Update Hasselt – Maastricht line

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).

Lanaken spoor

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).

Maastricht - Bilzen

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.

Maasviaduct

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.

Gellik

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).

Hasselt - Bilzen

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.

Update Hasselt – Maastricht line

High-speed bypass of Roermond

This high-speed line (HSL) is an alternative for the longer HSL Eindhoven – Sittard, proposed here earlier. It is part of a high-speed corridor from Amsterdam to Aachen, and was originally described in Dutch. This post completes the English-language description of the corridor, which includes the existing Amsterdam – Utrecht line, a new HSL Utrecht – Eindhoven, and a new HSL Sittard – Aachen.

Both alternatives have the same function – to bypass the existing route through Roermond. The longer HSL to Sittard is the shortest option, almost a straight line between Geldrop and Sittard. However, it must pass protected zones in Flanders, and requires a tunnel under Weert. The shorter HSL proposed here follows existing infrastructure, the A2 motorway via Maasbracht. There is a disadvantage in following the motorway: the line might curve too much as it crosses the Maas, so that trains would slow down.

The original proposal suggested the line could be built in two phases, first from Weert to Echt (in black on the map), and then a northern bypass of Weert (in blue). However, the second phase may not be necessary, since there is space for a new curve on the western edge of Weert. In that case additional fast tracks would be needed, through Weert station.

Original version …

Hogesnelheidslijn Eindhoven - Sittard, vanaf Weert langs snelweg A2.

Both variants require four-tracking and upgrading of the existing line from Eindhoven to Weert. That is not described further here.

Alignment from Weert to Echt

The HSL would diverge from the existing line east of Weert, before it crosses the Wessem – Nederweert canal. The new line would cut through fields, to join the route of the A2 motorway. In fact, the line follows the 1929 canal, because the motorway was built alongside it. The terrain is level: there are no locks on the canal here.

The new line would fit between the motorway and the canal. For the first 6 km of the shared route, the motorway is right next to the canal, and here the motorway must be relocated. The HSL would take over the current northbound carriageway. There are no road crossings here.

After junction 41, the crossing with the old Napoleonic road (Napoleonsbaan), there is enough space for a railway between motorway and road. The next section of the alignment, which crosses the Maas, has three curves: at junction 41, at Wessem just before the river bridge, and at Maasbracht just after the bridge. There is enough space at junction 41 to accommodate a high-speed curve.

maasbracht-hsl-brug

As it crosses the Maas, however, the alignment must fit between the canal, gravel pits, and the two villages of Wessem and Maasbracht. Probably, the HSL must stay within 100 m of the motorway, and so the curves will not allow high speeds as the line pases Wessem and Maasbracht. That will be partly compensated because trains will slow anyway, to climb to the bridge, and then accelerate downhill away from it.

The alignment would allow a station at Maasbracht, only 400 m from the centre of the village. The line here would run directly alongside the motorway, as far as junction 44, and require almost no demolition. A station before the bridge is problematic. It cannot be built at Wessem, because the line climbs and turns. It might be possible at Panheel, further back from the river. To accommodate the station an additional curve would be needed, and in any case, the site (at a brick factory) is too far from the three villages.

If only one station is possible, then there seems little point. Since this line is intended for high-speed long-distance trains, the station would require a separate regional service, in addition to regional services on the existing line. The disadvantages outweigh any benefits for Maasbracht.

From the Maas to Sittard

After Maasbracht, the HSL must cross the A73 motorway, and also pass under three power lines. The alignment must also turn southward, toward the line to Sittard, the Maas Valley line. The upgrading of this line was proposed here earlier, as part of a high-speed corridor along the Maas valley (Venlo – Sittard, in Dutch). The upgrade requires a realignment of the existing curve north of Echt, and that would also allow a junction with a high-speed line from Weert. It keeps the new line clear of the recently built logistics centre, north of Echt.

echt-wessem

The new alignment via Maasbracht would end at this junction. From there to Sittard (13 km), the existing line must be upgraded, with four tracks. That should be relatively easy: it consists of two straight sections, with a curve between them. All trains would stop in Sittard, already a railway junction. South of Sittard, trains could continue on the HSL Sittard – Aachen, proposed here earlier. That HSL is not a precondition for any bypass of Roermond, but more capacity on the Sittard – Maastricht line probably is.

