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Rail life: history of trains brought to life in Brussels

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Nearly two centuries ago, Belgium launched continental Europe's first commuter train line connecting Brussels to Mechelen, a small city halfway to the port of Antwerp.

To mark that place in rail nostalgia, Brussels has opened a state-of-the art train museum, reachable through a plushly renovated 19th-century train station in the EU capital's working-class north.

The museum is a bold gamble by budget-strained Belgium, costing 25 million euros ($28 million) at a time when most spending on culture in Europe is being slashed.

People visit Train World, a train museum which pays tribute to the history of the train in Belgium, during a press preview in Brussel. ©AFP

Train World is a testament to the 19th-century industrial revolution that saw the kingdom of Belgium tower for a century as one of globe's biggest economies, reaching deep into Africa and its colony of the Congo.

Entry to Train World is through the old Schaerbeek train station, constructed in 1887 and more a brick-built cathedral than rail hub, with spired towers and a wrought-iron entry.

Museum tickets are bought in a grand hall at wood-panelled booths, inviting the visitor back to an era long before low cost airlines and reservations by Internet.

The heart of the visit is a moodily lit warehouse adjacent to the station that curator Francois Schuiten wants to be seen as a "railway opera", filled with two-centuries of train travel's glorious history.

Belgium cartoon artists François Schuiten poses in front of a Type 12 Atlantic, steam engine at Train World, a train museum which pays tribute to the history of the train in Belgium. ©AFP

"The idea is to create a real show using sound, image, projections, putting the visitor on the tracks, over them, below them," said Schuiten, who has devoted 10 years to Train World, which opens on September 25.

Appropriate for the land of Tintin and The Smurfs, Brussels-born Schuiten is a cartoonist, known for dark visions of an art-deco future in which many of the trains on display could easily fit.

  'Le Belge' 

In the show's first hall are five 19th century steam trains of legend, now polished and resplendent after decades of collecting dust in a lost rail depot.

These trains have names: the locally built "Le Belge", or the "Pays de Waes", which in 1844 could already reach 60 kilometres per hour (37 miles).

By 1902, "Type 18" doubled that speed, its curvy copper boilers shined to perfection with wheels and gears greased.

"These machines are gems... that only needed to be reawakened,' Schuiten told AFP.

People visit Train World, a train museum which pays tribute to the history of the train in Belgium, during a press preview in Brussels. ©AFP

The cartoonist's favourite is "type 12 Atlantic", designed in 1939, with a honed shape that invokes today's bullet trains that connect Paris or London to Brussels in two hours or less.

Type 12, called affectionately "La Douce" by Schuiten, reached 165 kilometres an hour during the steam engine's pre-war heyday.

In all, there are 22 models of trains on display, from a third class clunker to luxury sleeper trains, including royal wagons from 1901 and 1939.

The trains "reveal our history... There's the dream of travel, but also the story of our cities, of leisure, of technology," Schuiten said.

Kept at a distance, stands an untouched box car that deported Jews, gypsies and other victims of the Nazis to their deaths from Belgium's trains stations.

In an outlandish touch, the home of a track foreman sits on the museum floor -- a real building left intact as Train World was built around it.

"This house, it was my whole childhood universe," writes Guido Telemans in the museum catalogue, whose father was in charge of maintaining a nearby stretch of track during the 1940's and 50's.

"We grew up -- my brothers, sisters and me -- rocked to sleep by the never-ending rumble of trains," he said.

For curator Schuiten, who is hoping for 100,000 visitors a year, the goal is to bring dignity to a rail industry hit hard by service cuts, layoffs and strikes.

"I hope this all helps to fill rail workers with pride," he said.

"They are so stigmatised, there is rarely any good news when in fact their world is so beautiful."

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