Charleroi has 6km of disused by completed metro line, incorporating 4 stations and connecting to the existing metro. Don’t get too excited however, this isn’t a veiny network of tunnels under the city like Antwerp’s premetro, nor is it a line genuinely under construction. It’s simply a railway that was built in the 1980s, connected to the metro lines and unfeasibly, never opened.
As we visited as part of our two week ‘Prohobohemia’ trip, I feel that we didn’t perhaps ‘explore’ this to the full potential. When talking about European metro exploration, the cities that spring to mind are usually Paris, Milan, Oslo and Stockholm, not somewhere small and unremarkable like the generic Belgian town that we found Charleroi to be.
The section in question was the Chatelet branch between Waterloo and Centenaire, incorporating the stations of Neuville, Chet and Pensee. Although completed in 1986 the branch has never seen service, despite having working signals and stations that appear complete, albeit vandalised. 25 years on, the costs proposed to reinstate the branch to Centenaire amount to a reasonable sounding £5 Million. The catch however is that for the line to be reopened it must be completed as planned to serve Corbeau (a busy shopping area). A total of £25 Million would need to be spent on completing construction of the line if this was a desired outcome.
Entering close to Pensee, we rolled down the steep bank adjacent to the line and despite the quietness of the area, chose to get straight into the station. Reports I’d read suggested that due to the vandalism of the completed stations and the ability to get into the running tunnels of the main metro, police were sometimes called and treated trespass on this section with some degree of concern, a contrast to the relaxed attitude across Belgium towards general dereliction.
Now the Charleroi Pre-metro is not really an anomaly. Pre-1988, Belgium was split into two provinces with one national budget. Hence when Wallonia was granted funding for a project, Flanders would be granted equal funding in an attempt to avoid favouritism. Although an admirably policy in some ways, it’s great failure was the construction of several hugely ill-thought-out schemes that just sucked up a lot of money. For example, there is a bridge in Ypres built for a road that wasn’t, and Brussels and Antwerp have constructed stations and tunnels for their metro systems that simply aren’t ever going to be needed. The amusing thing is that the ineptitudes of the engineers employed to build these projects meant that many went over-budget, meaning that extra money was thrown at the other province to compensate, rather than the budgets being re-assessed.
It only took a fewminutes or so to walk to Chet, the next station along from Pensee. Less vandalised due to being positioned on a raised level over the road, access to this station would only really have been feasible by walking the line, what we’d conveniently just done. To get these stations operational again, I suspect that it’s just a case of cleaning the grafitti, replacing the windows, ensuring the track was safe and then installing barriers. Not rocket science, but pointless given the absence of people in the area to use the system.
Neuville was the third station that we visited, and the one that I suspect would gain the most footfall of those we visited. More centrally located, and close to the local football stadium, my thoughts were that after games fans could get to the city quite easily. The ground was used for Euro 2000, the metro obviously not – perhaps it’s biggest moment has now gone? Neuville was almost identical to Chet, both in their positioning on a raised track and their design.
I doubt this system will get opened up in the current world financial climate. Privatising the line and running it as a branch rather than as part of the main network would avoid the main operator having the fork out the costs, and a private investor who wants their own giant train set might be tempted. People don’t have money to throw at projects like this as they did in the 1980s, and as such you’ve got a white elephant running across south-east Charleroi. It’s not insignificant in terms of it’s presence. There are roads and bridges going over and under the tracks, and the stations are visible from the topside. There’ll be locals who were eagerly anticipating it’s opening, and probably still area.
Walking on from Neuville, we found the opening of the tunnel that leads to Waterloo station, and while walking down into it, some helpful locals in the park above started hollering at us. Not understanding a word they were saying and being aware that we were at the more sensitive end of the line, we elected to turn back. It was disappointing not to get into the tunnels, structures we know and love so much, but with 12 days of travel ahead of us, it was important not to get bogged down with diplomatic duties in entertaining the Police Fédérale of Wallonia.
Belgium is always a delight to visit. Rarely have we been pulled up for exploring, and the police genuinely don’t seem interested in any alternative usage of the buildings here. The beer is the best in the world, it’s only a ferry ride away, and there’s plenty of derelictions to go with the infrastructure. Perhaps I need another trip out there to finish the job on this obscure and politically fascinating system?