The Euregio Maas-Rhein has about 4 million inhabitants, and three large cities: Liège, Maastricht and Aachen. The last two have no direct rail link: it was closed in 1992. The Maastricht – Aachen railway was built in 1853, but at present it is used only for internal services in the Netherlands: Maastricht – Valkenburg – Heerlen. These trains use a connecting line from Schin op Geul to Heerlen, built in 1915. The lines follow river valleys through the plateau of South Limburg.
Maastricht – Aachen 1901, click to enlarge: base map from Uni Greifswald…
In European perspective, the line to Aachen is more important than the Maastricht-Heerlen line. The Aachen urban region has 540 000 inhabitants, with 240 000 in Aachen itself. The city of Maastricht has 122 000 inhabitants. Aachen is on the existing high-speed route from Paris and Brussels to Köln.
The basic proposal is to re-open the closed section from Schin op Geul to Richterich, to double-track the section from Wijlre-Gulpen to Richterich, and construct a grade-separated junction at Richterich with the line from Mönchengladbach.
Other proposals for the region would affect the function of the line, and therefore determine how much new infrastructure is needed.
Context: other proposals
The re-opened line could connect to the proposed tunnel under central Aachen, the heart of a regional metro (S-Bahn) network. The tunnel is intended to connect to a Sittard-Heerlen-Aachen S-Bahn line. That line would use part of the disused alignment from Maastricht, joining it at Vetschau.
To avoid overloading the line into Aachen, the S-Bahn from Heerlen might use a new tunnel under Laurensberg. In that case, there might be two parallel Laurensberg tunnels, since a new tunnel into Aachen is also essential for the proposed high-speed rail line Sittard – Aachen. A Laurensberg tunnel would shorten the Maastricht – Aachen line by about 1500 m.
In all those cases, all trains would pass through Aachen West. The proposed high-speed line Maastricht – Aachen would not use any of the old alignment, and would not pass Laurensberg or Aachen West. It would run further south, about 2-6 km from the original Maastricht – Aachen line, and enter Aachen Hbf from the west.
HSL Maastricht – Aachen…
The HSL Maastricht – Aachen would form an extension of the proposed HSL Hasselt – Maastricht, part of a high-speed route from Antwerp. At Maastricht there would also be interchange with a high-speed route along the Maas/Meuse, with a HSL from Liege, and a four-track line north to Sittard connecting with a HSL to Eindhoven, and a Maas HSL to Nijmegen.
As an alternative to a new Maastricht – Aachen HSL, the re-opened line could be upgraded to carry an express service. The upgrading would consist mainly of extra tracks through stations (between Maastricht and Schin op Geul), and a grade-separated junction at Schin op Geul station. That would allow overtaking of stopping trains, but not high speeds. The Maastricht – Aachen railway was not built for speed, and upgrading for high speed is pointless – a completely new line would be easier to build.
Pattern of services
At present the line carries four trains per hour. An all-stations train to Heerlen, every 30 minutes, continues to Kerkrade. There is a faster Maastricht – Heerlen service every 30 minutes, stopping at Meerssen and Valkenburg: some off-peak trains run on weekdays only. Valkenburg is the main tourist centre east of Maastricht, and a transfer point for regional bus lines.
With re-opening of the Aachen line, the Heerlen service could run non-stop to Valkenburg. Since the all-station trains take only 8 minutes longer, that service could replace the existing fast trains. With an upgraded line to Schin op Geul, and double-tracking of the Heerlen branch, journey time would be only slightly longer. That would be compensated by higher frequencies on a regional metro network – at least every 15 minutes.
15 minutes is also the minimum frequency for a Maastricht – Aachen regional metro line. Without the proposed HSL, a separate fast service would be needed on this route. It would also stop at Valkenburg, preferably at a four-track station. Other stations often have room for extra tracks: they were laid out for coal trains, when this was a mining region.
Maastricht to Schin op Geul
The line to Aachen diverges from the Maas Valley Line, about 3 km north of Maastricht Station. The four tracks out of the station are operated as parallel double-track lines, and this section needs to be reconstructed, as part of the four-track line to Sittard. The old halt at Nazareth-Limmel could be re-opened as a new station. The recent Maastricht Noord station, a P+R station at the edge of the city, can be retained, but it would need a new layout. A grade-separated junction is essential, just north of this station.
