Midi/Zuid/South: Eurostar Terminal
Twenty-two platform faces make up the behemoth that is today’s Brussels Midi station, a sprawling site underneath a sea of wires, located north of a spaghetti of railway lines. The Belgian capital enjoys direct trains to Britain, France, Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg, and is the hub of Europe’s most dense railway network. The fastest direct trains between Brussels and Paris take little over 1 hour 20 minutes; a journey between the former and Amsterdam half an hour more; and London can be reached in 1 hour 56 minutes by Eurostar.
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© David Glasspool
A complete history of Midi station is beyond the scope of this section, which concerns the Eurostar terminal. However, your author will try to set the scene with an element of historic detail, to trace how the site evolved to its current state.
On 5th May 1835 Belgium’s first railway, a 20.3-KM-long standard gauge line between Brussels and Malines, opened to traffic. A 23.5-KM extension from the latter to Antwerp came into use on 3rd May of the following year, and the whole stretch from Brussels was double-track. The laying out of the line was supervised by George Stephenson, and subsequent openings were as follows, all of which were single-track:
- Malines to Termonde: 2nd January 1837 (26.7-KM)
- Malines to Louvain: 10th September 1837 (23.75-KM)
- Louvain to Tirlemont: 22nd September 1837 (17.745-KM)
- Termonde to Ghent: 28th September 1837 (30.5-KM)
- Tirlemont to Waremme: 2nd April 1838 (27.2-KM)
- Waremme to Ans: 2nd April 1838 (18.9-KM)
- Ghent to Bruges: 12th August 1838 (44.5-KM)
- Bruges to Ostend: 28th August 1838 (23.5-KM)
(Ref: American Railroad Journal and Mechanics’ Magazine, New York, 1839).
The Brussels terminus inaugurated in 1835 was that of "Allée Verte" (also known as "Groendreef"), located about 700-metres northwest of the present Nord station. A terminus by the name “Brussels North” was completed in 1846 (ref: 26th Annual Convention of the National Hardware Association of the United States, 19th to 22nd October 1920) and replaced the original site of 1835; the latter was subsequently used for goods and sat at the end of a 2-KM branch that joined the main line.
In 1840, a line from Brussels to Hal was opened; it was extended to Mons in 1841 and, in 1842, to Quievrain, at the French border (ref: The Railway Magazine, November 1963). This railway was 86.5-KM in length and emanated from a separate terminus to that serving the line to Antwerp: that of Brussels South (this is the title given to the station in English-language sources from 1844). Brussels South was located in Bogards, between the Rue d’Anderlecht and the Rue de Terre Neuve, about 1-KM northeast of today’s Midi. Four tracks entered the station, sidings incorporating turntables were laid, and large engine and carriage sheds were in evidence (ref: Railway Chronicle, December 1844).
In 1869, the original Brussels South was replaced by a terminus upon the site occupied by today’s station. The official opening of the grand new station of the Chemin de fer du Midi (South Railway) was scheduled for 21st July of that year, but was deferred until the following September to coincide with festivities celebrating Belgium’s independence (ref: Dwight’s Journal of Music, Boston, United States, 17th July 1869). This was an elaborate station, of stone and brick construction, comprising a triple-span trainshed and an arched entrance, the latter of which was not unlike the monument that stands today on Hyde Park Corner, London.
Midi has never had the glamour of Eurostar’s other terminals at Paris Nord, St Pancras, or even the latter’s predecessor, Waterloo. Platforms 1 and 2 are dedicated to services to and from London and, as seen here, have a rather “underground” feel to them at their northeastern ends. At this point, the tracks sit under a raft that supports part of the large building that runs along the station’s northwestern perimeter, which was fully complete by summer 2003. Class 373 Nos. 3006 and 3226 are seen on the left (platform 2) and right (platform 1) respectively.
