The railway between the town of Hasselt and the city of Maastricht was closed to passengers in 1954. Both have grown since then, and although still smaller, Hasselt (75 000 inhabitants) has become an important regional centre. A planned regional tram would use part of the old railway line, but the project has been delayed. The two cities are 30 km apart, so an intensive regional rail service is a better option.
Click to enlarge…
A high-speed line (HSL) between Hasselt and Maastricht was proposed here earlier. It is intended as part of a European high-speed corridor from Antwerpen to Aachen, not as a regional line. The proposed alignment would not exclude a regional service. With four tracks out of Hasselt, it could create additional capacity for regional trains, and some additional stations.
HSL Hasselt – Maastricht…
The old rail route to Maastricht consists of Belgian Line 34, from Hasselt to Bilzen (14 km), and the disused Line 20 from Bilzen to Maastricht (17 km). It was built as a single line in 1856: the junction at Bilzen was added later. The present ‘Line 34’ turns south there: it is part of a freight route to Germany, the Montzen route. (Confusingly, the junction at Bilzen is called ‘Beverst Junction’, although that village is further west).
The old Line 20 runs from Bilzen toward Maastricht. More accurately, it runs east to Lanaken, and then turns south-east to Maastricht. It passes through the villages of Munsterbilzen and Eigenbilzen, and then crosses the Albert Canal at Gellik.
The overgrown track at the edge of Bilzen…
In Lanaken, the line crosses the Briegden – Neerhalen Canal, turning toward Maastricht. It passes industrial areas in Maastricht itself, and then crosses the river Maas / Meuse, into Maastricht Station. The line is not entirely abandoned: a 6-km section from Maastricht was re-opened, for freight to the Sappi paper plant at Lanaken.
The planned regional tram will not share the tracks of Line 34 with heavy freight trains. Instead, it will run on-street in Hasselt, on new track through the university campus, and then alongside Line 34 through Diepenbeek and Beverst. From the junction at Bilzen, the tram will use the old Line 20 to Maastricht. However, trams will leave the old railway for a short on-street section in Lanaken, and again inside Maastricht, to serve the historic city centre.
Regional rail instead of tram
The rail line from Hasselt to Bilzen runs in an almost straight line, through flat terrain (the valley of the Demer river). The proposed HSL to Maastricht certainly requires four tracks here, but they might be built parallel to the existing line. In that case, an additional track for freight trains might be necessary, but a more logical option is to re-route the freight traffic entirely.
The station at Diepenbeek was reopened in the 1990’s, but present services are inadequate. It is too far from the Diepenbeek university campus, to effectively serve it. In fact, no station on the Maastricht line can effectively serve the campus, but that is not necessary. The station should serve Diepenbeek itself, which has a population of 18 000 (municipality). Note that the planned tram line through the campus could be built anyway – terminating at Diepenbeek Station. There is also a possible alternative rail service: re-routing the Genk – Hasselt line across the Albert Canal, with a campus station.
With intensive services, the new regional rail line to Maastricht might also justify an additional station at the eastern edge of Hasselt, at Singelbeek. It would also permit re-opening of the station at Beverst (5000 inhabitants).
At Bilzen, trains would use a new grade-separated junction, onto Line 20. The old line would not only be re-opened, but double-tracked and electrified. Bilzen itself is south of the line, so there was never a station here. Although the town has expanded, there is no good station site, so trains would simply run through from Beverst to Munsterbilzen.
At Munsterbilzen (population 4000), the old station site is well located, just south of the village core. With an underpass for the N730, a new station can easily be built here. East of Munsterbilzen, the terrain is no longer flat, and and the line crosses some stream valleys. It passes through Eigenbilzen in cutting: the central location of the old station would justify re-opening, even with only 2200 inhabitants.
The original alignment between Eigenbilzen and Lanaken disappeared, when the Albert Canal was cut in the 1930’s. The railway was rerouted along the south bank, with a new bridge at Gellik, 2 km east of Lanaken. The canal narrows under the bridge, and it is on a S-bend: it should be replaced by a new double-track bridge.
Lanaken is the largest town on the line (population 25 000). The old station was at the south-western corner of the built-up area. For the planned tram line, the main road N78 would be relocated, and the tram would stop on what is now the road, about 700 m east of the old station. A new rail station could also be located here, where the line turn to cross the Briegden – Neerhalen Canal.
South of this canal, there would a station at Smeermaas, between a new industrial zone and the old village. The terrain slopes down to the river Maas here, and the line crosses the main road into Maastricht by an overbridge. It then runs alongside a lateral canal, the Zuid-Willemsvaart. If Line 20 was converted to a tram line, this section alongside the canal could be shared with the proposed regional tram line Roermond – Maaseik – Maastricht. If Line 20 is a rail line, then the tram can simply use the road, on the other side of the canal.
However, this is not an optimal alignment anyway. At the edge of Maastricht, the line crosses the road on a sharp curve, then climbs to cross the river Maas on a single-track bridge. The bridge has a lifting section because it obstructs shipping, but it can not be upgraded, because the approach is itself under a road viaduct.
This section can be replaced by a new alignment on viaduct, with a new bridge just south of the Borgharen lock/sluice complex. The viaduct would start at Smeermaas: it would cross the main road, the Zuid-Willemsvaart, and then the Maas. It would pass through a redevelopment zone (Trega), and over the inner ring road, to descend to the platforms at Maastricht Station. The exact alignment would depend on planned redevelopment here. The new viaduct would be as long the line it replaced, but it would allow higher speeds, and avoid a busy level crossing: two variants are shown.
The viaduct is compatible with the exit tunnel of the proposed HSL. In theory, the HSL could also exit Maastricht station on such a viaduct, but a shared alignment would limit service frequencies on both lines.
With a fully upgraded line and new trains, the new Hasselt – Maastricht service should offer a journey time of just under 30 minutes, even with 6 or 7 intermediate stations. Service frequency should be at least 4 trains per hour: a 10-minute interval would be preferable.