SNCB is starting to harvest the benefit from recent Infrabel investment projects, reports Harry Hondius

FROM THE timetable change on December 10, passengers travelling to and from Brussels have found significant improvements in the level of service, thanks to the completion of several important investment projects.

The biggest was the quadrupling of the 26 km Leuven - Schaarbeek route and the construction of a new viaduct, which crosses the complex junction layout at Schaarbeek, giving direct access to Brussels Nord. On the quadrupled section, the inner tracks (Line 36N) are reserved for fast trains, with stopping services using the outer tracks (Line 36). By the end of 2008 all eight intermediate stations will have been modernised with 750 mm high platforms.

Total cost of the Line 36 quadrupling is put at k670m, of which €350m comes from the high speed budget and €320m from the domestic pot. This includes €4·25m for the double-track viaduct at Schaarbeek and €12·2m for the station works.

Until the line has been equipped with ETCS Level 2, the maximum speed will be limited to 160 km/h, but it will eventually be 200 km/h. The gain in time between Brussels and Leuven is 6 min for high speed trains and 3 min for domestic services.

December 1 saw the formal inauguration of a 435 m viaduct across the southern approaches to Brussels Midi, which gives high speed trains and domestic inter-city services direct access to the station. From the timetable change, this has allowed a 3 min time saving for Thalys TGVs to and from Paris, and 4 min for Eurostar services.

Timetable enhancement

With the completion of these works, Thalys services have reached their optimum timings west of Liège. The 314 km between Brussels Midi and Paris Nord are covered in 1 h 22 min, at an average of 230 km/h, 25 times each way per day. Liège - Paris takes 2 h 13 min for 418 km, or 189 km/h, with seven trains each way. A further seven connections, changing in Brussels, can be completed in 2 h 29 min, or 168 km/h.

East of Brussels, the gain for domestic passengers is impressive. Between 06.00 and 18.00 each day, a new hourly inter-city Route O provides a non-stop Liège - Brussels service on Line 36, averaging 123·9 km/h between Liège and Brussels Nord. These trains run through to and from Maastricht, giving a 3 h timing from Paris seven times a day. Making the most of its dual-voltage stock, SNCB has launched a daily through train from Brussels to Gouvy in the Ourthe valley, serving the 11 stops on Line 43 and achieving an average speed of 78·2 km/h. This service changes from 25 kV to 3 kV or vice versa three times each way.

Opening of the 1 750 m single-track Leuvenboog curve, built at a cost of €22·4m, enables trains coming from Hasselt on Line 35 to avoid reversal in Leuven. In the morning peak there are four direct trains between Tongeren, Hasselt and Brussels those with three stops average 86·9 km/h and the one non-stop train manages 95·8 km/h, completely eclipsing the best timing by car.

Making use of the Brussels Midi viaduct, SNCB has launched a through train from Line 96 east of Mons in the morning peak, arriving at Midi just before 08.00 at an average speed of 102·8 km/h.

LGV 3 opening in doubt

Looking further ahead, Thalys CEO Jean-Michel Dancoisne said on December 1 that Liège - Aachen Thalys services are not expected to operate over the 35 km LGV 3 from Chenée to Hammerbrücke until December 2008 (RG 12.06 p790). Infrabel CEO Luc Lallemand is convinced that ETCS Level 2 Version 3.0 and GSM-R are the right long-term choice, but the Thalys PBKA trainsets will not be equipped with their eighth signalling and safety system before the end of 2008. So unless something changes, LGV 3 will lie unused for a year from December 2007.

Given that the GSM-R is functioning, and there is no other traffic, it should surely be possible for the nine high speed trains each way per day to start using LGV 3 on a restricted basis from the end of next year - perhaps with two-person crews and limited to 160 km/h to reflect the lack of ATP. But this would be for Thalys and Infrabel to negotiate between themselves.

  • CAPTION: Schaarbeek viaduct connects the high speed tracks on Line 36N directly with the Brussels North-South junction
  • CAPTION: Completion of the new approach viaduct at Brussels Midi has cut Thalys and Eurostar journey times by 3 or 4 min in each direction
  • CAPTION: Permitting faster peak-hour services to and from Hasselt, the Leuvenboog curve (left) connects with the rebuilt Line 36 outside Leuven
    Photos: Infrabel