All Intercity services from Eindhoven south to Limburg, including future services to Aachen, would use the new cut-off line. The new section of line would be 19 km long. Including the upgraded existing lines, the new route between Weert and Echt would be 25 km long, as against 38 km for the historical route via Roermond. The reduction in journey time will be more significant: trains will be faster than current rolling stock, and the route avoids two stops in Weert and Roermond.

Through Weert or around Weert?

The original Dutch version of this post included a bypass of Weert, to avoid the sharp curve west of Weert station. The bypass would run close to the A2 motorway, but cannot follow it exactly, because it too has relatively sharp curves. It would probably require a tunnel, at the eastern edge of Weert.

If the curve was not so sharp, the new HSL could follow the existing alignment through Weert. Of course trains could also slow down at the curve, but that defeats the purpose of a high speed line. There is sufficient space in Weert for extra tracks. The line here was built as the ‘Iron Rhine’, a transit freight route from Belgium to Germany, which once carried heavy traffic. (The line Eindhoven – Weert was added later: the sharp connecting curve was not a problem at the time.)

It the curve can be improved, that would be easier than bypassing Weert entirely. That might be possible, if the new line diverges from the existing alignment outside Weert, and also at Weert Station.

Click to enlarge…

maarheze-weert

The new alignment could start about 4 km before Weert Station. It would first turn west, then back east, crossing the existing line twice. It would pass Weert Station on the site of the former goods yard, south of the present platform. It would rejoin the existing alignment about 1 km east of the station. A viaduct is the easiest option, but to reduce noise a tunnel might be preferable.

An alignment through Weert will make little difference to the total length of the route Eindhoven – Sittard. Journey time is saved because trains do not stop at Weert, and run at high speed through the built-up area. (Obviously there is no point in building such a high-speed route, if trains continue to stop at Weert).

The present Eindhoven – Sittard route, via Weert and Roermond, is 78 km long. The new bypass would cut that to 65 km. With no stops, a new middle section built for over 200 km/h, and the existing lines upgraded for 200 km/h, a journey time of 25 minutes is feasible. The present Intercity trains take 46 minutes, with two stops.

High-speed bypass of Roermond

Four tracks Sittard – Maastricht

A four-track-section from Sittard would complete a high-speed route into Maastricht, from Amsterdam and possibly from Nijmegen. The high-speed lines (HSL) from Utrecht to Eindhoven and its extension from Eindhoven to Sittard, and a HSL south to Liège, were described here earlier. This is an English-language version of the original post, with additional information for those not familiar with the Dutch network.

Overview Maastricht - Sittard

 
The existing line is double-track and electrified, but could not carry the extra traffic, and the alignment is unsuitable for high speeds. Additional traffic from a re-opened line to Aachen would also require reconstruction of the line out of Maastricht.

The existing railway was built in 1865, and its alignment is determined by the terrain. From Roermond to Sittard, the main line runs parallel to the river Maas. At Sittard, the South Limburg plateau begins, and the terrain slopes upwards. Another 10 km further south, the plateau is about 70 m above the floor of the Maas valley. The boundary between the plateau and the flood plain is a wooded escarpment.

The railway out of Sittard is aligned toward Maastricht, climbing slowly with the terrain. However, after Beek the plateau slope is too steep, and the line turns west to the Maas. For 8 km, between Elsloo and Bunde, the line is built on the escarpment itself. At Bunde it drops back to the Maas valley floor. After crossing the smaller river Geul, the line runs straight toward Maastricht station.

New plateau line

The line between Sittard and Beek is straight, and can easily be upgraded, with two extra tracks. Two new stations could be added in Geleen.

