In 1957, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Brussels were directly and electrically connected. There were international trains before, but they ran less frequently and only with reservation and at a surcharge. The Benelux trainsets resembled the Dutch Hondekop (Dog nose) but they carried their own colors and were able to handle voltage differences between the two countries.
The national railway companies NS and SNCB commissioned photos and posters to promote the train.
The Benelux train did not live up to its name entirely — Luxembourg was never reached — but it did strengthen cooperation between the neighboring countries. In 1958 this relation was formalized in the Benelux Economic Union.
by Arjan den Boer
Already in 1939 the Belgian and Dutch railways discussed an electrical connection between the countries. The voltage difference — 1500 V in the Netherlands, 3000 V in Belgium — proved to be a major obstacle. World War II caused further delays. In 1948 it was agreed to use the same voltage, but this was never realized.
In the end, it wasn't until 1957 that the connecting Roosendaal-Antwerp railway line was electrified. At the border a power gate was put in place: a short catenary interruption. For the desired direct Benelux service, special trains had to be built that could easily switch from one system to another.
At the border between Roosendaal and Essen special signs warned train drivers when to switch voltage. The Dutch Railways' staff magazine explained the meaning of these signs.
The Dutch Mat '54 trainsets served as a starting point for the Benelux trains. Because of their long rounded front they were known as Hondekop (Dog nose). NS had been using these express trains since 1956. Their heavy construction made for a very comfortable ride. The Benelux edition was painted dark blue instead of grass green.
More significant was the different traction system. This made operation in both countries possible, at the expense of reliability and ease of use. The 12 two-car trainsets — 8 for NS and 4 for SNCB — were built by Werkspoor at Utrecht, but the installations were made in Belgium.
When the Benelux trainsets had their test runs in July 1957 they were marked with the letters BNS, the combined initials of the railway companies. Eventually the trains were given a letter-less band that widened at the front. The light yellow lining was designed by station architect K. van der Gaast.
On September 18, 1957 the Benelux train was officially inaugurated. Party trains left from both Amsterdam and Brussels and were linked together at the border station of Roosendaal. There, the Belgian and Dutch Ministers of Transport symbolically put the train into service by attaching a special sign in the colors of both countries.
The combined train, carrying about 300 guests, then left for Antwerp. During a festive dinner, the Director General of the Belgian railways and President of the Dutch railways both received high honors. It indicates how important it was found that the Benelux service was finally established.
The mayor of Roosendaal delivered a speech, although the elimination of the transfer at 'his' station was probably at the expense of local retailers.
The photos of the inauguration were taken by NS photographer Lex Hessels (1913-2000). Upon delivery of the trains he had already made a photo series of the interior and exterior.
From 1946 to 1974 Hessels worked at the Propaganda Office of the Department of Economic Affairs of the Dutch Railways. His photographs were used in leaflets and brochures and at trade fairs and exhibitions.
The series on the Benelux train is among Hessels' best work. Whereas his other photos provided primarily a record — albeit of high technical quality — he sometimes applied sleek aesthetics.
The trains consisted of open second-class sections with 48 seats and first-class compartments with six seats each.
The steel furniture was introduced over 20 years earlier in the Mat '34. Originally the coverings were colored green and blue.
On his photos of the interior of the Benelux trainsets Hessels made use of repetition and symmetry. These features indicate Hessels was inspired by the New Photography movement. This also applied to the diagonals, the uncommon low viewpoint and high-contrast light conditions.
A poster had to familiarize passengers at the stations with the blue and yellow colors of the Benelux train. The stated 'hourly' service consisted of 11 trains a day, alternating Antwerp and Brussels as their final destination. The poster was created by Jan de Haan (1917-1975), employed by the Dutch Railways as a commercial designer since 1946.
De Haan was educated at the Rotterdam Academy of Arts and the Free Academy at Utrecht. He also did non-commissioned work: watercolor landscapes and oil portraits. Consequently, his posters were mainly figurative. In the Benelux poster, photos of Lex Hessels can be recognized, although in a slightly different perspective.