© David Glasspool Collection
Linking North (Nord) and South (Midi) Termini
Brussels Nord and Midi stations were linked by a circuitous single-track route, which ran through the western part of the city. Called the “Chemin de fer de Ceinture” — “Belt Railway” — the line was 7.475-KM-long and was built by the Belgian Government in 1871 (ref: Annales Industrielles — Cinquieme Annee, 5th October 1873). It was reported in the September 1899 edition of The Railway Magazine that it was proposed to link Nord and Midi stations by means of an underground railway, although the scheme had to go before Parliament prior to anything being done. The “Belt Railway” aside, the stations were connected by road in the form of a long, straight boulevard.
In 1911 an ambitious scheme to directly link Nord and Midi termini, by means of a line through the city centre, was announced. This would replace the circuitous “Belt Railway” as the primary connection between north and south railway systems in Brussels and allow an acceleration of international expresses. Most of the connecting line was to be in a tunnel and haulage over this section would be by electric traction. The estimated cost of the works was $16,000,000, which included the construction of a new central station upon the link, the procurement of electric traction, and it was envisaged that the line would be ready by 1915 (ref: Railway Age Gazette, 5th May 1911). Construction work on the 4-KM-long link line started in 1911, but was halted on the outbreak of war in 1914. After the conflict, the project was further delayed through a combination of controversy over the benefits of the project and a post-war shortage of materials (ref: The Railway Magazine, December 1952). Work finally resumed in 1935, only to stop again in 1939 at the start of World War II. The scheme restarted for a final time after the war. In the September 1949 edition of The Railway Gazette, it was stated that the link line between Nord and Midi, being built under the auspices of the “Brussels Junction Railway”, was envisaged to be completed by spring 1950.
The connecting line between Midi and Nord eventually comprised six parallel-running tracks; the first two of these were formally opened by King Baudouin of Belgium on 4th October 1952 (ref: Bulletin of the International Union of Railways, 1953). On the same day, a then new station upon the link line, Brussels Central, was opened (ref: Economic and Commercial Conditions in Belgium and Luxembourg, with an Annex on Benelux, H.M. Stationery Office, March 1953). Exactly a year later, three more tracks on the railway were brought into use (ref: Bulletin of the International Union of Railways, 1954).
The Brussels Junction Railway project was intertwined with an extensive programme of electrification. Earlier, in 1935, electrification of the Brussels to Antwerp line had been completed using the 3,000 volts D.C. overhead wire system. The project was scheduled to finish prior to the opening of the Brussels International Exhibition taking place that year, so an intensive train service could be run over the route in connection with the event (ref: Report on the Economic Situation in Belgium, UK Department of Overseas Trade, 1930). In November 1949, electrification from Brussels Midi to Charleroi was completed; in March of the following year, electrification of a separate freight line between Brussels (Linkebeek) and Antwerp North — which paralleled the Brussels to Antwerp line — was also finished (ref: Bulletin of the International Union of Railways, 1951). Electric working started between Brussels and Ghent in February 1954, and was extended from the latter to Ostend in the following July. In October 1955, electric working started on the busy section of line between Brussels and Liege. September 1956 was the formal inauguration of electric working on the Brussels to Luxembourg via Namur line.
Returning to Brussels Midi, a completely new station was built as part of the Brussels Junction Railway. The terminus of 1869 was razed to the ground in 1949 (ref: Brussels: A Cultural and Literary History, André De Vries, 2003) and, in its place, emerged today’s vast station, spanning twenty-two tracks. It was formally opened with the first two tracks of the connecting line in October 1952. A competition was organised for the design of Midi, which was won jointly by architects Fernand Petit and Yvan Blomme (ref: Fernand Petit, AAM Editions); the result was a station built to a “Modernist” style, the main feature of which was a huge rectangular block along the site’s south eastern elevation, extending for about 345-metres, that became a postal sorting centre. All platforms were covered by lengthy, but plain, canopies, underneath which were glazed rounded waiting rooms clad with tiles, the latter of which were reminiscent of 1930s “Art Deco” design. Similarly, the existing Nord station was wholly replaced by a new-build as part of the same project. Little under 1-KM northeast of Midi, a set of platforms opened at Chapelle in February 1953 (ref: Bulletin of the International Union of Railways, 1954), adjacent to the tunnel portals, and in the same year a station by the name of Brussels-Congress opened in the tunnel in-between Central and Nord stations (ref: Le Patrimoine Monumental De La Belgique Bruxelles 1A Pentagone A-D, Pierre Mardaga, 1989). Given that the Junction Railway was mostly within a tunnel — constructed using the cut-and-cover method — steam locomotives passed over this section with the regulator shut off whilst being hauled by an electric locomotive (ref: The Railway Magazine, September 1953).
