A museum retracing the history of the local railways
A little history
The museum is located on the site of the former Thuin-Ouest station and is part of the former SNCB line 109, which ran between Mons and Chimay. The passenger service disappeared in 1964, but the line was kept in good condition for goods traffic to the Donstiennes sugar factory. This service was suspended in the 1980s and the line was abandoned. However, special trains continued to use the line, including for various ASVi festivals. On these occasions, the line was used by an SNCB 46 series railcar and by the 808 standard gauge steam locomotive. In 1992, when the line was about to be de-shod, ASVi organised a final railcar run.
In February 1993, work began on converting the track from SNCB gauge (1435 mm) to vicinal gauge (1000 mm). A switch was placed in the Rue de la Couture, and the railway track was replaced on the level crossing. As the SNCB line is equipped with metal sleepers, it was possible to reuse these sleepers without moving them. Only one rail is moved and fixed to obtain the metric gauge. Once the conversion was complete, we had to install the points that would provide access to the workshop and the museum. The first turnouts came from the Expo 1958 loop in Brussels, the mixed standard/metric turnout came from Marcinelle Hauchies and the others were salvaged from the old Charleroi and Centre networks.
Work on the new depot began in 1996. It was designed as a workshop, but was initially used as a museum. Work was completed in 1999 with the laying of the tracks inside the building and the pouring of the concrete slab. The trams moved into the building in June 1999. The PCC was the first, soon joined by the 9073, the 303 steam locomotive and the 1853 trailer.
The station is due to open to the public on 4 July, but there is still no electricity (600 volts) to run our trams. Construction of the substation began in February 2000. Its electrical equipment was ordered from AEG, and a rectifier and two 600V circuit breakers were recovered from the Binche substation (former SNCV line 90). Electrification of the site began in February 2001, compatible with collection by boom or pantograph.
The second building of the “Centre de Découverte du Vicinal” will see the light of day thanks to an ERDF phasing-out grant of €1.1 million. ASVi will still have to pay the balance of €110,000. This will be raised through donations and miscellaneous income. Construction of the building began at the end of 2001 and lasted a year. The first day of electric traction was on 1 June 2003. Winter was used to install the scenography. The vehicles that were in the museum/workshop were transferred to the final museum. From then on, the workshop was devoted to the renovation of other vehicles and the daily maintenance of those already in service. Major manoeuvres were carried out to transfer trams parked in other depots to Thuin.
Thanks to all this work, 25 additional trams are under cover. The museum was inaugurated in 2004, and electric trams were finally welcoming passengers. Most of the track work has been completed, and the Tram Festival on 15 August was a great success.
In 2010, a 3km extension was opened along the RAVeL (Réseau Autonome des Voies Lentes), on the former SNCB 109 line, as far as the terminus at Biesme-sous-Thuin. Operated by railcars, this journey offers a contrast to the other two lines to Lobbes and Thuin Ville-Basse, which run along the roadside or in the street. This extension reminds us that the vicinal also ran in its own right of way through the countryside.
Discovering the museum
When you visit our museum, you’ll discover a century of Vicinal history, from the steam locomotive and associated trailers forming a typical mixed goods/passenger train in the 1920s to the latest carriages built for the SNCV, via the large electric locomotives known as Standard, not forgetting the railcars pulling the goods trains.
As you stroll along the aisles, you’ll pass by the vehicles on display and climb into some of them to appreciate the comfort, sometimes relative, of the era. Typical “vicinal” objects will catch your eye in the themed display cabinets: joysticks, timetables, tickets and dioramas showing the “vicinal” in all its guises. You’ll also want to take a look at the display case on electrical engineering, with a plan of a substation or controller showing you its inner workings.
If you look up, you’ll see a host of photos and destination plaques or films that will catch your eye. Along the way, posters with red backgrounds provide information on key points in the history of the byway, from its creation to its dismantling. Before stopping off at the shop for its selection of books, postcards and other objects, climb the few steps to the mezzanine. Up there, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the museum. For railway enthusiasts, it’s a great opportunity to see the roofs of our trams.
While you’re on the mezzanine, admire the superb 1/76 scale neighborhood diorama. This set represents the suburban trams of Brussels, departing along the canal and ending in the square of a Brabant village. Two other miniature sets are exhibited in the main hall. They have experienced miniature train exhibitions before being entrusted to us to be exhibited once again. The first one represents the Ardennes in the early 1950s, with timber transports and the few passengers who connected the most remote villages. The second one represents the Lasne depot on the Brussels-Wavre line in the 1960s. A little nod, as the ASVi used this depot for a few years as a cold reserve before it was caught up in the appetite of real estate developers who converted it into an apartment.
