For a small nation, Belgium’s wide range of languages and cultural influences can be a tricky concept to navigate. Luckily, the railway network in the country wonderfully links all of this together, meaning that exploring Belgium is quite straightforward. Read on to find out how trains in Belgium work, the great cities you can visit and how you can get to them by train.
The train network in Belgium is run by the SNCB which stands for Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges, and means National Society of Belgian Railways. As Belgium is also a Dutch (Flemish) speaking nation, you’ll also see and hear the SNCB referred to as the Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen (NMBS). It’s a good idea to get to grips with the Flemish and French names as this could be confusing if you’re a first-time traveler in Belgium.
As well as the SNCB, the other major train operating companies in Belgium are Thalys, Eurostar, Deutsche Banh’s ICE trains and TGV (SNCF). Thalys is a Franco-Belgian company running French TGV trains between Paris and Brussels with some journeys traveling on to Amsterdam or Cologne. Belgian domestic tickets are not valid, and special fares apply, with compulsory seat reservations. If you are heading to London, Lille or Amsterdam from Belgium you can take the Eurostar. The Eurostar has fast become the preference over flying for skipping along to England, France and Holland, and doesn’t take a great deal longer if you factor in the check-in times. German ICE trains (InterCity Express) run between Brussels, Liege, Aachen, Cologne and Frankfurt several times a day. These are also ticketed separately, and domestic Belgian tickets are not valid.
High-speed trains are used mostly on cross-country journeys from Brussels, Liege and Antwerp towards cities in France, Germany and The Netherlands. Most high-speed services in the country are split between Thalys, Eurostar, InterCityExpress (ICE), EuroCity and TGV. As an example of how quickly you can get around in Europe, a Thalys service from Brussels to Cologne could take as little as 1h 50mins. That’s city centre to city centre in just under two hours. A plane may be faster but once you add up the airport transfers, check-in time and airport terminal food etc. taking a high-speed train could work out to be a better deal for your wallet, time and your peace of mind.
Overnight and sleeper trains in Belgium are unfortunately a thing of the past. With the longest train journey in the country clocking in at a minuscule two hours plus, sleeper trains have been slowly and sadly phased out due to lack of demand. Despite this, some independent companies occasionally run one-off nostalgic train journeys through the night. A lot of trains in the Flemish regions of Belgium are double-decker, so head one flight up to enjoy spectacular views, even if only by day.
If you arrive in Belgium by plane, it’s highly likely that you’ll be landing at Brussels Zaventem Airport or Antwerp International Airport. You’ll find easy connections from Brussels Zaventem Airport to Brussels Central station as well as trains from Brussels Zaventem Airport to Brussels-Midi station (Brussels-South in English). Either journey takes less than half an hour and leaves you perfectly placed in the centre of town, where inner-city transport connections are frequent and plentiful.
If you’re travelling on a budget or prefer the open road over train tracks, we also sell bus and coach tickets for some of the most popular routes in Belgium. International bus companies such as Flixbus can take you from one point to another in Belgium if you’re not short on time. To go from one of Belgium’s biggest cities to other locations in Europe, Ouibus and Eurolines both have extensive cross-country coach and bus networks that can get you there. Travelling by bus is an affordable way of exploring Belgium and most coaches come equipped with comfortable seating, air-conditioning and WiFi connections.
There are four main services run by the SNCB and on tickets, on arrival and departure boards and on our booking system, they are usually abbreviated by letters. They are Intercity (IC), Train D’Heure de Pointe/Piekuurtrein (P), Local (L) and the Reseau Express Regional/Gewestelijk Expresnet (S).
IC (Intercity) trains are the most common train service in Belgium and travel short distances between the major cities in the country and there are some services to neighbouring countries such as Germany, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. They have both First and Second Class seats and the carriages are open-plan by design. Many of the trains used on Intercity services can also be found on Local (L) trains, both train services being separated only by the number of stops on journeys. IC trains shouldn’t be confused with ICE (InterCity Express) trains which also operate in Belgium but are an international service.
Local or L trains connect Belgium’s provincial towns and villages with destinations such as Brussels, Liege and Antwerp. L trains stop regularly but make reaching otherwise remote locations, however, they also provide a great link to the Intercity (IC) network.
Train D’Heure de Pointe (P) means “rush hour trains” and they provide relief to the train network during busy times. Predictably, they only run during early mornings and late afternoons and seat reservations aren’t possible, but you can select either First or Second class seats. (P) trains use different models of trains to help the ease congestion and even out the railway network in Belgium.
Reseau Express Regional (S) trains run on mostly suburban lines in and around the capital Brussels. S trains operate at regular and frequent intervals and because of this, reservations aren’t possible on this service. They also have space to transport bicycles and newer models also come equipped with power sockets. Reseau Express Regional trains are sometimes called the RER in French or GEN in Flemish (Dutch).
