Revised with new maps: High-speed line Liège – Hasselt.
Revised with new maps: HSL Maastricht – Liège.
Revised with new maps: Urban-regional metro Maastricht – Liège.
A new high-speed line (HSL) between Liège and Charleroi, would form part of a possible HSL Liège – Paris via Valenciennes. That would create a second high-speed route between the Rhein-Ruhr region and Paris, via Aachen, and a high-speed axis in Wallonia. This project is known as the ‘Nouvelle Dorsale Wallonne’, and although it has regional support in Wallonia, it has no priority at federal level in Belgium. The existing high-speed line Brussels – Aachen – Köln (HSL 2), passes through Wallonia, but only serves Liège.
The urban centres of Wallonia (population 3,5 million) are concentrated on an east-west axis, most prominently along the rivers Sambre and Meuse (Maas). This axis, the dorsale Wallonne, is served by Belgian lines 125 and 130B between Liège and Charleroi. The rail axis then leaves the main river valleys, and extends further via line 112 and line 118 to Mons, and via line 97 and line 78 to Tournai. Line 97 once extended to Valenciennes, but was closed at the border
At Antoing, south of Tournai, there is a connection to the high-speed line Brussels – Paris – the LGV1 in Belgium, and LGV Nord in France. There is a direct train Liège – Paris via this route, but it is easier to travel via Brussels. (The classic rail route from Liège to Paris was via Aulnoye).
So there is no point in a new high-speed line, if it only connects Liège to Paris. It would shorten the journey, but no more than that. Preferably, but a new line should connect more cities, and strengthen regional links in Wallonia. (The Antoing connection would remain in use for trains to Lille, and possibly London).
The HSL alignment
The new route would include: a HSL Liège – Charleroi parallel to the rivers Meuse and Sambre, a HSL bypass south of La Louvière, upgrading to HSL of line 97 Mons – Valenciennes, and a HSL along the E19 motorway, connecting to the LGV Nord. Only the Liège – Charleroi HSL is considered here. Its alignment is not described in detail, because it would follow the E42 / A15 motorway, on the plateau above the valleys.
Trains to the new line would depart from the new Liège Guillemins station, already served by Paris – Brussels – Köln high-speed trains. The city of Liège has a population of under 200 000, the agglomeration about 600 000. The urban region is the third largest in Belgium, after Brussels and Antwerp.
Trains would climb out of the valley, along the main line to Brussels (Line 36) – this steep section was originally an inclined plane. At the edge of the city, at Ans station, the new line would diverge, in tunnel, toward the airport.
The HSL would follow the north side of the A15 motorway, passing Liège Airport at Bierset. The passenger terminal is only 200 m from the motorway, so station location is no problem. (This is mainly a freight airport, however, with only 300 000 passengers annually). From the airport, the HSL would simply follow the motorway westwards, through open country, at about 100 – 120 m above the valley floor. (In some places, the alignment would diverge from the motorway, to allow higher speeds).
At Namur, the line would cross a possible future HSL Brussels – Luxembourg (shown in blue on the map). An interchange station at Daussoulx is possible, in the fields beside a motorway junction. However, these isolated ‘gares des betteraves’ have no planning logic, and attract few passengers. It would be more logical to link the HSL to the existing main line Namur – Brussels (Line 161), at Rhisnes. A high-speed link into Namur from the east is probably unnecessary. Because trains would climb to the plateau, and descend again, this option has few advantages over the existing 60-km line from Liège.
West of Namur, the new HSL would descend to the Sambre valley, to serve central Charleroi. This would require a tunnel of 3-4 km, perhaps to the freight yard at Châtelet, 8 km from the city centre. From there, four tracks are available to Charleroi-Sud, the main station of Charleroi. The city has a population of 200 000, the agglomeration about 300 000 to 400 000, depending on definition.
The limited official planning for the Nouvelle Dorsale Wallonne suggests it would avoid Charleroi, and follow the motorway north of the city. It would have a link line to a new station at Charleroi airport, which would also be connected to the main Brussels line. That might be good for the airport, which brands itself as “Brussels South”. However, it does not make sense for a regional HSL: passengers for Charleroi would have to change trains at the airport.
Routing the high-speed line into Charleroi-Sud has consequences, for it alignment west of Charleroi: it would pass south of La Louvière. That line is not considered here. At Charleroi-Sud, the HSL would connect to another possible HSL, from Brussels. (Unlike the HSL via Namur, this line is not intended to continue further south, but primarily as a link between Brussels and Charleroi).
