The Vennbahn: Belgium’s railway through Germany

Information was mainly compiled in January 1995, with some updating to 3 February 2000.
The subsequent withdrawal of the tourist service is also noted.
Much of the information is owed to Trans-fer, the excellent French-language quarterly magazine of the GTF, Liège, Belgium, to whom thanks are especially due.

History has left the Vennbahn, today a preserved rural railway running steam-hauled tourist trains, with a unique status under international law as a corridor of one country's sovereign territory passing through the territory of another.

The notes below concentrate on what remains of the Vennbahn, SNCB Line 48 Raeren - Roetgen - Lammersdorf - Konzen - Monschau/Montjoie - Kalterherberg - Sourbrodt - Weywertz/Wévercé - Waimes. They also mention three associated routes still in use, SNCB Line 49 Eupen - Raeren; SNCB Line 45A Weywertz - Butgenbach - Bullange/Büllingen - Losheimergraben SNCB (- Losheim DB - Jünkerath) and SNCB Line 45 Waimes - Malmédy - Stavelot - Trois Ponts.

1882-1918 - A German Act of 15 May 1882 prescribed construction of three railways: a main line from Aachen (Röthe Erde) via Walheim, Raeren and Monschau to St.Vith and Prüm; a secondary line from Raeren (or nearby) to Eupen; and a third from Walheim (or nearby) to Stolberg. This statute set the scene for what came to be known as the Vennbahn (meaning, roughly, the Fen Line, because it traverses the Hohes Venn or Hautes Fagnes, some high but marshy terrain, much of it today being a nature reserve). The first section of main line, 48km in length from Aachen to Monschau, was opened on 30 June 1885, only three years after the Act, such were the pressures from the local population to connect up their peripheral region with the rest of the German Empire. Two large civil engineering works were needed near Aachen, the viaducts over the Rollefbachtal near Brand (128m long, 24m high) and over the Iterbachtal near Körnelimunster (130m long, 22m high). On 3 August 1887 the line was opened from Raeren to Eupen, and on to Herbesthal, a junction (just to the east of Welkenraedt) which was then the westmost point in Germany on the existing Aachen - Liège international main line, but which is now well inside Belgium. Local industrial interests in Stolberg then pressed for the 13km link to Walheim, and it was duly opened on 21 December 1889, after some delay while a large viaduct, the Falkenbachbrücke (145m long, 23m high), was completed south of Breinig station. The three lines were typical of the German local branch line (Nebenbahn) of the time: single-track, built at modest cost, economical in the use of earthworks and bridges, and somewhat sinuous with stiff gradients. Operation too was less than lavish: four or five trains a day each way as a rule, slow and calling at all stations, but with guaranteed connections at each junction.

Though the Vennbahn reached a summit of 550m and had a ruling gradient of 1 in 60, as it extended southwards its industrial traffic grew. The link from Lommersweiler to Ulflingen (now Troisvierges, in Luxembourg) was important. Coke and coal came south from Germany for the expanding steel industry of Luxembourg and Lorraine, balanced by northbound iron ore, large deposits of which were discovered in Lorraine about that time, which went to supply the raw-material needs of industry in the Ruhr area. The Vennbahn soon faced capacity problems, and around the end of the century it was doubled in stages as follows: Stolberg - (1906) - Walheim - (1897) - Raeren - (1894) - Lammersdorf - (1902) - Monschau - (1908) - Sourbrodt - (1906) - Lommersweiler - (?1914) - Pronsfeld - (1908) - Gerolstein. The catalyst was perhaps the German Empire's bellicose intentions towards France. The Germans, examining the possibility of future invasion of neighbouring territories, wanted high-capacity rail links to their western frontiers, and steadily set about upgrading existing lines and building new ones. Intermediate stations were systematically enlarged, and provided with sidings suitable for unloading military equipment and with long loops for holding complete trains, all in order to give maximum flexibility of operation. During World War I the Vennbahn and associated lines were intensively used by the German army, and augmented by a number of new lines, notably Aachen - Botzelaer - Montzen - Visé - Tongeren to the north, and both Born - Vielsalm and St.Vith - Gouvy to the south.

