The car becomes king
In the fifties, the car quickly became the ultimate status symbol. Unlike the pre-Second World War period, cars were no longer a monopoly for those with lots of money. The hard-working common man could also afford one. A car still cost a labourer a year's salary, but you could save up for one or borrow the funds.
In 1950, there were already 273,599 cars driving around in Belgium. By 1960, this had increased to 753,136. NMBS/SNCB responded to this trend in 1956 with the launch of the motorail train.
The growth in motorised traffic demanded more and more space. Gone were the days of city life when children played, and people strolled and shopped. The car now ruled the roads. Cobblestones made way for concrete and asphalt, buildings were demolished, pavements narrowed, tram tracks dismantled, parks disappeared... The car was king and nothing could stand in its way. There was no question of careful planning. Signs of the first traffic problems appeared in 1958.
The railway saw a gradual decline in its market share. The exception was 1958, the year of the Expo. In this particular year, NMBS/SNCB transported 263.5 million passengers, 4.9% more than in 1957. The company had adapted its service for the Expo, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays. Those living in districts far from Brussels also got the chance to spend an entire day in the capital.
However, things were not looking good for the railways. The accounts were in the red. In September 1958, the government approved a four-year plan. Investments were made in things such as electrification and the replacement of wooden carriages, but the investments required for the outdated rail infrastructure, rolling stock and stations was far greater. The traffic minister himself was forced to admit in September 1959 that thousands of wooden carriages would still be employed during rush hour...
Steam train still sets the scene
In the year of the Expo, a third of all passenger trains and half of all goods trains were still pulled by a steam locomotive. Today's drivers can hardly believe the conditions in which work was carried out in the ‘romantic’ age of steam.
‘The driver's cabin was very Spartan, often with no seat and no screen at the back. It was therefore really hot at the front and often bitterly cold at the back,’ explains Maurits Vercauteren. In 1955, at the age of nineteen, he was successful in passing his final exam to become a stoker. ‘It was a tough job. During a shift lasting between eight and nine hours, I threw seven to ten tons of coal into the furnace. I did consider stopping at some point, but kept going thanks to my father, who was a train driver.’ Maurits became a driver in 1958 in the Aalst depot.
The driver and stoker were a team. They also had their own locomotive. ‘We cherished that locomotive,’ Maurits remembers quite vividly. ‘In fact it was like being married twice. And for most the locomotive came first. We even went to the depot on our days off to check that the locomotive was all right. We were expected to keep good time. A team that had lots of delays was put "out of action". You didn't know beforehand which shifts you'd be asked to drive.’
In 1962, Maurits switched to the diesel locomotive. ‘I was pleased to be rid of steam. Steam trains are lovely to look at. But anyone who's driven a steam locomotive knows better. It was hard and dirty work. These days, train drivers are spoiled in terms of comfort, with things like ergonomic stools and air-conditioning.
In 1958, there were 1,390 steam, 159 electric and 201 diesel locomotives in NMBS/SNCB's fleet.
The steam-train era was to continue for a while. It was not until 1966 that people finally said farewell to the steam locomotive and its often impressive puffs of smoke with the last train journey between Ath and Denderleeuw.