Photographer Hessels and designer De Haan worked closely together. As the leading creative figures at the Propaganda Office, they for a great part determined the appearance of the 1950s and 60s Dutch Railways paper publications. The new NS corporate identity by Teldesign in 1968 would herald the end of their era.
In 1960 Lex Hessels again made a photo series on the Benelux train. In contrast to the previous occasions the trains were now in full use. Accordingly, Hessels chose passengers and staff as his subject.
Hessels added glamour to the series by photographing fashionable (young) ladies, both passengers and Wagons-Lits hostesses.
The Benelux trainsets were equipped with galleys for the Wagons-Lits catering service. Rather than complete meals, coffee, drinks, sandwiches and sausage rolls were served. In the early 1970s Wagons-Lits ended its Benelux train service and the galleys were removed.
In 1962 the Belgian railways issued posters captioned Everywhere in Holland with the evening trains. The pioneering SNCB poster was very different from the traditional 1957 NS poster. The front of a Benelux trainset was aptly captured in simple lines and planes. Despite a windmill as a symbol of Holland the poster was far from corny.
It was designed by André Pasture (1928-2006) who mainly worked for the Belgian railways from 1959 to 1980. The poster is the first one that includes features for which Pasture became well-known in the late 1960s: an open, white surface with an almost abstract depiction of a well-chosen symbol. The Helvetica lettering was carefully aligned.
Maybe Pasture's design was inspired by a Dutch Railways photograph. He did a lot of research to choose appropriate symbols. The NS photo showing a Benelux trainset near the Lageveen Mill at Lisse was made in early June 1962, while the SNCB poster was published in August of the same year. Judging from the pyramidal base, Pasture’s mill was a hollow post mill like the one at Lisse.
Where De Haan was quite literally drawing after Hessels' photos, Pasture only used them to get an idea which he then worked out in his own visual language.
The Benelux service was so successful that there were soon discussions about a new series of trainsets. Because of the dual traction problems with the dual tractions systems, it was decided to have separate locomotives and carriages. In 1974 a dining car was converted into a control car so that the locomotive did not need to be shunted on head ends.
In 1986 it was high time for a new Benelux train: Intercity stock in NS yellow and SNCB red colors, once again equipped with a control car and pushed-pulled by Belgian HLE 11 engines. Finally, in the last years of service, they ran with a new light livery and were hauled by TRAXX locomotives without control cars.
In late 2012 the Benelux train was discontinued in favor of the Fyra high-speed train. After fatal Fyra problems the Benelux train soon returned, albeit with lower frequency and running only from The Hague. In late 2014 it will start from Amsterdam again. In late 2016 a 'Benelux Plus' train will run on the high speed line.
After occasional domestic services, most Benelux trainsets were demolished around 1990. SNCB trainset 220.902 is the only surviving one. The Mat'54 Hondekop-Vier enthusiasts' foundation is negotiating with the SNCB to get the train to the Netherlands in order to restore it.
Photos and posters of the Dutch-Belgian Benelux trainsets
With special thanks to Nel Hessels and Cornelius Koelewijn.
J.M. ten Broek, Beneluxtreinstellen in: Op de Rails, 1988 nr. 5
Pieter Neirinckx, Affiches op het spoor, spoorwegaffiches in België 1833-1985, Tielt 2006
Heleen Vieveen en Henk Sijsling, Treindesign. De ontwikkeling van spoorwegmaterieel in Nederland, Amsterdam 1989
Roosendaal-Antwerpen elektrisch in: Nieuw Spoor, september 1957
Amsterdam - Brussel feestelijk ingewijd in: Nieuw Spoor, oktober 1957
Lex Hessels hing NS-kamera aan de bovenleiding in: De Koppeling nr. 515, juni 1974
Dutch Railway Museum/Geheugen van Nederland: Spoorwegen in Beeld
Het Utrechts Archief: Beeldmateriaal
Documentatie van Beeldende Kunst in Utrecht: Jan de Haan