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The Story of the Vennbahn

Welcome to the story of Vennbahn – the world’s only railway that belonged to one country, yet was inside another.

The Vennbahn (meaning Fen Railway) is a now-defunct Belgian railway that used to form several small pockets of Germany inside Belgium. In fact, the very last section of former trackbed between Auel and Oudler is currently being asphalted. When completed, all 128km of the Vennbahn will have become one of Europe’s longest public cycling routes, but that won’t affect its unique enclave-forming capacity.

Here it is important to note that, under the current international regulations, not just the track, but five metres of land on either side of it, along with all the buildings and installations, belong to the country that owns the railway.

Built in 1889 as a fully German railway, Vennbahn was given to Belgium by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of the First World War. After some years of deliberation, a special international commission agreed that “the trackbed, with its buildings between Raeren and Kalterherbert”, was to be ceded to Belgium, whereas the resulting five enclaves between the line and the Belgian border were to remain part of Germany.

The German names of all five stations onthe stretch were retained, freight charges and fares could be paid in either German or Belgian currency, and countless German regulations about ticket-offices, waiting rooms, notice boards and left luggage were accepted by the Belgians. Both countries ran customs controls for both German and Belgian passengers at both ends of the section. And whereas conductors, pointsmen and other ‘minor’ railway workers could be either Belgian or German, the train drivers had to be Belgian nationals.

On the 18th May 1940, Hitler ordered that Belgium’s former German regions be re-annexed, and the Vennbahn was triumphantly returned to service as a fully German railway. During the Second World War, it was in regular use supplying the German army until it was all but destroyed by the Allied offensive in the winter of 1944-45. Scarcely a viaduct was spared, and it was not until 1947 that the Vennbahn was partially reopened under its previous (Belgian) ownership.

By 1990, the railway was no longer commercially viable, and the local community was trying to raise money to transform it into a tourist attraction – a kind of would-be ‘happy end’ for the world’s only railway to belong to one country, yet run across another. That unique status had been preserved until now, despite the complete cessation of all railway activities in 2008, due to a special bilateral agreement, according to which the former trackbed, (even if no longer in use), will stay Belgian - which in turn means that the German enclaves will remain intact too.

In 2003/04, the southern end of line was still operating as a railway, however, further north at Raeren station, the only trains moving were on the screen-saver of an old computer in the office of Edgar Hungs, the line’s acting manager at the time!

Herr Hungs was then Vennbahn’s only employee. His German company, with the tongue-breaking name ‘Eisenbahn-Bau Betriebs-Satisfizierung AG’, had just taken over the troubled historic railway from a state-run Belgian enterprise, which had gone bust.  Herr Hungs was now facing the difficult task of turning the railway around by hiring a new workforce, finding new investors and changing Vennbahn’s whole image.  Something he didn’t manage to do, unfortunately!

Today, only the station building survives, which, although on Belgian territory, is typically Prussian in its design and architecture – a reminder of Vennbahn’s ‘enclave-forming’ nature.

The Vennbahn has not disappeared entirely as an odd geopolitical phenomenon, and it is hoped that at least some of the carefree German and Belgian bikers peddling along the new asphalted cycle path will remember the uniqueness of the very ground they are riding on.

The last train to operate over the line (partially) was on the 7th August 2004, when a special excursion ran from Brussels Midi via Trois Ponts to Sourbrodt, plus the connected branch line to Büllingen. The train was billed as ‘Adieu a la Vennbahn’, and was hauled by locomotives belonging to both SNCB (Belgian Railways) and CFL (Luxembourg Railways).

On the 28th April 2012, one final train did reach Raeren, (although arriving from the direction of Liège/Eupen in Belgium). However, by this date, the rails beyond the station which connected into the Vennbahn, had long since succumbed to the encroaching undergrowth.

As a footnote, it is known that a small group of members from The L&CI were on both of these trips, although at the time, they probably didn’t realise their place in history

© Text Stuart Smith

From the December 2019 Newsletter