Revised with new maps: Regional rail line Eindhoven – Hasselt.
Revised with new maps: High-speed line Liège – Hasselt.
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.
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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.
Revised with new maps: HSL Hasselt – Maastricht.
A rail line from Hasselt to Roermond was mentioned here earlier, in the proposal for a regional rail line Hasselt – Genk – Sittard. In fact, Roermond was the original planned terminus of Belgian line 21A from Genk (1874), but the line never got further than Maaseik. Passenger trains to Maaseik ceased in the 1950’s, and the Genk – Maaseik section was closed in 1979.
A Genk – Sittard line would serve more people, than a re-opened line Genk – Maaseik, which runs mainly through forest and fields. Nevertheless the Spartacus project – a regional tram network around Hasselt – includes a tram line on this alignment. The proposal here is a strategic rail line Hasselt – Genk – Roermond, rather than a regional tram line.
The line would connect Hasselt to the Maas valley line, in the direction of Venlo and Nijmegen. It would also connect to the proposed regional tram Roermond – Maaseik – Maastricht, improving regional connections to the villages north and south of Maaseik.
Alignment Hasselt – Maaseik
The alignment Hasselt – Genk was already described, as part of the proposed line to Sittard. Most of it is in use, but the proposed diversion via the university campus at Hasselt is new, and As station could be relocated. The earlier proposal also included restoration of the original alignment through Genk, now used by the N75 highway. North-east of Genk, the railway to Eisden diverged at the former station of As, which is in fact at Niel. With re-opening of the line to Maaseik, this old station could also be re-opened.
From Niel, the abandoned line runs almost straight toward Maaseik (16 km), mainly through forest and fields. The alignment is available: it is used as a cycle path. North of Dilsen, the line drops about 50 m from the Kempen Plateau, curving around the former Rotem zinc works. The line then crosses the Zuid-Willemsvaart canal. Only one of the three former stations justifies re-opening: at Elen, where the line crosses the N757 (Steenweg near Neeroeteren).
The station would serve the dispersed housing (lintbebouwing) west of Elen and Rotem. (The old Dilsen station was on the road between Dilsen and Opoeteren, too far from either village).
Maaseik (municipal population 25 000) has a small historic core on the Maas, about 500 m long. The old station was on the western edge of the town, and the site is still available. If the line only served Maaseik, it would be the logical place for a new station. A new line across the Maas requires a bridge or tunnel. It might conflict with the proposed high-speed line Eindhoven – Sittard, which would pass through Maaseik without a station. There are several possible alignments.
A line under the historic core would require a tunnel at least 30 m deep, to avoid damage to the historic buildings, and there is no site for a station anyway. A surface alignment south of the built-up area, could have a Maas bridge near the roundabout Boudewijnlaan / Heppersteenweg. However, that would require a long viaduct across the flood plain east of the Maas.
A deep tunnel could possibly pass between the historic core and the new shopping centre (shown in blue on the map). Demolition near the tunnel portal is unavoidable, but this option could have a station just 200 m from main square. Its construction would be like that of a deep metro station.
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Tunnel alignments on the northern side could run under Burgemeester Philipslaan, or Van Eycklaan, or under the relatively open space between them (one example shown in yellow). The line would descend into bored tunnel, about 1 km before the old station site. Again, the new station could be close to the centre, but these tunnels would probably conflict with the HSL alignment.
The best option seem to be a station at the southwestern edge of Maaseik, on the main road (N78, Maastrichtersteenweg). The line would turn away from the old alignment there, and drop into tunnel after the station, roughly parallel to the Eerste Straat (shown in white). The station is relatively far from the centre, but would have interchange with the proposed regional tram Roermond – Maaseik – Maastricht. From the station, the tunnel would have 1500 m to descend, before it passed under the river.
The line Hasselt – Maaseik, via the university campus cut-off, would be about 42 km long.
Alignment Maaseik – Roermond
After crossing the Maas, the line would pass north of Roosteren, crossing the HSL Eindhoven – Sittard. It would then turn north-east, crossing the lateral Juliana Canal and the A2 motorway. Because the canal is above ground level here, a tunnel (or navigable aqueduct) is preferable. After the canal, the line would turn more northwards, toward Echt, passing east of Ophoven. This alignment is parallel to the A2 motorway, but about 700 m further east.
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Approaching Echt, the line would use the alignment of the former LTM tram (Limburgsche Tramweg-Maatschappij). In Echt itself, the tram alignment is used for a road (Trambaan and Sint Janskamp). The rail line would run on viaduct, with a station at the roundabout, 400 m from the old village centre. Echt would then have two stations, east and west.
The line would then run parallel to A2, along the west side of the industrial zone De Berk. It would pass the motorway junction A2 / A73, and turn to join the existing Roermond line near Vonderen. The open land between Echt and the motorway junction is being developed as a business park, but if necessary the line can simply pass north of it. The line would cross a possible Weert – Echt cut-off line along the A2 motorway, but there is no reason to have interchange between the two lines.
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At present there are no stations between Echt and Roermond: the upgrading would include re-opening of the station at Linne. In Roermond (population 46 000), trains from Hasselt might connect with the line to Mönchengladbach. However, this currently closed line, the ‘Iron Rhine’ or IJzeren Rijn, was built for freight. A restored version might not even pass through Roermond Station.
Pattern of service
Trains from Hasselt should therefore continue another 24 km, to Venlo (population 80 000). That allows interchange with trains to Krefeld, Duisburg, Neuss and Düsseldorf, via the proposed HSL Venlo – Neuss. The existing line to Viersen would become an S-Bahn line to Neuss. Running north from Venlo are the proposed HSL to Eindhoven, and the upgraded line to Nijmegen.
