Visiting the border railroad station at Erquelinnes, Belgium: former lynchpin of the Paris-Cologne passenger line
Border ghosts and memories
The railroad station at Erquelinnes, in Hainaut province, in Belgium's Walloon region (French: Région wallonne), continues to be used for passenger traffic. But such has been the decline in the numbers of travellers that either begin or end their journey at Erquelinnes — and the increase in automation — that this still prominent, fine looking building is usually almost deserted. It is nearly a ghost station, with no permanent staff based there to serve the needs of passengers, who, as the need arises, use an electronic ticket machine instead.
With the development of the European Union from the European Economic Community — and particularly the Schengen Agreement — border checks have been drastically reduced between certain European Union countries. While the right of the authorities to make spot checks has been retained, in practice, most passengers crossing the Franco-Belgian border may sail through untroubled by officials (1).
The station dates from 1853. Belgium's rail network was already highly developed in the mid-19th century; this was for several reasons. One reason was that, after England, Belgium was the first European country to become highly industrialized. Another lies in the sheer geography of this country known as 'the cockpit of Europe', through which not only foreign armies regularly marched, but also much international passenger and commercial traffic would pass.
Erquelinnes, Belgium, forms a conurbation with the French town of Jeumont, known as the French town with the closest rail link with Brussels. (The station at Jeumont, for its part, dates from 1855, shortly after the inception of Erquelinnes Station.)
Another formerly used railroad station on the Franco-Belgian is at Quiévrechain, which forms a conurbation with the French municipality of Quiévrain. This station is now closed to cross-border traffic, although the phrase 'outre-Quiévrain' (beyond Quiévrain) has stayed in the language, although the term is somewhat dated. Interestingly, it was the border at Quiévrain-Quiévrechain rather than at Jeumont-Erquelinnes which gave rise to the this often used euphemism to denote Belgium.
Feight services have taken over from passengers as being the main focus of Erquelinnes Station's operations. The many parallel rail lines in the station's proximity bear witness to the amount of trains and wagons which can be accommodated.
There is something a little poignant, however, at the sheer size of this station, with memories of many, former passenger trains having passed through, but now largely deserted in terms of passenger services.
With its border ghosts and historical memories, Erquelinnes station could almost be described as a railroad equivalent to the Marie Céleste... .
March 24, 2014
(1) Even coach services between Paris and Brussels not longer stop at the border post on the freeway: I have witnessed the Franco-Belgian border as a blur from the coach window, when the driver has not even slowed the vehicle.
Also worth seeing
In Erquelinnes, Belgium, itself, the parish church is an ancient, stone structure; a marina exists on the Sambre River; within the municipal boundaries of Erquelinnes there is a Gallo-Roman bridge at Montignies-Saint-Christophe.
Jeumont, France (distance: 2.8 kilometres); the town is known as a centre for boat hire on the Sambre River.
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport / Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ; distance to Erquelinnes: 82 kilometres) from where car rental is available. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. It is advisable refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada
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