Buying and collecting train tickets in Belgium is easy to do. You can usually buy a ticket on the day of travel (at a machine at the station or from a ticket office) as the prices stay the same regardless if they are purchased in advance or not.
One-way domestic tickets are valid on any Belgian Railways (SNCB) train on the date for which they are issued. A round trip is twice the price of a one-way and is only valid on the date for which is issued unless it's a weekend return. Belgian train ticket prices are fixed and are calculated based on distance rather than the time of the day or seasonality.
Travelling in First Class will usually cost around 50% more than Second Class and gets you nicer and more comfortable seating. That usually means more leg and elbow room, and in some trains, carpet rather than synthetic flooring. Due to the short distances trains in Belgium cover, most regional trains don’t offer any form of onboard catering but you will find this available on most cross-country routes.
If you've got restless feet, spread your wings and fly around Belgium by train. Here are some good reasons to buy a Rail Pass instead of individual tickets.
If you’re planning on making multiple train journeys within Belgium, then an Interrail Pass (for EU residents) or a Eurail Pass (non-EU citizens) may be your best bet. The main benefit of one of these passes is that Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg all count as one country, The Benelux.
That’s three countries to explore for the price of a One Country Pass. Once you’ve seen all that Belgium has to offer, you can use your Interrail or Eurail Pass to sample the likes of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Luxembourg City to name but a few wonderful destinations.
Rail Passes are a great way to save some cash by consolidating all the single tickets in your planned itinerary into one, more affordable option. They also offer the option of flexible train travel should you decide to add new destinations to your trip at the drop of a hat.
There are loads of amazing places you can visit by train in Belgium, and the interconnected rail network makes travelling through the country quick and easy. To find some inspiration on where to go, check out these city highlights below.
Grand-Place / Marollen / Zavel / Etterbeek
Home of the European Union, Belgium’s capital is a delight for food, art and beer lovers. In recent years, Brussels is also making a name for itself as a must-visit destination for fans of music and the arts.
Discover trains to Brussels.
Belfry of Bruges / Rozenhoedkaai / Minnewater Lake
Bruges is a lively destination built on its fishing trade history which is still flourishing today. Be prepared to be dazzled by its winding canals, cobbled streets and medieval architecture.
Discover trains to Bruges.
Rubenshuis / Museum aan de Stroom / Antwerp Port / Grote Markt
The port city of Antwerp is a real example of Flemish architecture and tradition and a great getaway alternative to Brussels and Bruges. Come see Belgium’s Dutch influences for yourself.
Discover trains to Antwerp.
Patershol / Werregarenstraat / Kouter flower market / St Bavo’s Cathedral
Ghent is Belgium’s best kept secret but is slowly becoming a hub of tourist activity. A mixture of fabulous Canalside architecture, quirky bars and Belgium’s most fascinating museums are just a few of the reasons why.
Discover trains to Ghent.
Oude markt / Brewery tours / Arenberg Park / Mechelsestraat
If Belgium is well-known internationally for its beers, then Leuven is where Belgians go for their brews. A historic town just east of Brussels, Leuven is also famous for its university and gothic architecture.
Discover trains to Leuven.
If you haven't already learnt enough about trains in Belgium, we've added these extra handy tips and FAQs to make your life just that little bit sweeter.
On all SNCB trains (Reseau Express Regional/Gewestelijk Expresnet, Train D’Heure de Pointe/Piekuurtrein, InterCity and Local), making a reservation isn’t possible. For ICE and EuroCity services, reservation is optional but Eurostar, TGV and Thalys trains require a reservation.
You can break up your train journey with Belgian train tickets. You can do this if the station you stop at is part of the planned route and you complete your trip on the same day.
You don’t need a passport to travel by train from Belgium to most destinations in Europe if you’re an EU citizen. For those visiting from other parts of the world, it’s best to carry a valid passport or form of identity with you at all times.
At larger train stations in Belgium, there are luggage lockers and staffed left luggage desks where you can leave your suitcases and heavier items. At Brussels-Midi for example, you’ll find these facilities next to the Thalys reception and Eurostar check-in areas. At smaller stations in rural Belgium, you find these services less and less.
Most major train stations in Belgium will have English-speaking staff but, in case you can’t find anyone nearby, here are some important words you should look out for on the arrivals/departures board:
On time - à l’heure (French) - op tijd (Dutch - Flemish)
Delay – retard - vertraging
Cancelled – annulé - geannuleerd
Platform – quai - spoor
Ticket counters/booth - guichets - ticketloket
Train service – nature – aard
Leaving from – en provenance de – verlaten van
Going to – à destination de – gaan naar