bikes going to France must have a label showing the passenger’s name and seat number.
On board the Thalys, a bicycle is only allowed if its front wheel has been removed and if the bicycle is packed in a special bicycle cover (maximum measurement: 120x90cm).
TGV Brussels – France
Your bike can be carried free of charge as ‘hand luggage’, on condition that it is dismantled (wheels removed) and placed in a special cover for bike transport with maximum dimensions of 120x90cm. When it is packed like this, your bike can be stowed in one of the spaces available at the ends of each carriage.
The domestic ICs which extend into Holland and Luxembourg do carry bicycles. Older stock (carriages) carry two bicycles per train, but there is more room for bicycles in the more modern double decker trains. However it is not possible to find out which type of train will be used on any one particular journey. Early morning trains from Luxembourg to Belgium are normally double decker trains. It is not possible to reserve bike slots on these trains. You will need to buy a bike ticket in Belgium when travelling to Luxembourg or an International Bicycle Ticket in Luxembourg when travelling to Belgium. Bicycles travel for free in Luxembourg. (Thanks to the Letzelbuerger Velo Initiativ for the information)
Two EuroCity trains circulate daily between Brussels and Switzerland via Namur, Luxembourg and eastern France. Both of which accept bicycles. Bike slots must be reserved and International Bicycle Tickets bought.
• Vauban (EC 91/90)
• Iris (97/96) to Zurich (via Basel)
There are a number of local lines. Most of these carry bicycles, though it might only be two or three. Timetable information can be found on the Belgian Rail domestic website: www.belgianrail.be/.
A map of the rail system (PDF).
For dealing with the guard, follow the advice given by our German contact in the second paragraph of this section.
Popular Cycling Areas in Belgium
The most popular cycling routes in Belgium are:
• Vlaanderen Fietsroute (Flanders Cycle Route) a circular route, which can be picked up near Zeebrugge and takes about two weeks to cycle comfortably. There also extensive networks of shorter cycle routes in Flanders, including World War One routes around Ypers and Pop (Ypres and Poperinge) which make for sobering cycling… Navigation is easy because of the use of Knooppunter (Navigation Nodes)
• Not to be outdone, the French-speaking Belgians have set up the Ravel network of cycle routes, one of which starts in Lille with good access from Eurostar trains and ends in Wiltz to the north of Luxembourg, a day’s ride, or an hour or so on the train from Luxembourg city, with access to TGVs, ECs and ICs to Paris and/or Brussels. Two other ways into the network start in Brussels.
Interestingly both of the websites mentioned above profess to give information about cycling in Belgium, but do not offer any information about the other website.
SNCB/NMBS offers an excellent range of special low price tickets. As mentioned earlier there are many incentives offering cheap travel by train in Belgium, some of which can be used by foreign tourists. Examples include:
• Children’s tickets: Children from the age of 0 to 12, accompanied by a traveller over the age of 12 who is holder of a valid ticket (max. 4 children per person) can travel free of charge in 1st and 2nd class without any time limitation. Children from the age of 0 to 12, unaccompanied, can travel in both classes at a 50% reduction in the price.
• Under 26 year olds can use the Go Pass 1 to travel anywhere in Belgium for €6, except Brussels Airport which is surcharged to pay for a new airport link.
• Anybody can travel on a Weekend ticket outward and return, 1st or 2nd class, and receive a 50% discount. Decide what day you want to leave (Friday after 19.00, Saturday or Sunday) and you return when you want on the Friday (after 19.00), Saturday or Sunday of the same weekend. In addition, you can return from a station other than the one where your outward journey ended, as long as you mention this when you’re buying your ticket. (Only possible for Weekend tickets purchased in a station and on the train, but not online). You needn’t do this if the return station in question is one of nine seaside resorts.
• The Senior ticket costs €6 for a day return journey in 2nd class and €13.00 in 1st class to any destination in Belgium. The Senior ticket is valid year round:
• Monday through Friday: after 09:00am
• Saturday and Sunday: no timetable restrictions
• Except in July and August when it is not valid on Saturday and Sunday.
• Between two Belgian stations (frontier points excluded) on IC, IR, L, P, CR and ICT domestic trains as well as on conventional EC international trains. What frontier points seem to mean is that if travelling across the Belgian border you book to the station before the border and buy standard tickets for the trip across the border.
Buying a ticket for trains in Belgium or on an international train leaving Belgium?, you can use the Belgian Railways website: www.belgianrail.be/en/Default.aspx
The website is divided into two parts, domestic and International.
The Belgium Railways International website is programmed to push you towards high speed trains, so if you are taking a bike – unless you have a folding bike or you are prepared to partly dismantle your bike and pop it in a bike bag – it is better to use www.voyage-sncf.com by phone: 08448 484 064 (in the UK), Mon-Fri, 09:00-19:00 Saturday, 09:00-18:00, as bike spaces can’t be booked online . Up to date information can be found under the online link: https://uk.voyages-sncf.com/en/#/
Once in Belgium you can also buy tickets from ticket offices and ticket machines on stations.
There are two domestic bicycle tickets:
• a one way trip using the €5 ‘cycle card & tandem card’ for a bicycle/tandem (plus a trailer).
• a ‘one-day card’ (libre-parcours d’un jour), which lets you take your bicycle/tandem (plus a trailer) on the train for €8 all day long anywhere in the country.
You can buy the former online from the domestic website, but not the latter. The tickets should be purchased before getting on the train. They can be bought from Belgian Rail ticket offices and ticket machines. There is one exception: Aachen in Germany like many border stations counts as a domestic station for Belgium, but is not possible to buy Belgian bike tickets from the machines in the station. One needs to buy one on the train and pay a small extra charge.
International bicycle tickets valid in more than one country cost €12 for a bicycle and €24 for a tandem.
Getting you, your bike and your gear on a train
It would appear that Brussels Midi and Brussels Nord stations are convenient places to unload or load your bicycle in Brussels. Unloading and loading at Brussels Central, Brussels Chapelle or Brussels Congres is very difficult, if not impossible according to SNCB/NMBS.
Some years ago we spent some time in Mechelen on a round trip through Flanders and because we’d lost half a day due to a broken spoke, we decided to take a train for 50 km or so. We bought tickets for ourselves and the bikes and then waited on the platform for our train. We stood roughly at the ideal spot on the platform, i.e. where we expected the middle of the train to arrive. The train arrived and when it stopped, a hand appeared out of a door at the head of the train and waved us on. We ran up the platform and realised that the entrance was at chest height. Neither of us are dwarfs but we are vertically challenged. The conductor helped us lift the bikes on to the train and we fastened them to the wall. There was room for a few bikes. Obviously the space available is dependent on the rolling stock.
Ferries and river steamers in Belgium
There are small ferries on the Schelde offering transport across the river for cyclists.
We enjoyed the Flanders Route some years ago. Eastern Belgium is hillier than one imagines. The food, especially the chips and the chocolate are superb. They give you enough calories to climb the hills.