The railways in Belgium offer the full range of trains from high speed international trains to slow moving local trains. Prices are low. The company is very cyclist friendly, even tandem friendly and the majority of trains take bicycles. Belgian Railways Website.
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 in Belgium’s third official language, German. The system has about 3300 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 are entitled to free or heavily subsidised rail season tickets. Similarly 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 local trains which do not carry bikes.
Long distance express trains:
High Speed Trains:
Thalys links Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne and Paris 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.
These trains are discussed in detail in the French section.
There are links from Brussels avoiding changing in Paris towards Avignon, Bordeaux, Nice and Perpignan, but as ever these trains do not accept bicycles except bagged folding bikes or partly disassembled bikes in a bag.
Intercity Express (ICE)
These trains will whisk you to Cologne and Frankfurt in a short time, but there are the usual restrictions on bicycles: Partially dismantled and bagged is OK, otherwise no way.
It is not clear whether the domestic ICs which extend into Holland and Luxembourg carry bicycles.
Three EuroCity trains circulate daily between Brussels and Switzerland via Namur, Luxembourg and eastern France:
- Vauban (EC 91/90) This train pair accepts bicycles.
- Iris (97/96) to Zurich (via Basel)
- Jean Monnet (295/296) to Basel.
However it is not clear whether the other two train pairs accept bicycles except bagged folding bikes or partly disassembled bikes in a bag.
A map of the train system (PDF).
Domestic train information.
Since Belgium is on the west coast of the European continent, travelling there from Britain is easy, but limited to North Sea Ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge, Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel from London St Pancras to Lille or Brussels Midi or the DFDS route from Dover to Dunkirk – about 70km. The most popular cycling routes in Belgium are:
- Vlaanderen Fietsroute (Flanders Cycle Route) a circular route, which can be picked up in Ostend and takes about two weeks to cycle comfortably. There also a network of shorter cycle routes in Flanders.
- Not to be outdone the French speaking Belgians have set up a network of routes one of which starts in Lille with good access from Eurostar trains and ends in Wiltz to the north of Luxembourg, a days 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 routes network start in Brussels.
German company DB offers an excellent range of special low price tickets, but the SNCB/NMBS trumps in both range and cheapness. 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:
- Eurostar sells a ticket to any station in Belgium from Brussels for £5.50 in addition to the cross-channel fare, but you will need a bike ticket as well for travelling on Belgian trains.
- 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 €6.50, except Brussels Airport which is surcharged to pay for a new airport link.
- Journalists travel free in 2nd class and benefit from a 75%* reduction in 1st class. Before you rush across to Ostend, dear colleagues, you need to apply for an ID card from the Belgian Journalists’ Association.
- 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 5.20 Euros for a return journey in 2nd class and 12.00 Euros in 1st class. The Senior ticket is valid year round:
- Monday through Friday: after 09:00 a.m.
- Saturday and Sunday: no timetable restrictions
- Except in July and August when it is not valid on Saturday and Sunday.
A word of warning however senior tickets are age-based. This means that you have to be able to provide documentary evidence of your age when purchase takes place and on the train. False teeth and white hair don’t count.
Senior tickets are valid 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:
The website is divided into two parts, domestic and European. The domestic website is fairly clear as long as you start from the right point. If you start to try to find a train from somewhere in Belgium to somewhere like Cologne using the domestic website then you find that it does not accept Cologne but points you at Colmar in Alsace. If you use Koeln or Köln, the German name for the city you are directed to Mechelen-Nekkerspoel [B], wherever that is.
The Belgium Railways European 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 Rail Europe either by phone: 08448 484 064 Mon – Fri – 09:00 – 19:00 Saturday – 09:00 – 18:00 or the online link on the Rail Europe website
You can also buy domestic tickets from ticket offices and ticket machines on stations.
There are two bike tickets:
- a one way trip using the 5 Euro “cycle card and tandemcard” for a bicycle/tandem (+ a trailer).
- a “one-day card” (libre-parcours d’un jour) which lets you take your bicycle/tandem (+ a trailer) on the train for 8 Euros all day long anywhere in the country.
You can buy the former online from the domestic website, but not the latter.
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 us 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. This is my memory of the event. 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 about half a dozen 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 have no suggestions, but the Ardennes could be fun.