The line Hasselt -Roermond would be about 61-62 km long. (The choice of alignment in Maaseik would only marginally alter the total length, by 200-500 m). The total route Hasselt – Venlo would be about 85 km long – enough to justify two levels of service. With fast trains only stopping at Genk, Maaseik and Roermond, the Hasselt – Venlo journey time could be under an hour.
The line from Hasselt to Maaseik (Belgian line 21A, opened 1874) was intended to cross the Maas, toward Roermond. The river crossing was never built, and from 1914 the line primarily served the coal mines of the Kempen. When they closed, most of the line did too, although the section to Genk was re-opened in 1979. Re-opening of the section to Maaseik is less logical, because there are no intermediate settlements. A Maas crossing further south would also serve more people on the east bank of the Maas.
The proposal here combines relocation of the line in Genk, extension over the former coal line to Eisden, and a new line across the Maas to Sittard. The line would connect at Hasselt to the proposed high-speed line Antwerpen – Maastricht (HSL). Both Hasselt and Sittard would become HSL junctions, with these other proposals:
- the high-speed line Hasselt – Maastricht, connecting to the proposed Maastricht – Aachen high-speed line, and also the proposed high-speed line Hasselt – Liège
- the proposed HSL Eindhoven- Sittard, and the proposed HSL Sittard – Aachen, part of a HSL route from Amsterdam to Aachen, and the upgraded line to Maastricht, connecting to the proposed HSL Maastricht – Liège.
The line would start in Hasselt, using the existing double-track line to Genk. Hasselt (population 72 000) is the capital of the (Belgian) Province of Limburg (population 827 000). The line exits Hasselt station to the west, and turns north-east to Genk via Kiewit station. This curving section is now within the built-up area. A replacement alignment is possible, assuming the upgrading and four-tracking of the line eastwards (existing Tongeren line). Diverging east of the Hasselt ring road, a new cut-off line would serve a new station for the Hasselt University campus, and then enter a tunnel under the Albert Canal, to join the Genk line west of Bokrijk station. This would shorten the route to Genk, by about 1500 m.
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12 km north-east of Hasselt is Genk. Although it has a population of 64 000, it is officially a ‘city’ since only 2000. After 1914, the original village of Genk was surrounded by miners housing, at three large coal mines. The present ‘city centre’ developed since the 1960’s, along the main east-west road (N75/ Europalaan), itself built on the former alignment of line 21A. This is the only option for extension eastwards, and since it is now a shopping street, the line must go in tunnel. The tunnel would start at Boksbergheide on the eastern edge of Genk: apart from four houses, the original alignment is intact. If the tunnel starts further back, a new station would be possible at its entrance, for instance at the Landwaartslaan. The existing Genk station would be replaced by a new underground station, right in the centre.
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The new line would follow the N75 / Europalaan out of Genk, climbing out of tunnel and onto a viaduct. It would cross the A2 motorway, and then join the alignment of the ring rail line around Genk (to the coal mines). The line can be routed away from the N75 here, with a new station closer to the centre of As.
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It would then rejoin the former line at the old station of As (in fact closer to Niel-bij-As). This is the base for the museum line Waterschei – Eisden, and as a visitors centre for the Nationaal Park Hoge Kempen. There is more than enough room for new platforms and facilities.
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From here, the new line would take over the former line to the mine at Eisden. This line drops about 45 m from the Kempen plateau, from 85 m to 40 m elevation. The former station at Eisden was 6 km from As, between Mechelen-aan-de-Maas and Eisden-Tuinwijk. Coal trains reversed here, onto a semicircular line to the mine itself. The new line would cross the main road N78, and the the canal (Zuid-Willemsvaart), passing just south of the original village of Eisden. There would be a station at the crossing with the N78: a viaduct is probably the best option here. The station would have interchange with the proposed left bank regional tram line Roermond – Maastricht.
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From here, it is only 1 km to the dike of the Maas river. East of the Maas is the Juliana Canal, which generally follows the edge of the Maas terrace (seen from the Maas, a plateau). A tunnel seems the only option to cross the dike, river and canal, while avoiding the protected landscape along the Maas. The exact route would de determined by the alignment across the river, on into Sittard.
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The shortest tunnel would re-emerge alongside the existing freight line to the Maas harbour at Stein. The freight line connects to the Maastricht line at Geleen-Lutterade, running via the chemical industry zone of Geleen. The new line would cross the A2 motorway, and then run alongside the N294 (Urmonderbaan, in Sittard Berger Weg). There would be a station in the south-east corner of Urmond. Trains would terminate at Sittard. They do not need to use the existing platforms, so the line could terminate at a new platform (approximately alongside Bergerweg). The disadvantage of this route is that it serves no built-up area, between Urmond and Sittard.
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One possible alternative is a tunnel further south (shown in blue), approximately under the Heidekampweg, and then via the industrial line to Geleen-Lutterade. Another option (shown red) is a bored tunnel under the Maas and the Juliana Canal, to a station in the centre of Stein. From there, a cut-and-cover tunnel would pass under the motorway junction A2/A76, emerging in the rail yard, about 1000 m from Geleen-Lutterade station. This option would share tracks with the upgraded line Maastricht – Sittard, between Geleen-Lutterade and Sittard.
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The line would be about 45 km long, depending on the alignment of the Maas crossing, and whether the cut-off line to Bokrijk was included. Since much of the route would be new, or heavily upgraded, journey time could be around 40 minutes.
Revised, with new maps, and a new proposed alignment: