42 miles of interurban bliss

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Saturday, November 03, 2018

Hugging the North Sea coastline of the Belgian province of West Flanders lies the world’s longest tram (light rail in North American parlance) line, the Coast Tram (Kusttram in Dutch). It is in fact one of the world’s last remaining interurban railways — one of a rare breed of rail line that acts as a streetcar within a city or town (running in mixed traffic down a busy commercial street) then stretches its legs on an exclusive right of way between towns before becoming a streetcar again in the next settlement. The next time you are in Belgium, the Netherlands or northeast France, it is worth devoting at least one day to taking in this unique service that is both a scenic touring vehicle and workaday people-mover.

Kusttram hugging the North Sea just southwest of Ostend, Belgium. Photo by De Lijn.
It would take over 2.5 hours to ride the entire 42-mile line end to end, but with service every 15 minutes in both directions during the day, an unlimited-ride day pass that costs €4.00 ($4.57 USD), and so many attractive seaside cities to explore and enjoy, it is worth taking one’s time and being ready to hop off when a passing sight strikes one’s fancy. The line is meter-gauge (3 feet, 3 3/8 inches) and is serviced mostly by 1980s-built double-articulated light rail vehicles. Stops are spaced about every one to two kilometers along the line and are all request stops. Kusttram connects conveniently at both ends (Knokke on the north/east and De Panne on the south/west), as well as at two midpoints (Oostende/Ostend and Blankenberge), with the Belgian intercity passenger train network operated by SNCB, with at least hourly service to Ghent and Brussels. 

The first parts of the line that became Kusttram were completed in 1885 in order to develop (the railroad carried construction materials) and ease access to new seaside resorts. Funds for the railroad and the attendant development came from King Leopold II’s brutal conquests in the Congo. The king especially favored De Haan, where Belgium’s first golf course opened in 1902. Development was interrupted during World War I, when the coast became a military zone, but the rest of the line was built in phases before and after the war and completed in 1926. For most of its history, trams only ran once hourly, with some additional service in the summer, but service was expanded in the 1980s. Kusttram carried a record number of passengers in July 2016 with 2.02 million boardings.

A westbound tram passes my eastbound in Koksijde-Bad on Sept. 17, seen from the large rear window. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
I spent a sunny, balmy Monday riding Kusttram northward from De Panne. I stopped for 90 minutes and lunch in Nieuwpoort and for another 90 minutes in Oostende to walk around the city before riding through to Knokke. Every tram I boarded was well-patronized, with most passengers riding between a smaller town and a larger city. I wish I had planned more time to hop off at other points. I spent my rides camped out in the rear banquette seat of the double-articulated light rail vehicle, which sits next to a large rear-facing window, taking in the ever-changing scenery that included modern high-rise neighborhoods, older commercial streets, woodlands, and stretches where the tracks are in the sand at the very edge of the beach. Everyone I spoke with — employees of De Lijn (the regional transit agency that operates Kusttram), restaurant servers and shopkeepers — spoke some English, though if you don’t know any Dutch, it would be helpful to have the Google Translate app on your smartphone, or you can get by with French.

Here are a couple of helpful travel guide articles, but based on my experience (as the rear of north/eastbound trams faces into the sun and the window acts as a greenhouse, making the rear seat uncomfortably warm), I would recommend starting at Knokke and riding in the south/westward direction. One of the first places I would get off to walk about is at De Haan aan Zee. Before you get there, note the two bridges over the locks that connect the North Sea with inland shipping canals, and the switches where another tram line seems to diverge from the one your tram takes. At both the Pierre Vandamme and Visart locks, the line splits so that parallel tracks cross parallel bridges. This is so that trams can divert around an open drawbridge or swing bridge. 

The station at De Haan aan Zee, seen from the rear of my departing eastbound tram on Sept. 17. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
De Haan aan Zee boasts a graceful Art Nouveau train station surrounded by a charming town center of turn-of-the-20th-century Belle Epoque architecture. You can enjoy a meal or drinks at a cafe here, or walk 10 minutes to the beach where there are a handful of seaside restaurants. When it’s time to continue your tram journey towards De Panne, you will cross over one more lock where the tram line diverges (Voltdok lock) before arriving in Ostend, the largest city on the Flemish coast. I’d recommend walking around here (as I did), taking in the beautiful train station, the promenade along the harbor and sea, and the bustling city streets — and perhaps also the aquarium, city museum and/or modern art museum.

Kusttram passing the harbor in Ostend, two blocks from the train station. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Just past Ostend towards De Panne is where the Kusttram hugs the edge of the beach for about three miles before entering the next town, Middelkerke. Another five miles past here, you will arrive in Nieuwpoort (Newport). I’d recommend disembarking at Nieuwpoort-Bad, just past the city center, where you can take in the seaside promenade and mix of old and new architecture, and there are a number of restaurants and shops. After spending time in Nieuwpoort, you can ride the rest of the way to De Panne (where the tram stops across the platform from the SNCB train to Ghent) or stop over in Koksijde or Saint-Idesbald. 

In the early twentieth century, North America abounded in interurban railways that connected small towns to larger cities with fast, frequent service in the same way that Kusttram does today. But all levels of government here enacted policies that privileged and subsidized the automobile to a point where interurbans could not compete, and all except northwest Indiana’s South Shore Line went out of business. Luckily, it is still possible to experience interurban travel — and the walkable communities that grow around it — across the ocean.

A tram on layover sits between an SNCB intercity train across the platform (left) and a De Lijn regional bus (right). In addition to the world's longest tramway, De Lijn also operates an extensive bus network that connects many small villages and rural areas in Flanders. This and all subsequent photos taken Sept. 17, 2018 by Malcolm Kenton.

Two fellow passengers bring their bicycles on board the tram.

Trams meet at Nieuwpoort-Bad station.

My eastbound tram rounding a tight curve leaving Nieuwpoort.

The tram right of way down the middle of Koningsstraat ('King Street') on the west side of Ostend.

The tram right of way consists of the grassy median of Elizabetlaan passing through the seaside town of Heist.

Having arrived at Knokke, the line's east end, a tram rounds the loop to return westward. The Knokke train station is two blocks south of this loop (to the right of this photo).

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