1919-1940 - The German defeat in 1918 and the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles completely changed the political map of the region. The international border was moved eastward, and former German territory including the district (Kreis) of Eupen and the district of Malmédy became part of Belgium. The junction of Raeren became the Belgian railway frontier station and the junction of Walheim its German equivalent. South of Raeren the situation was legally quite complex. Article 27 of the Versailles Treaty had described the new frontier in a general way, but Article 35 charged an international commission, of seven members, with fixing the exact frontiers to take into account local economic factors and communication links. From 23 January 1920 to 4 January 1923 the commission laboured, particularly over the problem of one section of railway: Raeren - Roetgen - Lammersdorf - Konzen - Monschau - Kalterherberg. Even though some of the lands to the west of the line were part of Kreis Monschau, which was to remain in Germany, Belgium claimed sovereignty over the trackbed of this part of the Vennbahn. The Belgians reckoned that the line was at the time an essential communication route for the eastern territory given them by the Treaty, inasmuch as it linked the ceded districts from north to south, and they argued that the line was therefore Belgian property. The commission agreed, and the Raeren - Kalterherberg section of the Vennbahn was ceded provisionally to Belgium on 1 November 1921. It took a further year of negotiations to resolve differences and reach the definitive agreement of 6 November 1922 which provided for the incorporation into Belgium of "the trackbed, with its buildings, of the railway from Raeren to Kalterherberg, which in crossing the districts of Aachen and of Monschau forms five enclaves which remain part of Germany" (at Roetgen, Lammersdorf, Konzen, Mützenich and Ruitzhof).

The Vennbahn thus became a Belgian railway from Raeren southward to Steinebrück, running as an exclave of Belgian territory between Raeren and Kalterherberg, and therefore having five stations - Roetgen, Lammersdorf, Konzen, Monschau and Kalterherberg itself - serving settlements in a foreign country. For the actual running of a railway under this unique legal arrangement, numerous special provisions had to be put down on paper, guaranteeing various rights both of Belgium as the sovereign state and of the German population who continued to be served by the Raeren - Kalterherberg line. The German names of the five stations (eg, Monschau rather than Montjoie) were retained. German or Belgian currency could be used to pay fares or freight charges. Members of the public venturing on to railway land for railway purposes were subject to no Belgian police or customs control. Conversely, Belgians living on Belgian railway land and working for the railway (or at station buffets or newpaper stalls) were exempt from all German laws, taxes and entry and exit formalities for items for their own use coming from Belgium. German railway rules about ticket-offices, waiting-rooms, notice-boards, left-luggage etc were all accepted by the Belgian railways. Travellers to German destinations continued to benefit from internal German tariffs and printed tickets remained available as before. All trains were run by the Belgian state railways. Passenger trains, all with 2nd, 3rd and 4th class coaches, ran between Aachen and St.Vith, calling at all stations between Raeren and Kalterherberg, with customs control by both countries at both ends of the section. At both ends, too, passengers, luggage and parcels bound for Belgian destinations were placed in special vehicles equipped with customs locks and unsealed only after the transit. Goods trains between Raeren and Kalterherberg ran through without stopping on their way to St.Vith. If they had wagons for one of the four intermediate stations, they left these at Raeren or Kalterherberg for customs examination and subsequent forwarding by a local pick-up goods train running between Walheim and Kalterherberg. By 1925 enlarged facilities at Raeren included four platforms, an enlarged goods yard, some ten holding sidings, two signal-boxes and German-style semaphore signals. A new west-to-south curve (Y Rott - Y Periol) was built to allow Belgian traffic from the Herbesthal direction and Eupen to reach the Vennbahn without going through the Raeren customs zone. This was particularly used by Belgian military trains serving Elsenborn Camp, near Sourbrodt station and linked to it by a 600mm-gauge roadside tramway. Passage of these trains along the Vennbahn caused a number of incidents, and much grinding of teeth on the part of the German villagers, especially once they came under the influence of Nazi propagandists. After 1935 the Belgian army thought it prudent to re-route many of these military trains via Trois-Ponts and Weywertz to avoid ‘provocation’.

With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s Vennbahn traffic fell. Nazi Germany was no longer handing over war reparations material as provided for in the Versailles Treaty, and all coal and coke transit traffic via the Vennbahn ceased. The financial crisis of 1929 slowed down economic activity everywhere, and railway goods traffic soon felt the effects. SNCB, already grappling with falling profitability, made a proposal to Deutsche Reichsbahn (as provided for in the 1922 agreement) that Raeren - Kalterherberg be singled. With reluctance, and some Nazi-inspired ill-will, DR agreed, on condition that the train service was not reduced or adversely affected. Raeren - Lammersdorf was singled from 1 February 1937 and Lammersdorf - Kalterherberg in 1938. The Raeren - Walheim section remained double, and DR opened a new station at Schmithof between the frontier and Walheim on 6 October 1929.