The line Liège – Charleroi would be about 95 km long, station to station, with about 15 km on upgraded existing lines. Journey time should be about 35 minutes. Given the function of the line as a regional transversal, all trains would continue toward Mons, Valenciennes and Paris, or to Lille.
Liège is the largest city of Wallonia. With a population of 200 000, and an agglomeration of 600 000, it is large enough to justify its own regional metro, on the model of the French RER or the German S-Bahn. As the former industrial centre of Belgium, Liège also has enough railway lines. Given the short distance and the combined populations, a regional metro service to Maastricht is also justified.
The two cities lie 30 km apart on the river Maas / Meuse. The rail line between them crosses the Dutch-Belgian border at Visé. From Maastricht to Visé, the line runs through the broad floodplain, south of Visé it runs at the foot of a escarpment. The boundary between the two landscapes is at Visé Station itself.
The line in 1901, click to enlarge: base map from Uni Greifswald, with some German place names…
The line, Belgian Line 40, is underused. That is partly due to the indirect route into central Liège. Line 40 originally served a terminal station at Longdoz, on the right bank of the Meuse, opposite the historic centre of Liège. Trains could reach the main Liège-Guillemins station, but only by reversing. The present connecting line through Froidmont was built during the First World War, and is of low quality. Trains from Maastricht must cross the exit tracks of the high-speed line to Aachen, to reach Liège-Guillemins.
The Belgian section once had stations at Liège-Vennes, Cornillon, Bressoux, Jupille, Souverain-Wandre, Wandre, Château-de-Cheratte, Cheratte, Sarolay, Argenteau, Pont-d’Argenteau, and a second station at Visé for transfer to the elevated Montzen line. All but Bressoux and Visé are closed. In the Netherlands, there are intermediate stations at Maastricht-Randwyck and Eijsden: the stations at Gronsveld and Maarland are closed. The remaining stations are served by an hourly local train: a direct connection to Brussels was abandoned in 2011.
The proposal here is primarily to improve the route into central Liège, by connecting Line 40 on the east bank, to Line 34 on the west bank. The proposal can be combined with a high-speed line Maastricht – Liège, but neither is a precondition for each other.
Railways in Liège
The main station Liège Guillemins is on the old Brussels – Aachen line, and is now also served by the TGV Paris – Brussels – Aachen – Köln. The location was determined by the need to descend into the Meuse valley, not for proximity to the city centre. Line 34 to Tongeren and Hasselt diverges just north of Liège Guillemins, and runs in tunnel past the historic centre. There are two stations on that section: Liège-Jonfosse and Liège-Palais. Both are below street level, in a short cutting between tunnels. Liège-Palais Station is just behind the Palace of the Prince-Bishops and the main square of the city, and is well served by bus lines.
Both stations are served by some Intercity and InterRegio trains via Liège Guillemins, which start or finish at Herstal or Lier – in fact they are being used here as local stopping trains.
The line from Maastricht along the Maas/Meuse valley does not pass through central Liège. After passing through Bressoux, due east of the city centre, trains cross the bridge over the river and enter Liège Guillemins from the south. The proposal here is to create a line following the most logical route from Maastricht: along the valley, through central Liège, into Liège Guillemins. That can be done by connecting Line 34 to Line 40, across the Meuse, downstream from central Liège. The only practical location for a new link line is at the Ile de Monsin. The planning association UrbAgora has already proposed a similar link at Bressoux. A Monsin link is longer, but easier to build, and gives a shorter route from Maastricht.
The new 4-km link would diverge from Line 34 between Liège-Palais and Herstal. The station at Vivegnis can be re-opened at its original location (Place Vivegnis). West of that station, the line would be realigned by cutting into the hillside (at Rue des Vignes). A new alignment would diverge here, toward the river, toward the Coronmeuse roundabout. Obviously that requires demolition, but this is a former industrial area with very low-quality housing.
The new line would cross the roundabout on viaduct, and run alongside the Rue Ernest Solvay. A station here would serve the exhibition centre Halles des Foires de Liège, and offer interchange with the planned tram line, which runs roughly parallel to the river. The link line would then cross the mouth of the Albert Canal, just avoiding the existing road bridge here. It would continue along the south end of the Ile de Monsin – an artificial island, created when the Albert Canal was cut parallel to the river channel.
There might be a station on the island, close to the Monsin Barrage, but only if the area was redeveloped. The link line would then cross the Meuse and the A25 motorway, to join Line 40 at Souverain-Wandre. Most of the new link line would be on viaduct – to cross roads, to cross the river, and to pass existing bridges.