Class 373 No. 3214 is seen at platform 1 forming a 12:31 departure to Waterloo. Beyond the windows on the left can just be seen the station's “through” platforms, and in the background is where the "raft" ends, allowing the platforms some natural light.
© David Glasspool Collection
The origins of today’s station having now been covered, it is time to jump ahead to the Eurostar terminal. The project to connect Great Britain with Continental Europe by means of a railway took a step forward on 18th October 1985, when the Anglo-French engineering group selected to build the Channel Tunnel — TransManche Link (TML) — was formed. On 12th February of the following year, British and French Governments signed the “Fixed Link Treaty”, setting into motion construction of the Channel Tunnel, boring of which commenced on 15th December 1987.
Whilst Belgium had no direct access to the Chunnel, the state-run railway company — SNCB — partnered with British Rail (BR) and France’s SNCF in the project to establish daytime international passenger services between London, Paris, and Brussels. The design of the train sets that would run between the three capital cities was a joint project involving all three companies, and a £500 million order for this stock was signed in Brussels on 18th December 1989 (ref: The Railway Magazine, February 1990). On 28th October 1992 at a press conference in Paris, it was announced that “Eurostar” had been selected as the official name for the international trains that would link Britain, France, and Belgium.
Although nowhere near the scale of the civil engineering works undertaken on British and French soil, significant infrastructure upgrades were still required in Belgium in preparation for both the Chunnel project, the advent of LGV Nord, and creating a European high-speed railway network. The planned works included the following:
- Creation of a dedicated terminal at Brussels Midi for Eurostar services.
- Construction of a TGV maintenance depot in the Brussels suburb of Forest, 2-KM south west of Midi station.
- Building of a 71-KM dedicated high speed line, for speeds of up to 300 KM/H, between the French border and Lembeek (16-KM south west of Midi station).
- Laying of two additional 200-KM/H tracks alongside the existing line between Lembeek and Midi station.
- Electrification of the 25-KM stretch of line between Lille and Tournai.
- Modernisation of the existing line between Brussels and the Dutch border, increasing the speed to 160-KM/H.
- In conjunction with the above, construction of a new underground station and tunnel at Antwerp. The result would be that InterCity services between Belgium and the Netherlands would no longer have to reverse into the existing terminus there to continue their journey.
- Widening of the line between Brussels (Nord) and Louvain — 30-KM in length — to four tracks, with an increased speed of 200-KM/H.
- Construction of new sections of line between Louvain and Bierset, and between Chênée and Welkenraedt, 64-KM and 28-KM in length respectively.
(Ref: Transport Growth in Question, International Symposium on Theory and Practice in Transport Economics [European Conference of Ministers of Transport], Lisbon, 1992)
At Brussels Midi, two bay platforms on the western side of the station were selected as the terminal for hourly Eurostar services. The terminal was planned to extend across two levels, comprise segregated departure and arrival areas, in addition to an underground car park and security controls. A low-level roof, extending for about 400-metres in length, would cover the bay platforms and, at least partially, the adjacent five through tracks not within the Eurostar boundary. The northwestern side of the station was also planned for redevelopment into a huge rectangular block comprising shops and a hotel; opposite and to the northwest of this, another gigantic standalone block of office development was scheduled for construction.
