With 440 000 inhabitants in the agglomeration, Eindhoven is the largest city in the south of the Netherlands. Hasselt (population 75 000) is the largest regional centre in eastern Flanders, and the capital of the province of Limburg (800 000 inhabitants). They are 60 km apart, and were once linked by rail. Restoration of a rail service has been proposed in the past, but was never taken seriously by local and national governments. Flemish proposals for a light-rail network around Hasselt, under the name Spartacus, included restoration of the line to Weert – but even that has been abandoned in favour of a Hasselt – Lommel line.
The proposal here is more substantial than earlier light-rail plans: a double-track electrified regional rail line. The original proposal included integration with new lines north of Eindhoven, but that would limit integration with services in Flanders. A conventional ‘heavy-rail’ regional line would connect at Hasselt with the proposed high-speed service from Antwerpen to Hasselt, and the proposed high-speed line Hasselt – Maastricht.
The old rail line was mainly built by the Compagnie du Chemin de fer de Liègeois – Limbourgeois et des prolongements. It consists of (south to north):
- Belgian line 15 from Hasselt to Houthalen (opened 1866, still in use, stations closed)
- former Belgian line 18 from Houthalen to Achel (opened 1866, closed to passengers 1957). At Neerpelt, the line shared a station with Belgian line 19 – the Iron Rhine. This station is still in use as the current terminus of passenger services on line 19, from Antwerpen (Antwerp).
- Achel – Valkenswaard (opened 1866, closed to passengers 1957, closed to freight 1973)
- Valkenswaard – Eindhoven (opened 1866). It was replaced 1959 by a single-track link, from Valkenswaard to Geldrop (on the Eindhoven – Weert line). The replacement line was itself closed in 1973.
The biggest problem for restoration is the alignment in Eindhoven. The old line started from Eindhoven Station, but the original junction has disappeared under the reconstructed city centre. The alignment southwards was built over (mostly low-rise-housing). Part of it is now a road, which would simplify restoration. The alignment in Valkenswaard was also built over, possibly deliberately to prevent re-opening of the line. From the Belgian border at Achel, the alignment is still available, however – it is in use as a cycle path. A new alignment through Houthalen would be preferable, and a new tunnel into Hasselt station.
Eindhoven – Valkenswaard
A tunnel in Eindhoven is unavoidable, so the new line would start from a new underground station, on the north side of the main station. The simplest option is to follow the original alignment, even if that requires very substantial demolition. The line would turn south in tunnel, under the Amsterdam main line, past the Philips Stadium. The tunnel section would have an intermediate station on the ring road. The line might emerge from tunnel at the edge of the built-up area, to run alongside the main road, itself built on the old railway. There would be a station at the High Tech Campus (in reality a business park). The line would then pass under the motorway A2 / A67, still following the road.
Tunnel alignment: base map by Jan-Willem van Aalst, CC4 licence…
A possible alternative is an alignment in bored tunnel, under the parks along the river Gender and the main drainage canal. In that case, the new line would pass west of the High-Tech Campus.
In both variants, the new line would pass the former station of Aalst-Waalre on the original alignment. This station is next to the Town Hall – but the Town Hall itself was built in the forest half-way between the two villages. A new station here will need bus links, to the rest of Aalst (10 400 inhabitants) and Waalre (5 800).
The new line would follow the old, through forest, to Valkenswaard (20 000 inhabitants). The alignment has been built over near its crossing with the main road (N69), and by an industrial / business zone at the southern end. However, most of it was used for a road (Europalaan), and is still available. The simplest option is to demolish the buildings, and construct a cut-and-cover tunnel through the built-up area. An alignment under the old main road, through the centre, would be even more disruptive.
Valkenswaard: the horizontal line in the middle is the old railway…
South of Valkenswaard, the line runs through an open agricultural landscape. It converges slowly with the main road (N69 / N748), crossing it just after the border. From there to Neerpelt, the alignment is in use as a cycle path. The original station building at Achel-Station (Achel-Statie) is still there, but there is housing alongside the old line. The new line could run about 100 m to the west, and again 100 m to the east at Grote Heide, to avoid housing. Although Achel itself is 2 km further south, the line does not pass it, so the new station would be near the old. Just before crossing the Bocholt – Herentaals Canal, the former alignment meets the freight line Neerpelt- Hamont – Weert, part of the Iron Rhine (Line 19).
Klik om te vergroten…
Line 19 was built after the Eindhoven – Hasselt line, so it used the already existing station at Neerpelt (13 000 inhabitants). The two lines share a common alignment, for about 2 km. Neerpelt station would be reconstructed, to allow separation of traffic on both lines, with grade-separated junctions, to the north and south. Neerpelt and Overpelt (13 700 inhabitants) form a single urban area, with low-density housing. The Overpelt station on line 19 would be retained, to serve its centre.
Klik om te vergroten…
From Neerpelt, the line runs south, crossing the N73 at Wijchmaal (2900 inhabitants). This is a low-density settlement (lintbebouwing), and would not itself justify a station. However, it is the logical transfer point for buses along the N73 route, to Hechtel, Peer and Bree (total 30 000 inhabitants). Relocation would move the line closer to one village, but further from others, so the new line would use the original alignment. It is visible as a vertical line in the middle of the image below.
South of Wijchmaal, the alignment runs in a straight line to Houthalen, where it joins Line 15 from Mol. This section could be re-opened, and the existing line upgraded: there are no stations on the line into Hasselt. The problem is that line runs is outside the built-up area at Houthalen, so any new stations will be badly sited.
A new alignment here would dramatically improve the function of a regional line. The new section would be about 12 km long, mainly in tunnel under the N715 / N74. The new alignment would serve Helchteren (6 700 inhabitants), Houthalen (23 000), and Zonhoven (20 000). The main road (Grote Baan) is broad and straight, facilitating a cut-and-cover tunnel: the stations can be located directly in the centre of each village. The line would surface to cross the A2 motorway on viaduct. On the west side of Zonhoven, the new line would join the existing line to Hasselt, again in tunnel.
South of Zonhoven, the line crosses the Albert Canal into Hasselt. This line would be upgraded, and the junction with the main line from Leuven (line 35) would be reconstructed. Services over the existing line 15, to Mol via Beringen, would also benefit from the upgrading of this section. The line might have a tunnel section in the north of Hasselt, where it passes through housing. (A station here has few benefits, because bus services on the the main road have a shorter route into the city centre). Trains would terminate at Hasselt Station, on the western edge of the city centre. If necessary, there is enough space for new terminal platforms for the Eindhoven services.
The old alignment Hasselt – Houthalen – Eindhoven was about 61 km long. Depending on the chosen route options, the new line would be about 63 km long. With modern trains, a new or upgraded line, and a station spacing of about 6 km, a journey time of about 50 minutes would be feasible.