The sight and sound of tram-cars plying the streets of Brussels were among Delvaux's fondest early memories. "As a child," Delvaux reminisced to Jacques Meuris, "I liked trains and this nostalgia has stayed with me; memories of youth... I paint the trains of my childhood, and consequently, that childhood itself" (quoted in M. Rombaut, op. cit., p. 22). When Delvaux began to paint in the early 1920s, one of his favorite subjects were the railway lines that pass through the Gare du Quartier Léopold in Brussels, before the construction of a modern station, known today as the Gare de Bruxelles-Luxembourg. Delvaux wrote: "I remember the Station of the Leopold Quarter when I was 4-5 years old. From the street we descended directly to the platforms. And I remember seeing the waiting rooms of the second and third class, and through the windows I could see the old cars of the times, the old cars that were in use at that time, around 1903, the old copper cars" (quoted in Z. Barthelman and J. Van Deun, Paul Delvaux: Odyssey of a Dream, Saint-Idesbal, Belgium, 2007, p. 16).
During the post-war period Delvaux alternated between four essential themes: the Greek temple, women, alluringly draped in diaphanous gowns or nude, skeletons, and railway stations. The first three suggested the confrontation of the self with myth and the subconscious; the stations and trains were the most directly evocative of especially pleasing personal memories and the longing to re-experience them. To recreate these scenes required, of all his paintings, the most attention to minute, realistic detail, while rendering the effect of the whole as if it were magically seen the mind's eye, in the peculiar light of memory and nostalgia--hence the nocturnal setting, with the inner eye of memory and dream represented in the shape of a full moon. Rombaut has observed, "Trams, trains and train stations work as recurring figures that represent the tangible and visible sides of reality. These same elements stand out on the canvas as signs of repressed desire, forbidden games and stored up dreams that his undeciphered memory has delivered into his hands" (op. cit.). Delvaux recalled the presence of trains moving along the horizon in certain paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, his favorite modern painter, who he called the "poet of emptiness... because he suggested that poem of silence and absence" (quoted in ibid., p. 14).
Le passage à niveau ("The Level Crossing") shows a cobblestone path that traverses a neighborhood park and leads to the station grounds, guarded by a boom, here raised to permit entry. The locomotives and carriages are not those of modern, post-war Europe, but instead date to the turn of the century and even earlier. Delvaux surely delighted in the meticulous research and preparation necessary to render them in an authentic and convincing manner. He explained the appeal of the older trains: "I believe that the [modern] electric trains do their work very well--even better--than the old steam machines; nevertheless, the old steam machines had something human, when they started with their power. I believe that the steam machine fits a painting much better. I believe it has a certain 'oldness' and this 'oldness' has become customary in my work" (ibid., p. 45).
Instead of inserting himself into his station pictures as a small boy, Delvaux preferred to use the presence of a young girl, dressed in turn-of-the-century attire and seen Magritte-like, always from behind, as the watcher of memories. The innocence of her youth, and the gentleness of her femininity, contrast with the hard steel and power of the railway system, a symbol for the industrial sphere, a world of men. She provides us, as Rombaut has written, "with a child's gaze... which knows how to see and hear the invisible and the unknown sides of the real. [Jean Clair declared:] 'Trains are like angels: their coming and going fill the heart with a vague nostalgia.' Trains cross through time and epochs unveiling solitary memories of some unfinished voyage that little girls dream of during the night's strange hours" (ibid.). Another denizen frequently encountered in Delvaux's railway paintings is le veilleur, the attendant or watchman with his lamp, patrolling the station grounds, like the artist walking the halls of his memories. Delvaux recalled, "When I was a child, I proclaimed I wanted to become a station manager as we passed by Ottignies on the way to my grandmother's house for the holidays. Going to Antheit by train was la Belle AEpoque, like a dream, it was the liberation, the liberation from school, the countryside, all that we did not have in the city" (quoted in Z. Barthelman and J. Van Deun, op. cit., p. 45).