North of the new link, the regional metro would have re-opened stations at Wandre, Cheratte, and Argenteau (former Pont-d’Argenteau station). In the Netherlands, the station at Gronsveld can be re-opened, and a second station added in the south of Maastricht. The regional metro line would then have 11 intermediate stations, between Liège-Guillemins and Maastricht.
With a total length of 32 km, the average station spacing is 2700 m. That is normal for outer sections of a regional metro, such as the S-Bahn in Germany. Stations would normally be closer on a central section, but there are no suitable locations for extra stations in central Liège.
The rest of Line 40 (through Bressoux) would be used for a a right-bank regional metro line, for instance from Flémalle-Haute through Seraing and Bressoux to Visé. With a 4-track station at Liège-Palais, there is sufficient capacity for an urban-regional service on Line 34 as well, at least as far as Tongeren. With an intensive urban service from Liège Guillemins to Liège-Palais, it would no longer be necessary to extend Intercity and InterRegio trains over that section.
The purpose of a high-speed line (HSL) between Hasselt and Liège, is to extend the proposed Antwerpen – Hasselt HSL. That would create a second east-west high-speed corridor in Belgium, across the Kempen region. The corridor would also extend to Maastricht, via the proposed HSL Hasselt – Maastricht.
The original version of this proposal was a new line alongside the A13 motorway. The exit line from Liège could have been shared with a HSL Maastricht – Liège, but that would make both routes longer, without any other advantages. The new version here is a direct HSL across the agricultural Hesbaye / Haspengouw region, to join the Maastricht line east of Hasselt.
This alignment is not only shorter, it can also run through the existing Tongeren station, halfway between Hasselt and Liège. The shorter route will partly compensate for the extra stop, but journey times might be slightly longer. With two 20-km sections, a line speed of about 250 km/h is appropriate.
The existing railway
Hasselt and Liège are 38 kilometres apart in a straight line. The railway between them, Belgian Line 34, is far from straight, however: journey time is one hour. The line diverges just north of the main Liège Guillemins station, and passes the historic centre at Liège-Palais station. It then runs west, climbs out of the Meuse valley, turns east, and then follows a winding route toward Tongeren.
From the edge of Liège to Glons, the line is single-track. The Glons – Hasselt section, on the other had, is part of the Montzen freight route to Germany, which limits capacity for passenger trains. Service on Line 34 also suffers, because it crosses the language boundary in Belgium. Neither Flanders nor Wallonia are interested in the ‘cross-border’ line, preferring to develop their internal infrastructure. As always, this blog ignores politics and boundaries.
The new HSL would also diverge from the existing line, north of Liège Guillemins station. This is the main line to Brussels, which climbs out of the Meuse valley on the former inclined plane of Ans. The line out of the station is first elevated, but from the Rue Saint-Gilles it is in cutting. The line is briefly level with the terrain here, and this is a optimal site for a junction with a new tunnel. However, the proposed HSL to Maastricht would diverge first, so the tunnel portal for the Hasselt line would be further north, near the Rue Saint-Laurent. Four tracks out of Liège Guillemins are essential, so the motorway on viaduct above the line must be rerouted.
New exit line…
The tunnel portal would be at about 110 m elevation. Before climbing to the plateau above Liège, the alignment crosses the secondary valley leading to Ans, also at 110 m elevation. After about 900 m in tunnel, the new line would emerge from tunnel, cross the valley on viaduct, and dive into the valley flank again, to climb toward Rocourt. The viaduct alignment would cross three streets: demolition is inevitable, but this area is filled with decaying substandard housing anyway.
Approximate location of the viaduct…
The HSL would emerge on the plateau above Liège, at about 150 m elevation, near the Lantin prison. The longer tunnel would be about 4 km long, so the gradient is not a problem. As with all tunnels in this region, its alignment must take account of old coal mines. The line would surface near the N20 road, and it would simply follow that road across the plateau to Tongeren. The terrain is not flat, but local relief of 10-20m is not an obstacle, and this is mostly farmland. To avoid the villages, the line would probably run west of the N20 road as far as Wihogne, and then east of it.
Approaching Tongeren, the new line would drop about 50 m, crossing several low ridges at right angles. It would pass the eastern edge of Vreren, and cut through the industrial zone Overhaem. (The alignment would cross a car transporters depot, which is simply a large car park). From this last ridge, it would descend on viaduct to join the existing line into Tongeren station, avoiding the built-up area. A grade-separated junction is preferable, to allow cross-platform interchange, but the new line could have separate platforms on the western side of the station. In both cases, the station must be reconstructed.