1940-2000 - On 18 May 1940 Adolf Hitler ordered that Belgium’s Cantons de l’Est be reannexed by the German Reich, and the Vennbahn was triumphantly returned to service as a wholly German line once more on 2 June 1940, and saw much use supplying the German army. General von Rundstedt's Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-45 very severely damaged the Vennbahn, along with much of the SNCB network. Scarcely a railway bridge was spared by the military, and it was not until 1947 that the Vennbahn, repaired with such materials as were to hand, could be reopened. Lines not reopened were St.Vith - Gouvy, Born - Vielsalm, and Lommersweiler - Reuland, so no transit freight or mineral traffic to and from Luxembourg was possible over the Vennbahn after World War II. Schmithof was served by DB Schienenbus from Aachen and Stolberg until 29 May 1960 and Walheim from Stolberg until 1962, but ordinary passenger service was never restored on the Schmithof - Raeren - Weywertz sections. On the Raeren - Kalterherberg - Sourbrodt section the only passenger trains were occasional troop trains for Allied military exercises at Elsenborn Camp.

A new international agreement was signed in Bruxelles on 10 December 1973 to take effect on 1 February 1974, much simplifying the 1922 agreement. In particular it confirmed that passenger traffic from the five Belgian stations serving Kreis Monschau would be limited to special trains, while preserving the rights of German freight customers at these stations. Freight traffic had stabilised at a modest level in the 1950s and 1960s, and Raeren - Sourbrodt had a thrice-weekly pick-up goods train, starting in Montzen, until the 1980s. Raeren - Sourbrodt military trains for Elsenborn Camp ceased after 31 August 1988 when the SNCB civil engineer reckoned the state of the track too poor. By 1989 there was still timber and fertiliser traffic at Roetgen, and traffic from a cooking-stove firm, Junker, who had a private siding at Lammersdorf, but the poor state of the track caused complete closure of the Raeren - Sourbrodt section after 30 June 1989.

A proposed colour-light resignalling of Raeren saw equipment delivered, but the scheme was cancelled, leaving the station with its traditional German semaphores. Meagre international freight traffic between Raeren and Stolberg continued, mainly because tunnels limited the transport of exceptional loads, such as large military vehicles, on the two other nearby cross-border lines, the (Liège -) Welkenraedt - Herbesthal - Aachen Hbf (- Köln) InterCity route and Montzen - Botzelaer - Aachen West. However, with a gauntletted third track laid through Botzelaer tunnel able to take the exceptional loads from 2 June 1991, Raeren - Walheim - Stolberg lost its principal raison d'être, and SNCB proposed complete closure of Raeren from that date.

In 1990 the local authorities comprising the German-speaking community of Belgium however saw the value of the railway in attracting tourist revenue to the Cantons de l’Est and, with a grant from the European Regional Development Fund, they paid for work on the track to enable summer-weekend tourist trains to run from Eupen (connecting there with SNCB ordinary passenger services) to Raeren (where trains reversed, since the west-to-south curve has been removed) and by the Vennbahn to Weywertz (for another reversal), terminating at Büllingen on the line to Jünkerath, or proceeding direct from Weywertz to Malmédy and Trois Ponts. Since summer 1993, some of these trains were steam-hauled, using an oil-fired ex-Deutsche Reichsbahn 2-10-0 Class 50 Kriegslok, #50 3666, built in Belgium, at La Croyère near La Louvière, by Societé Franco-Belge in 1942, and overhauled in 1992 at Meiningen. This tourist service has since been withdrawn.

In 1988 the Weywertz - Büllingen - Losheimergraben SNCB - Losheim DB - Jünkerath line, and in 1989 the Weywertz - Waimes - Trois-Ponts line, were reopened to bring NATO military trains to Sourbrodt for Elsenborn Camp, and these passenger workings have remained over the years occasional users of the Vennbahn's Weywertz - Sourbrodt section. More recently, the lines round Weywertz have also seen some freight use. Since 1997 regular trains have been conveying raw timber from Eastern Europe, transhipped from coastal vessels and forwarded via Trois Ponts and Weywertz, to be unloaded first at Sourbrodt and later on the running line at Büllingen, for the nearby sawmill. On the debit side it seems unlikely that future military trains will arrive from Germany for Elsenborn. By the beginning of 2000 DB had given notice that they planned to close completely (Losheimergraben SNCB -) Losheim DB - Jünkerath, and the Belgian government had agreed they retained no strategic defence interest in maintaining their Weywertz - Losheimergraben SNCB (- Losheim) section.