2021 is the European Year of Rail.

It highlights one of the most sustainable, innovative and safe modes of transport! Throughout 2021 and all over Europe, several actions encourage citizens and companies to use this means of transport and to contribute to the objective that the European Union has set itself in the Green Pact for Europe, namely to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

The John Cockerill Foundation invites you to rediscover the glorious past of the Cockerill companies in the field of rail to the technical and technological solutions developed by the John Cockerill Group, today for the world of tomorrow. 

In 1817, John Cockerill settled in Seraing, a rural village on the outskirts of Liège (Belgium), which was to become one of Belgium's largest industrial cities. This young mechanic from the United Kingdom had the ambition to be among the first to build on European soil the most innovative machine of his time, the steam engine invented a few decades earlier in England by his compatriot James Watt.

The small local charcoal furnaces were not enough to provide him with the iron he needed and he had the first coke furnace built in the region in 1826. The young entrepreneur developed the world's first integrated factory, from the extraction of raw materials (coal, limestone and iron ore) and the manufacture of iron, to the construction of all types of steam-powered machines. 

Indeed, although his name is often associated with the steel industry, John Cockerill's main vocation was to be an equipment manufacturer. He was passionate about the new developments in mechanical engineering. His motivation was to manufacture all types of machinery as long as they were useful to industry and their energy supply.

John Cockerill thus entered the history of European railways in 1834, supplying the rails for the first section of the continent, linking Brussels to Mechelen. The Belgian railway network thus established served the country's main cities and linked them to the borders of Prussia, France and Holland. 

At the end of December 1835, the Cockerill Company supplied the first Belgian-made locomotive, called "Le Belge". Inspired by the English model, it was equipped with the latest technological advances and achieved remarkable performance. It was an immediate success: four high-powered locomotives were purchased directly by Belgium, while the company's order books filled up for other European countries and Russia, with ever greater technical challenges.

For example, in 1854, the company was asked to supply machines powerful enough to run the Semmering (Austria) railway line. With a difference in altitude of 459 metres and curves with a sometimes extremely small radius of curvature, the train had to cross 41 km of high mountains. The engineer Wilhelm von Engerth designed the first type of articulated locomotive capable of meeting these requirements. Their construction was entrusted to the Cockerill Company in 1853, following an international competition.


Gradually, in the 19th century, all the countries of Europe developed their railways. Cockerill supplied them with rails and locomotives.  In the 1930s, the steam era reached its twilight. It would soon be replaced by diesel. Technical progress seemed to have reached its limit and the main challenge for locomotive manufacturers remained speed. Yet it was during this period that Cockerill designed one of its most legendary steam locomotives. The T12, with its futuristic lines, was designed by two passionate men: André Huet and Raoul Notesse. This model impresses by the size of its two large driving wheels with a diameter of 2m10 and its design with pure lines. It reached a speed of 140 km/h in 3 minutes. In May 1939, it reached a top speed of 165 km/h leading a five-car train, which earned it the world's "Blue Ribbon" for speed on regular commercial routes for steam locomotives. After the war, the six Type 12s were successfully converted to heavy traffic. Today only one of these examples still exists. It can be admired in the Belgian railway museum Trainworld in Schaerbeek (Belgium).


In the 1950s, steam was definitively replaced by diesel. True to its history, Cockerill continued the tradition and responded to the new needs of the sector by developing two-axle diesel locotractors. The first model left the Seraing workshops on 19 November 1951.  The Belgian National Railway Company (SNCB) ordered sixty of them in order to provide medium-sized stations with their own traction system. Like their steam ancestors, they were distinguished by their ease of use and quickly became very successful. Ten years later, 483 units had already been sold in Belgium, but also in France, the Republic of Zaire, Gabon, Germany, Peru, Mexico and Argentina, to 84 different users.

Today, thanks to its centuries-old heritage in the field of transport, John Cockerill contributes to climate neutrality by developing technical and technological solutions. The company offers a wide range of locomotives and dedicated services such as rental, maintenance, delegated traction, spare parts management, on-site services, training and simulation.