The new route from Liège to Tongeren would be 19 km long, station to station. Of that about 17 km is new alignment, mainly on surface on the plateau.
On to Hasselt
To avoid a complex tunnel under the built-up area at Hasselt, the new line would run north from Tongeren, to join the existing line east of Diepenbeek. Just outside the station, part of the old Line 23 can be used for a new exit tunnel, under higher ground. The most direct alignment is a 5-km tunnel under Henis and Riksingen, to clear the built-up area. A longer alignment would run on surface east of Henis (parallel to the main road N730), and then turn north-west, using a shorter tunnel. Local elevation differences, up to 40 m, make some tunnels and/or viaducts unavoidable here.
The HSL alignment is not given in detail, but it would probably pass east of Sint-Huibrechts-Hern, and west of Romershoven. Between those two, it might pass east or west of Schalkhoven. North of Schalkhoven, the line would cross flat open farmland, to join the line into Diepenbeek. The new section of line would be about 14 km long.
Obviously, the line from Diepenbeek into Hasselt must be upgraded for high speed, but that can be combined with the construction of a HSL Hasselt – Maastricht. The line through Diepenbeek is dead straight: in Hasselt itself it curves around the old town centre.
The new route from Tongeren to Hasselt would be about 23 km long. Allowing for deviations to avoid subsidence and protected landscapes, the total length of the new high-speed route would be 42-44 km, station to station. Even with one stop at Tongeren, journey time would still be under 20 minutes.
New function of existing line
The section of Line 34 line through central Liège, would become part of a regional metro, including a regional metro line Maastricht – Liège. Services, comparable to those on the French RER or the German S-Bahn, would extend to Tongeren. The local service Hasselt – Tongeren would be unaffected by the new line.
Both Maastricht and Liège are built on the river Maas / Meuse, and they are only about 30 km apart. The Liège agglomeration has about 600 000 inhabitants, and the Maastricht urban region about 180 000. Language differences (Dutch and French) probably counteract proximity to some extent: the Netherlands borders directly on Wallonia here.
The railway between Maastricht and Liège was built in 1861, along the right (east) bank of the river Maas / Meuse. The river has a broad floodplain with escarpments on both sides, about 50 – 100 m above the plain.
The line in 1901, click to enlarge: base map from Uni Greifswald, with some German place names…
From Maastricht to Visé, the line is in this floodplain, and generally straight. South of Visé, the river runs alongside the eastern escarpment, leaving just enough space for motorway, road and railway. The line is sharply curved in places, at the food of a cliff. The transition between the two landscapes is at Visé Station itself, which is also the border station.
Click to enlarge: river Meuse, riverside road, motorway, and Visé station…
The line is double-track and electrified at 1500 V in the Netherlands, 3000 V in Belgium. The voltage changes at the edge of Maastricht. Belgian trains can run under reduced voltage into Maastricht station, but Dutch trains can not run at Belgian voltage. Originally, the line stayed on the right bank of the river, terminating at Longdoz Station, opposite the city centre. Trains now continue past the centre on a connecting line, and turn north again across the Meuse, into the main Liège-Guillemins station.
For a few years, the city of Maastricht promoted a “high-speed” service to Brussels. In fact it was simply a Belgian Interciy, extended from Liège Guillemins to Maastricht over the existing line. There was no high speed, and no upgrading of the infrastructure. That train now stops at Visé: there is also an hourly Maastricht – Liège regional service.
Conversion of the line to an urban-regional metro line was proposed here, as part of an urban-regional network around Liège. The line would be re-routed into the city centre, with a new 4-km line across the river at the Ile de Monsin. That is compatible with a high-speed line, but neither project is a precondition for the other.
There are two general options for a high-speed line south from Maastricht. Either the new line follows the existing right bank line to Liège, or it crosses the Maas / Meuse and the parallel Albert Canal, and enters Liège from the north. More precisely, it would enter Liège-Guillemins from the north-west, sharing the approach tracks through Ans with the old main line from Brussels, and the high-speed line Brussels – Aachen. That requires a long tunnel from the river valley to the junction with the approach line, much of it under the built-up area of Liège.
In both variants, the existing line south of Maastricht would be doubled to four tracks, and upgraded for high speeds. Inside Maastricht no high speeds are possible: there is a curve just south of the station, and another at Randwyck, 1400 m further. Just before Randwyck station, the proposed HSL Maastricht – Aachen would diverge, requiring reconstruction of the curve, and probably relocation of the station.