The line from the junction to Schin op Geul is double-track and electrified. There are three intermediate stations on this section: Meerssen, Houtem-St. Gerlach, and Valkenburg. The halt at Rothem was closed in 1935. A new station here, only 600 m from the platforms at Meerssen, can not be justified.
Maastricht – Rothem – Meerssen: base map by Jan-Willem van Aalst, CC3.0 licence…
The line might be slightly re-aligned from the junction to Meerssen, but that is not strictly necessary. There is room for an extra track on the south side at Meerssen Station (toward Aachen), and on the north side at Houthem. After Meerssen, the line follows the north flank of the Geul valley.
The commuter village of Meerssen has 5700 inhabitants, but the next station at Houthem-St. Gerlach serves only about 1500. If the line was built today, the village would not have a station, but there is no reason to close it. The small town of Valkenburg has 5800 inhabitants, but with extra traffic as a tourist destination.
Houthem – Valkenburg: base map by Jan-Willem van Aalst, CC3.0 licence…
The station should be reconstructed as an interchange, preferably with a new layout. The station building is the oldest surviving in the Netherlands, but there is sufficient space on the western side for two island platforms.
Re-opening Schin op Geul to Richterich
At the next station, Schin op Geul, the line to Heerlen turns north-east. The next section, to Simpelveld, is in use by the museum line ZLSM and could easily be reopened. (The ZLSM trains start at Valkenburg, and use the electrified section for 3 km). The station at Schijn op Geul is located in the V-shaped junction between the electrified line and the museum line, on the hillside above the village (1500 inhabitants). A grade-separated junction is preferable here, but difficult to construct. Possibly the platform for Heerlen could be placed in a cutting, passing under the existing car park.
Another alternative is to shift the ZLSM platforms to the south, to allow four tracks just west of station. That would allow a grade-separated junction west of station (at the chalet park).
The newly electrified line (ex-ZLSM) would have stations at Wijlre, Eys, Simpelveld, and Bocholtz. The station at Wijlre (population 2000) once had a tram connection to Gulpen, on the other side of the valley, but realistically it can not serve that village. An additional 2-km link to Gulpen is described separately: it would be an alternative to the Maastricht-Aaachen bus line along the N278.
After Wijlre, the line crosses the valley of the Eyserbeek stream, on a large embankment. For a double-track line, a parallel replacement viaduct is an option here. The old Eijs- Wittem station is on the hillside above the village, but there is no better location. Again, the village is just large enough to justify a station (1450 inhabitants).
The line on the hillside above Eys/ Overeys…
Simpelveld, on the other hand, has 5200 inhabitants, and the station can easily be reconstructed with through tracks, and possibly for interchange with the branch to Kerkrade (also in use by the ZLSM). The large station area is a reminder of the former coal traffic in the region, and it is close to the centre of the old village. The old halt at Bocholtz is also very close to the village centre, but has limited space on a curving line. By lowering the road here, taking advantage of the terrain, there would be enough space for a double-track line and platforms.
Simpelveld – Bocholtz: base map by Jan-Willem van Aalst, CC3.0 licence…
Beyond Bocholtz, the line carries no traffic. The ZLSM once ran trains to a simple halt at Vetschau, just over the border on the edge of Aachen: this track is still usable. Beyond that halt, on the Laurensberger Strasse, the line is is abandoned and overgrown. Nevertheless the alignment is still free, and has enough space for two tracks. (This section will be used by the planned Via Avantis light-rail line, but that would not prevent trains from Maastricht from using it. The current status of that project is unclear).
The main problem within Aachen, is the construction of a grade-separated junction at Richterich, with the line from Mönchengladbach. Space is limited, and the line is curved. A new station in Richterich is also planned, but north of the junction with Maastricht line. The problematic junction would be avoided by using a new Laurensberg tunnel.
At present the Maastricht-Aachen journey takes one hour, changing at Heerlen to a Euregiobahn train. With restoration of the line through Vetschau and Richterich, and the existing line from there to Aachen Hauptbahnhof, the line would be 38 km long. With 13 intermediate stops, and S-Bahn type trains, journey time would be about 45 minutes. Using the Laurensberg tunnel, the line would be 1500 m shorter and have one less stop.
If trains used the proposed tunnel under central Aachen, that would shorten the route to the city centre by another 1500 m, and save another stop. The Maastricht – Aachen route would then be close to 35 km long, and journey time could be 40 minutes.