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My favourite tramlines 12 February 2020

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  1. The Lisbon 28. 
    Lisbon is a paradise both for the vehicles (with controllers marked ‘Wolverhampton 1904’) and the crazy switchback routes. The 28 winds up the hill from Rua do Conceição in Baixa past the cathedral and up to the viewpoint above Alfama at St Tomé. The viewpoint is also a squeezepoint, with 4 tracks converging into a single one [photo] as the 12 and 28 diverge. Trams chase each other like something out Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom. Just after the fork the 28 squeezes along a street so narrow the tracks have to interlace with each other, penetrating the maze where no bus would be safe. It’s great that Lisbon has now realised what an asset its trams are, and in 2018 persuaded the operator Carris to reopen part of line 24. Further extensions are planned. See Wikipedia for an excellent historical map.
  2. San Francisco Powell-Mason cable car.
    Whoever moved heaven and earth to preserve this line were geniuses. It must be one of the city’s biggest tourist magnets. It’s a unique technology, powered by cables running in ducts under the road at a steady 9 mph. At the termini, the cars are rotated on hand-pushed turntables. An arcane problem arises where the line intersects the California St line while going up a steep hill. How do you keep grip on the cable when another cable is crossing at right angles? The solution is that the line makes a shallow dip as it crosses California, and as the car approaches the crossing, the ‘gripman’ driops the cable, coasts across the junction and then picks it up again. This must require iron nerves and immaculate timing. You can see the giant cable drums and tensioners that power the system at the Car Barn near the junction of Mason and Washington Streets.
  3. I can’t leave out the Brussels 81, on which I’ve been commuting on and off for 34 years. Nothing modern about this line, which describes a semicircle round the southern side of the city centre, connecting working-class areas of St-Gilles and Etterbeek with Midi and Merode stations. In its central section, it winds through narrow streets, some cobbled, and dips into tunnel, but at either end gets room to breathe in a central reservation. I think it has only survived because it forms the only link above-ground link between the eastern part of the network, including the Woluwe tram museum, and the city centre. It’s therefore a good place to see (and hear) museum trams. A curiosity is the looping figure of 8 tracks that connect its Montgomery terminus with the 39/44 tracks to Woluwe. Over the last few years, STIB/MTUB has had the spare vehicles to intensify the timetable, and the line has got much busier. Stops have been moved and lengthened so that it can accommodate the 43-metre low-floor Flexities. So it’s now a viable inner-city ring line. But it also encapsulates the soul of the city, and at one time had a community newspaper named after it.
  4. A total contrast is Amsterdam’s line 26, the IJtram. Built in 2005 as the lifeline of the new suburb of IJburg, an archipelago of artificial islands in the IJsselmeer east of the city, it was originally going to be a metro, and has express characteristics – it runs at up to 70 km/hr, on reserved track of course, and has widely-spaced stops. It’s the only tram in town that will carry your bicycle. As IJburg has grown, capacity has had to grow to match, although nowadays you can also escape from IJburg by a bus connection at its eastern end. Peak headway is now every 3 minutes, and in 2020 GVB plans to introduce coupled sets. At Centraal station it has two alternative terminal loops – the normal one at the front, and an emergency one on the IJ side, just underneath the new Eurostar terminal.

Walk-on part 14 April 2019

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Toby at Pro Europa rally 10 Apr 19

I have just been amazed (and pleased) to find this picture of me in the Guardian, holding an anti-Brexit placard outside the Berlaymont. The photo illustrates this article: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/10/brexit-delay-will-squeeze-transition-period-negotiations?CMP=share_btn_tw

The occasion was a Pro Europa rally chaired by Nick Crosby and featuring speeches by Gina Miller (by video), Richard Corbett and Molly Scott-Cato among others. It cheered me up no end: Brexit has run out of road, the momentum is with us, pro-Europeans are mobilised as never before, and we are going to win the coming European elections!