A new line can then do what was not possible in 1865: climb over the plateau. That is what the A2 motorway does, and it has the additional benefit of serving Maastricht Aachen Airport. The new line would be used exclusively by high-speed trains, that can climb steeper gradients. A tunnel would still be necessary at Bunde, where the line would drop 60 m, to rejoin the existing line. The junction would be just north of the river Geul, and from there the old line would be four-tracked.

This is not a true high-speed line (HSL), because it is only 20 km from Sittard to Maastricht via the plateau. It should however allow high speeds for through trains. The line passes the airport terminal, and obviously a station there is possible, but if all trains stop, there will be very little time gained. The future of the airport itself is in doubt, since like many smaller regional airports it is dependent on subsidy. (If there was no airport station, a long tunnel under the plateau would be an option).

Assuming that the new line serves the airport, then it would start north of Beek-Elsloo station, near the circular shopping centre Makado. It would first drop to pass under the A2 motorway, then climb again, staying as close to the motorway as possible to avoid a hill. With a cutting it should be possible to avoid a tunnel here, the climb is about 40 m.

Beek: base map by Jan-Willem van Aalst, CC4 licence

Beek-airport HSL

 
Nearing motorway junction 50 there is another steeper slope, but the line would pass under the junction in a short tunnel anyway. The line could cross the motorway here: the airport is on the eastern side. The airport station could be on either side of the motorway, however, since the terminal is close by.

South of the airport, the motorway is split into two separate roads. Both are suitable alignments for a rail line, but the line must drop into tunnel here anyway. The airport is at 110 m elevation, the Geul valley floor below the plateau is at 45 m. On the images, the edge of the plateau is visible as an irregular forested strip.

Bunde Meerssen

 
At the Geul river, the new line would rejoin the old line. About 1500 m further is the junction with the line from Valkenburg (originally from Aachen). The existing layout into Maastricht consists of two parallel double-track lines, the Sittard line and the Valkenburg line. The new P+R station Maastricht-Noord only has platforms on the Valkenburg tracks.

What is needed is a four-track line into Maastricht, with separate fast and slow tracks. It must have at least one grade-separated junction, probably two – at the Geul river, and at the new station. A four-track layout will make it easier to add another new station at Limmel – a more logical site, between two residential areas. Finally, the sharp curve approaching the main Maastricht station, must also be improved, although the options options here are limited.

Northern Maastricht: base map by Jan-Willem van Aalst, CC4 licence

Limmel

 
The present Intercity takes 14 minutes for the Sittard – Maastricht journey. With a stop at the airport, even high-speed trains will not take less then 10 minutes for the 20-km journey. However, the new line is also intend to increase capacity. On the existing line, the four new stations would be served by a regional metro. Stations are also possible at Elsloo village, and at Geulle (the old station there closed in 1945).

Base tunnel?

The airport station determines the alignment of a surface line over the plateau. Without an airport station, the new line does not need to be on the plateau anyway: it can use a ‘base tunnel’ from Beek to Bunde. The long tunnel would also start just north of Beek-Elsloo station, with a junction at the Makado shopping centre, at about 75 m elevation. It would pass under the road to Elsloo village (Stationsweg), and dive into the hillside behind the road.

Tunnel Elsloo Bunde

 
The tunnel would emerge in the sports fields at Bunde, at about 65 m elevation. The line would then follow the A2 motorway, on viaduct, to the existing line. To avoid a sharp curve here, the junction would be about 2 km further on, about 1000 m from Maastricht-Noord station.

The new line would be about 10 km long, of which 7 km in bored tunnel under plateau. With no airport station, and an almost straight and level tunnel, journey time Sittard – Maastricht should be about 8 minutes (average speed 154 km/h).

Four tracks Sittard – Maastricht

Regional rail line Hasselt – Maastricht

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…

bilzen-line-regional

 
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…

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…

rand-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.

uhasselt-bokrijk

 
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.

bilzen-munsterbilzen

 
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.

lanaken

 
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.

noorderbrug-mastricht

 
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.

borgharen-viaduct

 
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.

Regional rail line Hasselt – Maastricht