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The east railway ring in Brussels: a growth barrier in the 19th and 20th centuries? (1855-1950)

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from Alix Sacré, published on April 29, 2019

The influence of rail infrastructures on urban development has long been known and continues to be a focus in development plans, particularly through the areas included in strategic plans, such as the Regional Sustainable Development Plan (RSDP). However, railway mobilisation in the sphere of urban planning is usually centred on large stations, emphasising the role they play as a catalyst in urban development.

But stations are not the only way in which the railway interacts with the city: while stations promote the development of the city centre and the urbanisation of its suburbs, the more local impact of the railways which connect them to the outside world should not be forgotten. When a railway enters a city centre, it forms an urban border which hinders connections between neighbourhoods, as only the main roads have facilities to cross it (viaducts, tunnels, level crossings). But when it is a “railway ring”, i.e. one which bypasses the urban area, the railway lines act as growth barriers: they constitute obstacles to the expansion of the urban habitat.

An example of this last type of impact is analysed in the 134th issue of Brussels Studies by historian Alix Sacré, a graduate of Université libre de Bruxelles who is currently assistant professor at Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles. She examines in detail the relationship between urbanisation and railways, using the example of a section of line 161 between Brussels-North and Brussels-Luxembourg, which crosses the municipalities of Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse-ten-Noode and Brussels-City (European Quarter).

By comparing the archives (maps in particular) and various works on the evolution of urban morphology, this study shows that, as early as the 1860s, while the inhabitants of Brussels were already aware of the role that a station could play in the development of a municipality, some stakeholders (owners, town councillors and civil servants) also took into account the fact that a railway line could represent an obstacle in a dense and rapidly expanding city. There is a real paradox here: behind the ideal of progress which accompanied the beginnings of rail transport in Europe, there was a less attractive aspect, i.e. that of the obstacle which these new infrastructures created. This explains why, until its relocation at the beginning of the 20th century, the railway ring was an obstacle which delayed the urbanisation of Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, leading to many requests to change its route.

The historian highlights the slowness of the decision-making processes and the works themselves, which are a symptomatic element of urban planning in Brussels. And even today, although the railway line was relocated, the influence which it may have had on the morphology of the territories it crosses is still perceptible. The concentric streets around Place Verboeckhoven or the crossroads of Avenue Rogier and Avenue Deschanel, the curved route of Rue Stephenson, the layout of the streets in the Quartier de l'Est in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, the existence of avenues at the location of the former railway, and the difference in building density and architectural style between the east and west of the line are all evidence of this.

And the story may not be quite over for the section studied. Currently, the railway ring, and more particularly the small stations which were located along it, may return to the spotlight: the RER project provides for the creation of several stations of local interest in Brussels. In this context, it was proposed to reopen some of the stations along the railway ring, in particular the “Cage aux Ours” station. Although studies show that they will have a high level of passenger traffic, the density of the surrounding buildings and the four-lane construction of the line (essential in order not to hinder traffic on a busy line), compromise, in SNCB's view, the project to use these stations, which could however bring about a more positive re-emergence of the railway in the urban fabric.

Alix Sacré, “The east railway ring in Brussels: a growth barrier in the 19th and 20th centuries? (1855-1950)”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 134, 29 April 2019. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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