New beer and old trams 24 February 2016

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I’m delighted to have discovered, albeit 7 months after its opening, Brussels’s 3rd brewery . The first is the venerable Cantillon and the second is my staple  Senne, which is currently brewed on the wrong side of the tracks in the not-to-be-dreaded Molenbeek) but, being faced with 30% annual growth, is soon to move to Tour & Taxis. En Stoemlings is just round the corner from the renovated art nouveau Palais du Vin with its restaurant, conference centre, small business incubators (one of whose tenants uses the brewery’s spent grain to grow mushrooms) and excellent biomarché. What complementarity! It’s making the Rue des Tanneurs a very hip place to be.

En Stoemelings – a Brussels phrase meaning ‘on the sly’ – brews a 7% triple called Curieuse Neus which I will report back on when I’ve had the chance to extract it from its 75cl bottle. They say it is well balanced as they are leaving very hoppy beers (the IPA craze) to Senne, and recommend it be drunk cold, which I hesitate to do but will experiment with. What’s more, the beer-and-trams nexus heaves back into view with the forthcoming launch of draught lemon-flavoured Geele Tram (in memory of the town’s old tram livery) at Moeder Lambic in Place Fontainas.

Brasserie Stoemelings
Rue du Miroir 1, 1000 Bruxelles

Late news: Yet another beer-tram-wholefood triad – the Beerdays on 14-15 May 2016 at the Ecuries van de Tram in Schaerbeek.

Quiet in the suburbs 24 November 2015

Posted by cooperatoby in Brussels.
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The picture the world is getting of life in a paralysed Brussels is a little overstated. Perhaps it’s a result of the massive concentration of journalists who normally report arcane policy battles – but don’t know very much about the town’s daily life.

So how was the first working day of the lockdown (warning: cat pictures)? I’m afraid I have nothing dramatic to report. I missed the weekend’s unfestivities since I escaped to Amsterdam before the metro closed, noticing only that the STIB had sealed the waste bins in the stations. Above ground all was normal. Arriving back at Midi on Monday morning on a very empty Thalys I expected to be greeted at the very least by a passport check, but apparently that is only for passengers travelling south to Paris. For me, not a camouflage jacket or a rifle to be seen. It was a minor inconvenience to have to walk to my flat, but that is mainly because they are renewing the tramtracks around St-Gilles town hall. From there on the good old 81 tram was still trundling its circumferential inner-city suburban route from St-Gilles to the AEIDL office in Etterbeek. Shops, cafes and restaurants are all open. I’d expected traffic gridlock, but the odd thing was that the streets were uncannily quiet. Many parents are at home looking after their children since the schools are closed. And after all we are having a cold snap.

At the office the tension mounted, because yesterday was a big day – the launch of our first ESF Thematic Network, on Partnership. We’d already had 2 cancellations – one a public official complying with her employer’s instructions to work from home – and the Commission had cancelled external meetings (but not internal ones). We feared we would have to eat all the buffet lunch ourselves. But with stalwart lack of drama 10 people found taxis and buses, and turned up. The meeting went off well, and was followed by dinner.

And this morning I’m overjoyed to find the replacement buses are back (some drivers had evidently declined to work on Monday) and contributing to the usual bidirectional traffic jam beneath my windows. I had to wait for the 2nd tram as the first one was jam-packed. I think everyone has woken up to the facts that (a) after a day’s lie-in they can’t suspend life for ever; and (b) there are trams that handily circumvent the city centre. It’s struck me that Brussels has temporarily become what Berlin used to be: a no-go area in the centre, with life going on pretty much as normal round about.

Multilingualism in Brussels – English is the “cherry on the cake” 10 November 2013

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No surprise that Brussels is growing more multilingual. The third Taalbarometer study by VUB (n=2,500) shows that 104 maternal languages are spoken in Brussels, the most important of which are:

Brussels multilingualism

I was surprised at the scale of French predominance. However not only the population as whole, but individuals, are becoming more multilingual. The total of languages spoken is 168%, meaning that on average we each speak 12/3 languages “well” or “very well”. Only 40% of people grow up in a home where only French and/or Dutch are spoken.

be autifulThe most recent Taalbarometer study was made in 2011, but Pascal Smet, now Flemish Minister of Education but formerly a very tram- and bike-friendly Brussels mobility minister,  has suggested in an interview with EurActiv that Brussels should consider making English an official language. Coincidentally, the current fun ‘be Brussels’ campaign invites you to submit slogans in French, Dutch and English.  I like ‘be lingualism’ and of course ‘be er’.However for the moment the policy accent is on French-Dutch bilingualism, with English “the cherry on the cake”.

