Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels, has an amazing train museum. We had the chance to go explore it one Sunday in July. They advise you to plan at least 1 1/2 hours for your tour. We took 4 hours and it was fantastic. There were lots of ways to engage the kids and my train-loving heart was thrilled.
The trip started on the right foot. We arrived at the station about 15 minutes before our trains was scheduled to depart. This is probably a new record for us. We’re usually lucky to have 7 minutes… We boarded the front of the train where the conductor and the engineer were on break. They heard us talking as Todd pointed at the open door to the driver’s seat. They driver invited the kids to come sit in her seat and see what it looks like to drive the train. Both kids were excited at the chance to do that and Laine was thrilled the driver was a woman.
One of the things we’ve learned to ask in every museum is whether they have an activity for kids. This museum had a fun treasure hunt. The kids were to find the letters associated with various types of food hidden throughout the museum. They would then use the fruits to spell out a phrase, find the treasure box, and claim their prize in the gift shop. Along with this, the food items were usually placed alongside some other activities the kids could choose to participate in. The first activity was to pretend you ran a food cart and draw what you would sell.
The first room was set up as the depot and had seating for Laine to draw. Around the perimeter of the room, there were models of over a dozen types of steam locomotives. Most were at a 1:10 scale, but this one was a bit larger and the most unusual:
The depot is the introduction to the train museum, but most of the museum is in a second building. We walked out through the back of the depot on our way to the rest of the museum.
Belgium is quite proud of its history with trains. Brussels was the first European capital to have a railway connection, which began May 5, 1835. At the time, Belgium had only been independent for 5 years. It seceded from The Netherlands in 1830.
There shall be established in the Kingdom a system of railways with Mechelen as its hub, extending eastward towards the Prussian frontier via Leuven, Liège, and Verviers, northward via Antwerp, westward to Ostend via Dendermonde, Ghent and Bruges and southward to Brussels and to the French border through Hainaut.Act of 1 May 1834 ordering the creation of the Belgian State Railways
The Type 10 was designed by Jean-Baptiste Flamme of Belgium. Flamme was already famous in the steam locomotive world for another another invention. In 1905, he developed a technique to increase the efficiency of steam locomotives by means of super-heating. They heated the steam in the boiler to 425 degrees Celsius, so condensation no longer takes place. This allowed the locomotives to run faster and more efficiently, thus they soon were able to exceed 100 km/h (62 mph). Until the end of the steam era, virtually all locomotives were to be equipped with Flamme’s super-heaters. The Type 10 engine above included this new technology and was able to run at 120 km/h. It was the most powerful locomotive in that category. (All of this info was on placards within the museum).
We see electric trains all the time as we travel across Europe. We also see the occasional diesel engine as it hauls freight. There are fences along all of the tracks, so we never get close to a train unless we’re in the station and standing on a raised platform. It’s easy to forget how big these trains are when you can’t stand too close to the tracks. But they’re big!
We were able to climb into the cab of several different types of steam engine in this room. There are so many gears and handles to pull that it’s a little overwhelming!
In addition to climbing into the cabs of the trains, we learned quite a bit about how the trains move along the tracks. There was a display to we could interact with to see how switches work. There were others to show how signals are used to indicate to the train driver whether it’s safe to continue on the tracks or another train is on the line ahead. We also learned that apparently all of the clocks in Belgium are synchronized because of the trains.
The entrance to the second “room” of trains is amazing. As we entered the first room, we came in from above and looked down on 4-5 engines below. Those trains were on tracks set on the floor. As we entered the next display, however, the trains were up on beds of rock as they are out in the real world. It was a little daunting to walk in and see this before us:
This section taught us a lot about the engineering behind steam engines. My dad loves steam engines, so I probably know more about them than the average accountant, but the displays were fantastic for teaching me the details on how it works.
The location of the second museum building is remarkable because it was built around the house where the train signal man used to live. This person had an interesting job as he was required to respond at any hour to pull down the crossing gates to keep cars/people off the road. The house itself was also remarkably small. It was a split-level home, so you entered on the level of the entryway and living room. You would go down 3-4 steps to get to the kitchen. Or you could go up about 8 steps to the bedroom. If you opened the door to the kitchen, you could see into the bedroom as well, as there was an open space. There was a display of a car that was reported to have been hit by a train to demonstrate why you should never try to run through the gates.
While the trains were responsible for connecting so much of Europe in positive ways, they were also responsible for transporting thousands upon thousands of people to concentration camps during the second World War. There was a powerful display to discuss how people were treated and what happened. It was moving and an important reminder that we must never let such a thing happen again.
On a more light-hearted note, we also got to see some of the ways trains were used to entertain people. Sometimes it meant traveling in a “comfortable” first class carriage. And some trains were prominently featured in movies.
Our last stop on the tour was an interactive display to allow you to drive the train. This was Isaac’s favorite part of the whole day. The driver needs to maintain certain speeds, stop in the correct location for a station, wait for the signal lights to allow the train to move on, and then safely steer through a maintenance area. One child drove and the other would work the train horn.
It made for a great Sunday! It was an added bonus that we took the train system back home at the end of the day. These are electric instead of steam-powered, but we learned a bit more about how much difference trains made in the lives of all Europeans and how they continue to improve our lives.