A planned tram line between Hasselt and Maastricht will use an old railway line, Belgian line 20. The project has been delayed for years, but the political decision-making process is now active. Construction has not started, however, and this is the current state of the track (at Lanaken in mid-2019).
The planned tram line is a Flemish project, rather than an international project. It is primarily a tram line into Hasselt, but extending it to Maastricht makes it ‘cross-border infrastructure’ – which attracts extra EU subsidies. The city of Maastricht does not have much faith in the project either, and refuses to pay for an extension to the station.
Current status and plans
Hasselt and Maastricht are about 30 km apart. The rail line east of Hasselt is Belgian Line 34 to Liège, also an international freight route. At Bilzen it turns south, and the old line 20 diverges (at Beverst Junction). The line from there to Lanaken is abandoned and overgrown: it was closed in 1992. The section from Lanaken to Maastricht was restored in 2007, but no longer carries traffic. The line passes the northern edge of Maastricht, and crosses the Maas to the main station. (Map: line 20 in red, base OpenTopoMap).
The planned tram line starts at Hasselt Station, but it would not follow the existing rail line there. It would run north of the city centre, and then along the N702 road out of Hasselt. It would then turn off, through the university campus, to rejoin the rail line. The tram would then use separate track, alongside Line 34, to Bilzen (Beverst Junction).
From the junction, it would continue on the old alignment of line 20. At the edge of Maastricht, the tram would leave the old line, and use new tram tracks, along the Boschstraat, to reach a riverside tram stop on the Maas Boulevard. This stop is at the edge of the city centre, but the station is on the other side of the river. There will be no direct connection with national and regional trains, including the new regional service to Aachen.
So the planned tram line is not well integrated in a regional network. It will provide a link from Hasselt to the badly located university campus, but with only three stops in Hasselt and two in Maastricht, it cannot function as an urban tram line either.
Train as alternative
The defects of the planned line have been criticised since it was first announced, and restoration of the railway was proposed instead. A more extensive upgrade to a regional rail line Hasselt – Maastricht was also proposed at this blog.
A serious upgrade would begin with sufficient capacity at Maastricht station, and goed interchange. Trains on the Hasselt line would cross the path of Intercity trains using the western platforms, and a new grade-separated junction may be needed. It would be logical to combine that option with replacement of the existing Maas rail bridge. The new bridge would be further north, and the approach line must cross the ring road viaduct, but otherwise there is enough space available. After the new bridge, trains would rejoin the existing alignment, across the river from Borgharen.
The line to Lanaken, as restored in 2007, is single-track, and must be doubled. Approaching Lanaken it crosses a canal on bridge over an antique lock, which must be replaced. In Lanaken itself, the line would be shifted to the north side of the main road, a shift already planned for the tram line. A new station would then adjoin the town centre.
West of Lanaken, the old line originally ran straight to Eigenbilzen. It was relocated when the Albert Canal was built, with a bridge at Gellik. The result was an S-bend in both railway and the canal, which could be eliminated by a new bridge, further west.
At Eigenbilzen the line is in cutting: at Munsterbilzen it is at street level, but there is enough room for an underpass. The line then passes through forest at Groenendaal: this is a protected landscape, but no intrusive work is needed. After passing the northern edge of Bilzen, it joins the Liège – Hasselt line (Line 34), about 2 km north of Bilzen station. A new grade-separated junction is needed here.
The high-speed line Hasselt – Maastricht which was proposed here earlier, would also follow Line 34. That does not exclude use of the existing double-track line, by regional trains from Maastricht. The line would need upgrading for more intensive services, including replacement of level crossings. (Map: OpenTopoMap).
The line to Hasselt has one intermediate station, at Diepenbeek. The former station at Beverst could be re-opened. There is however, no point in a new station to serve the campus at Diepenbeek, which is too far from the rail line. It might be possible to re-route the line, closer to the campus: that would require about 3 km of new alignment.
Most of the stops on the proposed tram line, can also be served by a restored rail line. Obviously a regional railway cannot duplicate the proposed on-street sections in Hasselt and Maastricht, but that is offset by faster journey times. In Maastricht, a rail line would have much better connections at Maastricht station – with Intercity and regional trains, and with regional bus services.