For Brussels, multilingualism is one of the chief sources of comparative advantage. See Brussels’s Marnix plan for a truly multilingual capital for the European Union, launched in September.

Postscript – be Bruxel

Now here’s a great idea from Bram Boriau in Brusselnieuws – rebrand BR/uxelles/ussel/üssel/ussels simply as BRUXEL, and save us all the bother. Plenty of towns have been renamed in history – and incidentally it’s already the city’s name in Ido.


It’s already under way! Hilde Maelstaf informs me that all teachers/professors at universities and applied universities in the Flemish region need to pass an English test organised by the British Council.

STIB’s new map design – back to the 60s 5 November 2013

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STIB's disastrous new depiction of St-Gilles

STIB’s disastrous new depiction of St-Gilles

I don’t like the STIB’s flashy new network map at all. It’s no clearer to read, and around where I live in St-Gilles it’s a disaster. You would never guess from it that Horta metro is just steps away from the Barrière tramstops and the TEC/De Lijn bus stops at Place Morichar. The damage can be limited by searching out their plans of the area around each station, but that is unhandy to say the least.
The new map’s incoherent mixture of topological and topographic styles entirely fails to emulate the elegance of the London tube map. It’s ugly and positively misleading. The existing map doubles very conveniently as a street plan, but now visitors will have to buy a De Rouck as well.


Brusselnieuws reports that Cameron Booth, who blogs on Transitmaps, agrees it’s not the clearest of maps.

Sociale Innovatiefabriek opens in Brussels on 7th October 20 September 2013

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On 7th October 2013 the Social Innovation Factory will launch in Brussels (Halles des Tanneurs, Huidevetterstraat 58, 1000 Brussels). We invite companies and organisations from 14h00 to 17h00 for an afternoon of gain knowledge and inspiration on social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Our Objective: to kick-start innovation that makes a difference to people and society.

In our complex world, doing ‘business as usual’ no longer provides sufficient answers for tackling societal challenges such as poverty, climate change, or social isolation. We need innovative ideas and concepts from people, companies and civil society who dare to think ‘outside of the box’. In the past, social innovation and social entrepreneurship successfully led to initiatives such as youth movements or citizen journalism organisations, products and services (i.e. peerby or carsharing) and new partnerships, (i.e. enterprises transforming food waste).

As a new multi-stakeholders network, we welcome citizens, businesses and civil society working on impact driven and value-based projects. The Social Innovation Factory will help innovative entrepreneurs and organizations to develop breakthroughs resulting from new services, products, organisational models or concepts. We support partnerships between the civil and corporate sector and help them reach the market, society or funding. In strengthening innovative ideas to become successful projects and by promoting the results, the Social Innovation Factory seeks to give a boost to social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Flanders and Brussels.

The unique network of the Social Innovation Factory is now ready to be launched. Be part of the community and join us at the launch taking place on 7th October 2013.

When: 7 October 2013 / 14h00-17h00 PM
Where: Halles des Tanneurs, Huidevetterstraat 58, 1000 Brussels
Free entry.
More information and registration soon on www.socialeinnovatiefabriek.be

Reprinted from Social Innovation Europe

Stock ale 20 June 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in beer, Brussels.
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Great news that Brussels’ disused stock exchange is to be turned into the Belgian Beer Temple. It’s good that we should worship beer there and not capitalism. I particularly like the idea that the exploration of Belgium’s brewing heritage will be “a non-linear discovery, with a dynamic and interactive content” according to Brussel Nieuws. Belgian beer is certainly strong enough to make it so!

The city and the brewers’ federation have the ambition to turn this landmark, which is appropriately modelled on a Greek temple and whose front steps are a favourite perch for young people, into one of the city’s top five tourist attractions. I suspect it has something to do with the plans to pedestrianise the square in front of the building. It’s about time: I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by my visit to the dingy Brewers’ Guildhall on the Grand’ Place many years ago, so somewhere with more natural light and space will be welcome. The brewers’ federation has already been testing the water with its annual Beer Weekend in that same square and it has proved very popular (even if deterringly bureaucratic).