The remaining line to Visé consists of two straight sections, with a curve at Eijsden. There is enough room for four tracks, and most of the line is in open fields. At Eijsden, the line cuts the village in half, and a cut-and-cover tunnel is preferable. That can be combined with a new curve: the station itself would remain on the surface.
The options for crossing the Meuse and Albert Canal are limited. On the west bank south of Maastricht there are quarries, cement plants, a preserved fortress (Fort d’Ében-Émael), and a nature reserve on the escarpment (Thier de Lanaye). Closer to Liège, both banks are urbanised. The most open section of the valley floor is south of Visé, and the tunnel on the west bank would then start near Oupeye. To cross the valley at the best angle, the new line would need to curve south-west, requiring another tunnel under Visé. That might be connected to a bypass of Eijsden (brown on the map).
The distance would be about 35 km, and journey time should be reduced to 15 minutes or less. The exact alignment can only be determined by detailed studies. An earlier proposal here, an alignment along the A13 / E313 motorway, offers no advantages.
The alignment through Oupeye is largely determined by the location of Liège Guillemins station, and the approach tracks through Ans. The line, the oldest railway in Belgium, was built well south of the historic city centre, because following the valley at Ans avoided a steep drop into the Meuse valley. In fact, the line here was originally an inclined plane. The inconvenient location of the main station is the result.
The tunnel alignment shown is indicative only. It crosses a valley, with the Ans line on the southern flank, and if this was not an urbanised area, a bridge would be more logical. However, the valley is not too deep for a tunnel on the approximate alignment shown. (The tunnel would be close to a similar exit tunnel for the proposed HSL Liège – Hasselt, but to avoid an underground junction both should have separate portals and alignments).
A new high-speed line along the Maas / Meuse valley, parallel to the existing line, would also require new tunnels. South of Visé, the line is too curved for high speeds, and, the line is often squeezed between the old main road and the motorway. The only option is a flank tunnel, or a series of flank tunnels, starting at Visé itself. The main issue is the last section into Liège Guillemins, to replace the inconvenient approach line.
The line through Visé Station is curved and for that reason alone unsuitable. Because the town is built on higher ground, a tunnel can pass under the centre, shortening the route slightly. In principle the tunnel would be level, at about 55 m elevation, but it might dip to clear buildings near the portals. It would rejoin the line near Richelle, so it would be about 4 km long.
A second flank tunnel, about 9 km long, would start near Richelle and emerge from the escarpment at Jupille, just north of the Jupiler brewery. Again the line would be ‘level’ in principle: more accurately, it would match the gradient of the river. Construction would be simplified by access ‘from the side’, since the tunnel will be close to the road. As with all tunnels in this region, construction must take account of former coal mining – shafts, galleries, and subsidence.
A single flank tunnel of about 14 km is also possible, but even in that case a junction with the old line at Richelle might be desirable. (At that point, the tunnel would be just behind the escarpment).
From Jupille to the railway yard at Bressoux, the line is straight. After that, it is double-track but curved: no alternative alignment is available since it cuts through residential areas. The HSL would require another tunnel, into the city centre.
One possibility is that the HSL would emerge from tunnel north of Jupille, and run parallel to the proposed Monsin link line. This link is intended to connect Line 40 to Line 34 across the Meuse valley, to create a regional metro line from Maastricht into central Liège.
On the opposite bank, the HSL would dive into the hillside in tunnel, and turn to run parallel to Line 34. This last section would not allow high speeds, but it is only 3 km long. It would run under the Parc de la Citadelle, and terminate at an underground station, alongside Liège-Palais Sation. This would allow easy transfer to a regional metro, at a station just north of the historic city centre..
Combined with the flank tunnels, this would shorten the route from Maatsricht to central Liége to just under 30 km. The last tunnel can be extended to Liége-Guillemins station, for interchange with the Brussels – Aachen high-speed route, and with Intercity services. The junction would be relatively close to the station, where the A602 motorway was built on pillars above the railway line, making it impossible to modify. Relocation of the motorway seems a precondition for this junction – and for doubling of the line, which carries all traffic west from Liège.
This is only one of several possible tunnel alignments. The shortest route is simply a tunnel under Outremeuse, from Bressoux to the centre, but there is no good site for a station, so it would be entirely underground. The station would have deep platforms, since the line must pass under the river, and the city centre is on higher ground. This route is also more difficult to connect to Liége-Guillemins station. The possible tunnel alignments into the city centre are not considered further here.