Now all you have to do is hop on the tram to the Lower Town, Lobbes and Biesme-sous-Thuin.
What is the Vicinal ?
Vicinal is what belongs to the neighbourhood, the Latin vicinus, which gave rise to vigin in Walloon. Today, we would speak of local railways, with all that that suggests in terms of mobility services for our motorised society.
What is it for ?
Belgium prides itself on having inaugurated the continent’s first public railway in 1835 and developed a national network of trains. However, these were initially limited to the less rugged parts of the country, as the public authorities neglected services to rural communities that were too sparsely populated to guarantee the dividends of a greedy shareholder base. The law establishing the SOCIÉTÉ NATIONALE DES CHEMINS DE FER VICINAUX (SNCV) was finally promulgated in 1885 by Leopold II, who was very concerned about the growth of the metal industry and Belgium’s position as the world’s 2nd largest economy, after England.
The biggest "small" railway in the world !
Frankly revolutionary for an era dominated by undisguised capitalist exploitation, the SNCV’s mission was to bring out of their isolation the communes left behind by the great railways by building lines economically, along the roads, along the water or over hills and valleys, to offer a transport service accessible to all and deliver all goods to the most remote corners. Funding is provided by the State, the Provinces, the Communes and even interested individuals. The principle of mutuality was applied: the “rich” lines provided a livelihood for the less-frequented lines, with the transport of agricultural produce or mining products guaranteeing the low passenger fares.
Of course, railway equipment manufacturers in the Walloon industrial area designed simple, robust locomotives and carriages for the local network, which proved to be a wonderful showcase for their exports of colonial railways and tramways around the world.
Gradually, the local network grew to include 5,000 km of lines by the time of the 1935 Universal Exhibition, far outstripping the major railways after 50 years of existence.
The Vicinal century (1885-1992)
The only centenary company in the transport world, the SNCV had only 200 kilometres of track left in 1985 (La Panne – Ostend – Knokke, the Charleroi network, the Han caves). The growing importance of the car had competed with its rural lines from the 1950s onwards, and the anachronistic installation of its tracks on busy roads would have necessitated expenditure deemed exorbitant. So for
a century, the vicinal tram was part of the landscape of the Belgium of daddy, with its narrow, cobbled, tree-lined roads and one-metre gauge tracks. Vicinal stations were rare, as the thrifty tram preferred to stop near a café where passengers and parcels were in good hands.
Electric trams were added to the steam-powered convoys of heroic times in 1894. The success of this new method of traction encouraged Julien Dulait, head of Electricité & Hydraulique (the future ACEC), to produce everything needed for the new tramway. The quality of his products made Charleroi famous the world over. Another financial and industrial magnate, Edouard Empain, who operated the coastal tramway, tried in vain to extend his business to his Lille and Valenciennes networks. On the eve of the First World War, he set up the Section du Chemin de Fer Vicinal en Campagne, foreseeing the strategic role that trams would play on the Yser front. In German-occupied Belgium, the vicinal railways provided the bulk of passenger transport (the main railways having been “confiscated”) and showed their imagination: night trams and inter-city links enabled the starving population to get supplies from the countryside. By 1918, half the rural network had to be rebuilt and the private operators had thrown in the towel. The SNCV rebuilt and directly operated the network in a modern way, replacing steam trams with railcars, designing a standard type of spacious and comfortable electric locomotive and promoting social tourism when the first paid holidays arrived (1936). The old locos were kept for freight traffic, which was still very profitable. In 1940, they were once again used for passenger traffic, as there was no more petrol available. At the height of the bombing raids, the tram, which was more discreet than the big railway, continued to operate. Peace returned in a changed world that saw individual motorisation supplant other modes of transport. The century-old company was dissolved in 1991 as a result of the regionalisation of road-based public transport (TEC in Wallonia, De Lijn in Flanders and STIB in Brussels).
ASVi and the Vicinal discovery centre
A group of enthusiasts set up the ASVi non-profit association in 1972, with the aim of preserving old local trams and putting them on the road. Over the years, the association has acquired a collection of more than 40 vehicles, the oldest of which dates back to 1885. The ASVi has been running its trams on the Lobbes – Thuin line since 1978, and has been responsible for its own maintenance since 1 January 1984. To showcase its collection to the general public and present the history of the SNCV in a lively way, the Discovery Centre project was launched in 1994, and the first building was inaugurated on 01.10.1999, thanks to the efforts of the association’s members and public funding.