Summer 1994 was envisaged as the target date for the start of Eurostar services between London and Paris, and the former and Brussels. However, as June of that year came to a close, it was announced that the project was delayed due to reliability setbacks encountered during testing of the Class 373 “Trans Manche Super Trains”. Additionally, the terminal at Midi was not due to be completed until September 1994 (ref: The Railway Magazine, September 1994).
About a 170-metre-long stretch of the Eurostar terminal is covered by a low-level roof, glazed at regular intervals, which at least allows natural light to reach the southwestern ends of the platforms. The roof was constructed as part of the redevelopment of the northwestern side of the station in preparation for Eurostar services and also covers platform Nos. 3 to 7 inclusive.
© David Glasspool Collection
The first regular Eurostar service to Brussels was the 10:23 departure from Waterloo International, which was scheduled to arrive at Midi at 14:38 local time (ref: The Railway Magazine, January 1995). Initially, there were two departures from London to Brussels daily, and an equal number to Paris, and the service frequency was planned to increase in spring 1995. From the outset, the scheduled journey time between London and Brussels was 3 hours 15 minutes; between the former and the Chunnel portal, and between Lille and Brussels (via Tournai), Eurostar services were confined to the “classic” tracks of the existing domestic networks. The journey time was reduced by five minutes on the opening of the first 15-KM section of the Belgian high speed line between the French border at Lille and a junction with the “classic” Tournai to Mons line.
On 10th December 1997, the King of Belgium officially opened the rest of the high speed line to Lembeek. The then new route was built with a top operating speed of 300-KM/H (186-MPH), reducing the London to Brussels journey time to 2 hours 40 minutes, and was used by scheduled Eurostar services from 14th December. In the meantime, the TGV “Thalys” service had started running between Paris and Brussels Midi on 29th January 1996, and between the former and Cologne via Brussels on 14th December 1997.
For this part of the history, your author has relied on photographic observations to put together the sequence of events. As of 1999, the large rectangular block which today forms the northwestern side of the station, facing onto “Victor Horta Place”, had yet to be built. By the start of 2001, construction was in progress on this structure and, by summer 2003, works were complete. As for the large office block on the opposite side of Victor Horta Place to the railway station — and part of the same redevelopment scheme — this had yet to be finished. Works on the latter were completed in the following year.
Southwest of Midi station, Eurostar and Thalys services using the Belgian high speed line had to cross a series of flat junctions to and from their designated platforms. To eliminate this conflict of movements, a double-track viaduct — 435-metres in length — was completed across the spaghetti of lines southwest of Midi. This allowed trains to cross from one side of the layout to the other without blocking multiple tracks, and opened on 10th December 2006 at a cost of £7,500,000 (ref: The Railway Magazine, February 2007). This reduced the journey time between London and Brussels by another four minutes.
On 23rd May 2017 was the first public working of an e320 (Class 374) formation to Brussels; the 08:04 departure from St Pancras comprising “half set” Nos. 374025 and 374026. Regular scheduled services to Brussels using the e320 fleet started on 28th of that month (ref: The Railway Magazine, June 2017), and a “soft” launch of London to Amsterdam services was planned for the following December. Training runs started in September 2017 and, on 20th February 2018, the 08:31 from St Pancras was the first departure to Amsterdam. However, regular Amsterdam services did not start until 4th April of that year and, initially, due to the lack of immigration facilities in the Netherlands, direct Eurostar trains only ran continent-bound. The first direct Eurostar train from Amsterdam to London that carried [specially-invited] passengers ran on 4th February 2020; regular services were due to start on 30th April of that year (ref: The Railway Magazine, March 2020). Today, Eurostar services to/from Amsterdam use through platforms 3 and 4 at Brussels Midi.
24th June 2010
Approaching the terminal platforms, Eurostar Class 373 No. 3008 is seen coming off the viaduct that was completed in 2006 to eliminate multiple conflicting movements southwest of the station. Previously, high-speed services from the French border had to cross a series of flat junctions to move from one side of the layout to the other, blocking the station’s throat as a result.
© David Glasspool Collection