Two ways to fail

There are two ways the brewers could mess this idea up. First they could over-commercialise it – a warning may be found in the horrific prices charged at the shop called the Beer Tempel in Grasmarkt. (Does the brewers’ federation already run that? I never guessed.)
The second would be to exclude the smaller and more innovative brewers that are springing up. For years the only brewer actually brewing beer for sale in the city was aeons-old gueuze paradise Cantillon. It was joined in 2010 by the Brasserie de la Senne, who dared to brew stout and use an English amount of hops in their beer. This month sees the Brussels Beer Project market testing 4 beers called Alpha, Beta, Gamma and, you guessed it, Delta. It aims to be a ‘community brewery’ – not only do the public get to vote on how the beer should taste, they will also be asked to crowdfund it. This is the sort of new and experimental brewing that will keep beerophiles coming back.

New B, Belgium’s new co-op bank, heads for 40,000 members 8 May 2013

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NewB logoAt last, an opportunity to do some practical co-operation just by taking out your Bancontact card!
The European Commission worked hard to get the European Co-operative Society on the statute book as an important symbol that the single market is a level playing field, but since it’s been an option, it’s been largely ignored.
It is therefore a doubly joyful event to be in at the birth of New B, a new co-operative bank that is taking shape as we speak. Despite its European status, New B is Belgian through and through: it aims to fill the gap where the privatised CGER used to be, to be bigger than Triodos and to offer full range of banking services including payments (which Triodos doesn’t). It was set up legally a year ago by 61 NGOs including Hefboom & Crédal, and is now testing popular demand by inviting symbolic subscriptions for one single €20 share. Interest has exceeded expectations and since March close on 40,000 people have signed up.
Why not join them? – go to http://www.newb.coop/fr/default.aspx


In January 2014 NewB has moved into its next phase and offers the opportunity to buy some more shares, so that it can raise a further €2.5m. It raised €500,000 in the first week. You can buy 5 more shares for €100. See https://newb.coop/fr/construisons. So far 43,896 individual and about 100 organisations have joined, so why not you too?

Regained property 7 May 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in rail.
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I’m moved to tell a good news story about Belgian railways, just for a change.
Last week I rode from Amsterdam to Brussels on the reborn Beneluxtrein – or alternatively the proto-Lage Landen Lijn, which has now settled into a 2-hourly service. It only goes as far as the Hague (the line north of there is apparently already full of trains) and takes slightly longer than in the ‘good old days’, about 3 1/4 hours from Amsterdam. But it’s very comfortable: the wait in the Hague is just long enough to buy a sausage roll and coffee, and you don’t have to scurry from platform to platform and miss your connections like you do on the other stupidly arranged services that make you change at Roosendaal and Antwerp. I say it’s comfortable – but it isn’t for the many passengers who just want to hop the 100 km from Rotterdam to Antwerp, because it was standing room only for that stretch. I really don’t see why cross-border collaboration in this busy and linguistically unified market is so difficult for the Dutch and Belgian railways to achieve.
Anyway, back to the good news I started to tell. In the mood for a stroll down through the Grand’ Place in the sun, I got off the train a stop early at Centrale – and going up the escalator realised that the bulge in my pocket where my phone should be wasn’t there. Drama – I must have left it on the seat. I got back on the next train to Midi and spotted the international train parked at platform 21 – but just as I got out, it pulled away to go to its sidings. I took the guard’s advice and went to the lost property office under platform 8. The clerk enquired when I’d left the Hague, looked up the train, filled in a form, asked for my phone number, phlegmatically dialled it (he had obviously done this sort of thing before)… and it rang out audibly! I could have kicked myself, and started to mumble my apologies and scrabble in my rucksack – fruitlessly. The clerk pointed over my shoulder. Right behind me stood the guard off the international train, holding my phone. He had done his duty of walking through the train, found the phone, and brought it to the lost-property office in the same 5 minutes it had taken me to catch him up. And so phone and I were reunited for the modest sum of €4 and we are both living happily ever after. Thanks to him and to NMBS/SNCB for being so efficient.
By the way I’m glad to note that after being stored for 50 days, things you lose on the railway are disposed of by my local social economy 2nd-hand shop, Les Petits Riens/Spullenhulp.

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