Out and about on cargo trains

Train transport is an underexplored method for taking your goods to the hinterland in a (more) sustainable way. That's why we are tagging along for a day with a train from Crossrail going from Antwerp to Aachen.

A brake check keeps the train on track

The train operator picks up his locomotive in the morning from sidings group N. He then proceeds to the terminal where the railcars are ready and waiting for him. He couples the locomotive to the railcars but is not yet allowed to leave. An inspector conducts a thorough security check first. At full speed, a loaded train has a stopping distance of about 600 meters. But that only happens if every railcar brakes too. Before departure, they check the brakes on each one. Do the brake pads close properly and then release cleanly? The inspector subsequently organises the paperwork.


As the operator stops briefly to let us aboard, he receives a call from the train dispatcher. He is, in fact, blocking a level crossing. Fortunately, we drive on and there is no problem. We are even ahead of the train path, i.e. ahead of schedule. Ready to go! We depart while sounding the horns. There are no barriers in the port area when we cross a main road. We therefore provide an additional signal.

Treinrit met een goederentrein van Antwerpen naar Aken. Via het bedrijf Crossrail, met machinist Willem Ysenbaardt.

What kind of freight is on our plate?

Every day means a different train. Today we are hauling 440 meters of tank cars, carrying hazardous materials. You can recognise these by the horizontal orange stripe on the tank cars. We are using a diesel locomotive. The newer models are all electric. These are not only more sustainable but also nicer to drive. If you open the driving cabin door, you can no longer understand each other because of the noise from the diesel engine.


To get to Aachen, we need about 1,500 litres of diesel. That may seem like a lot until you calculate that every wagon we haul takes a truck off the road. With an electric locomotive, of course, there are no emissions at all.

Treinrit met een goederentrein van Antwerpen naar Aken. Via het bedrijf Crossrail, met machinist Willem Ysenbaardt.

On our way on the railway

If you know your route well, you can drive more economically. The speed limit through Lier station is 40 kph, so you can safely drive over the sidings. With the weight of the train, you can easily freewheel for a few kilometres. So, there is no point in using the engine in the miles before Lier. Then we drive back towards Germany at 90 kph. This is not done by accelerating, but by using a lever to adjust the engine's traction.


Cargo traffic in Belgium runs on the same tracks as passenger traffic. Passenger transport, however, always has priority. If you are on time, the train path ensures you can pass without a fuss. If you are behind schedule, you may have to stop somewhere to let a passenger train through.


Het koppelstuk tussen een locomotief en een wagon van een goederentrein van Crossrail.

Better safe than sorry

Safety is very important. Especially if you're thundering along the railways with a dangerous load. There are several systems in place to ensure that nothing goes wrong. The deadman's switch mainly checks to ensure that the operator is still alive. It is a pedal, which he has to release for a moment every 30 seconds. If he fails to do this, a light comes on and then an alarm goes off. Then, if there is still no sign of life, the train automatically stops.


It is important to stay alert. The use of multimedia is strictly prohibited. With a braking distance of 600 meters, you need to ensure you can react as quickly as possible. That's why there are signals along the railways. Everything on green? Then you can just keep driving. At a red signal, you must stop, but these are always announced first by a restrictive signal (a combination with a yellow light) so that there is enough room to slow down. Each time the train passes a restrictive signal, the driver must indicate with a lever that he has seen it. If he does not, the train again comes to an automatic stop.

Treinrit met een goederentrein van Antwerpen naar Aken. Via het bedrijf Crossrail, met machinist Willem Ysenbaardt.

Left? Right?

An additional difficulty: in Belgium, trains run on the left. That's because we were the first country in continental Europe to have a railway. Only the United Kingdom was ahead of us and they are known for driving on the left. We then adopted those rules out of convenience. Unfortunately, it now creates an additional challenge because when you cross the border into Germany, you suddenly have to keep an eye on the signals on the right.

Arrival in Aachen

When we arrive at Aachen-West marshalling yard, the train operator uncouples the locomotive. After a few checks and filling out the appropriate paperwork, we leave the train there. Each country has its own rules and signals on railways. Our operator is authorised to drive trains in Belgium and on the stretch of track up to Aachen. A Crossrail colleague, responsible for the rest of Germany, will run the train to Frankfurt with another locomotive.


We park the locomotive at a dead end. That will be taken back to the Antwerp port area by another Crossrail colleague. We return to Antwerp using a Crossrail car; it takes us an hour and a half.


A career in top gear

To become a cargo train driver, you have to take additional training. It's vital as you must learn the rules and signals you will encounter on the German railway up to Aachen. In addition, you must always be fluent in the language of the region through which you are passing. So on the route from Antwerp to Aachen, you must be able to speak Dutch, French and German.


Compared to passenger transport, you have less time pressure and you don't have to stop as often. So it is more relaxed. Our train operator also loves the freedom that comes with the job. You don't have a boss looking over your shoulder all the time. Although that freedom corresponds with a great deal of responsibility too. It's up to you to make sure you do your job well.


You must also be flexible in your hours. Today, the shift started at 3am. But that also means being done with work by noon. There are legal standards related to rest time that must be respected. If two shifts are scheduled soon after one another, you may get to stay at a hotel!

The inside of the locomotive of a freight train from Crossrail.

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