Proposed here is a new rail line from Gent (Ghent) in Flanders, to Middelburg in Zeeland, via a tunnel under the Westerschelde (the estuary of the Schelde / Scheldt). The tunnel would create a rail route parallel to the Westerschelde road tunnel, opened in 2003, and would also be used for freight. The new line would use part of the alignment of an existing freight line north of Gent, to Terneuzen on the south bank of the estuary. The proposal includes a new tunnel under central Gent, which would also be used by a re-opened line to Brugge (Bruges) via Maldegem.
The new line would start at Ledeberg, diverging from the existing line into Gent from Aalst, line 50. (This point is just east of its junction with the cut-off line from Brussels, line 50A). From there, the new line would follow the alignment of the former line into Gent-Zuid, the former southern station (1837-1928). This alignment is not built-over, since it is now now used by the B401 road – a link from the A14 motorway into central Gent.
Approaching the site of the former station, the new line would descend into tunnel, with a new underground station, near the old station – close to the main buildings of the university. From there, the new line would pass under the historic city centre of Gent, with a station. The alignment shown is approximate, and no precise location is shown for the city-centre station. There would be a third station at the northern edge of the central area: two possible alignments are shown.
The line would now emerge from tunnel, and join the alignment of line 58 to Brugge via Eeklo. This line is still in use as far as Eeklo, with an hourly service on weekdays. At Wondelgem, line 55 diverges. This is the freight line to Zelzate: in 2004, part of it was relocated, alongside the R4 road. The line would be upgraded, double-tracked, and electrified, with stations at Evergem and Ertvelde.
The line would follow the R4 to Zelzate. There are several possible alignments from there. The best option seems to be parallel or under the road into Zelzate, the continuation of the R4 (shown as a white dotted line). The line would cross the Gent-Terneuzen Canal in a tunnel alongside the road bridge, or possibly even replacing it. (There is an alternative road route, the N49, already in tunnel). The station would be on the east bank of the canal, possibly with another station on the west bank (about 1500 m apart). Outside Zelzate, this alignment would follow the N253. Another option is a tunnel along the old alignment of the Gent-Terneuzen Canal, and then along its east bank toward Terneuzen (red dashed line). Finally, there is the existing line, on to Sas van Gent along the west bank of the Canal (green). In Sas van Gent, it runs through the housing: it could be re-routed alongside the village, since the housing stops at the border here.
From Sas van Gent to Sluiskil, the the existing freight line can be upgraded. However, this alignment is further from Terneuzen – which is where the line is going. (It could serve Sluiskil, but that village has only 2400 inhabitants). The alignment along the N253, from Zelzate to Terneuzen, can be combined with the re-opening of the line Terneuzen – Axel – Hulst – Sint-Niklaas (this is the Belgian line 54). The N253 route seems a better option.
The new line would run under the main road (Guido Gezellestraat) through Terneuzen, with a station at its crossing with Alvarezlaan, near a shopping centre in the south of the town. From there, the new line has about 2 km, to descend into a deep tunnel, before it reaches the coast. If the line from Sint-Niklaas is re-opened, the trains on that line can terminate at a station further north, near the historic town centre (blue-white line). ‘Terneuzen South’ would then be the interchange station.
The line would now cross the estuary in a deep bored tunnel. The strong tidal flows have eroded deep troughs in the estuary. The proposed tunnel is near the deepest point of the Pas van Terneuzen (50 m deep), and it must allow for future changes in the estuary floor. It would need at least 50 m depth, as passes under the coastal dike. The tunnel would be about 10 or 11 km long. It would emerge alongside the road tunnel (near Ellewoutsdijk). It would then run parallel to the N62 road, toward the Sloe port zone (officially named ‘Vlissingen-Oost’).
There would be a station serving the port zone, at the road junction near the small village of Nieuwdorp. Given the size of the port zone, connecting bus services to the terminals and industrial plants would be needed. From this station, the line would continue northwards, to join the existing rail line Roosendaal – Vlissingen, east of Arnemuiden station. It would cross the short freight link to the port zone, from the main line (opened 2008).
Trains would stop at Arnemuiden, and continue to Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland Province. They could terminate there, although the station would need reconstruction – or at Vlissingen, the terminus of the line from Roosendaal.
The distance from central Gent, to the station in southern Terneuzen, would be about 35 km: from central Gent to Middelburg, about 63 km. Services across the estuary would have a ‘regional’ character, but in Gent itself, the central tunnel would be more like an urban-regional metro (S-Bahn, RER, GEN). Logically, such services would best start east of Gent – for instance, at Aalst. The best option would be to split the ‘regional’ service from the ‘urban’ service. that can be done by adding a link from the Gent central tunnel, to the main station, Gent-St-Pieters. In fact this is a re-opening of a former connecting line: the alignment is still visible. The link is shown as a red-white line:
The central Gent tunnel can then be used by urban-regional (S-Bahn type) services, from the east and south-east: from Aalst (line 50), Dendermonde (line 53), or Gerardsbergen (line 122). One of these would use the new line proposed here, and terminate at Zelzate. The section Zelzate – Arnemuiden would carry a regional service from, Gent-St-Pieters to Middelburg.