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BELGIUM: The first PPP in Belgium reached financial close on September 28, allowing infrastructure authority Infrabel to announce the formal go-ahead for the long-planned Diabolo project, which will improve rail links to Brussels Airport and Antwerpen.

Infrabel is working with private-sector investors HSH Nordbank AG and Babcock & Brown, who have formed a new company known as Northern Diabolo NV. This company has been awarded a 40-year concession to design, finance, build and maintain an underground rail link running northwest from the present sub-surface station at the airport (RG 5.05 p241). Contracts for the civil engineering work have been awarded to the THV Dialink consortium of CEI-De Meyer, MBG, Wayss & Freytag, Vinci Construction Grands Projets and Smet Tunnelling.

According to Infrabel, 'Brussels Airport has a good card to play, but needs to be more accessible for Belgians as well as international travellers from Germany, the UK, France and the Netherlands. Schiphol is saturated, Frankfurt and London have no extension plans for several years, and Paris has stopped talking about a third airport for the time being.' Hence the decision to link Brussels Airport with the high speed routes heading north, south and east from the Belgian capital.

On the domestic level, the Diabolo is intended to help address growing road congestion. The target is to double rail's share of the airport market to 30% by 2030. Direct services will link the airport with Antwerpen and Mechelen without the need to travel via the city centre. To the east, Liège and Leuven already have a direct link following the opening of the Nossegem Chord on December 11 2005.

The package comprises two parallel projects which together total €540m. The Diabolo proper is priced at €290m, which will be financed by Northern Diabolo NV. Providing the northern connection from the airport, this work includes the lengthening of the current three-platform airport station and construction of a 1 070 m twin-bore tunnel. A further underground section will take the line through the Brucargo industrial area to meet the new Line 25N between Brussels and Mechelen, with grade-separated junctions facing both north and south.

Infrabel will be responsible for funding the construction of Line 25N, using €250m of public finance. Running from Schaerbeek to Mechelen, this route will largely follow the central reservation of the E19 motorway. At Schaerbeek the new line will connect with both the conventional Line 25 leading into the centre of Brussels and the orbital Line 26 around the eastern side of the city. At the northern end, the new line will diverge from the motorway at Zemst on a new viaduct, paralleling the existing lines 25 and 27 through Mechelen to rejoin Line 25 at Nekkerspoel. Building a third pair of tracks through the centre of Mechelen will involve a degree of disruption, but Infrabel believes the operational advantages will outweigh the environmental impact. The chosen alignment offers the lowest cost, and will free up capacity on existing lines for the expansion of services on the emerging Brussels RER network.

The airport line is to be laid with ballastless track, including special anti-vibration measures where it passes under the airport buildings. The high speed line will be laid with ballasted track. Both routes will be equipped with conventional colour-light signalling, backed up by both ETCS Level 1 and TBL1+ for automatic train protection.

Construction of the airport link was expected to get underway at the end of October. Civil works will be finished by the end of 2010, leaving 2011 for the fit-out of railway systems, including track, electrification, signalling and communications. Test running is due to start at the beginning of 2012, with the line handed over for operations in June 2012. This is about 18 months later than originally anticipated when the PPP was launched. Line 25N, on which work began in July, is also expected to enter revenue service on the same date.

Under the PPP agreement, Northern Diabolo will be responsible for maintaining the airport line for the next 35 years, until the assets are transferred to state ownership in June 2047. The company's investment will be reimbursed through three revenue streams: an indexed annual payment from Infrabel of €9m a year, a contribution from the train operators equivalent to 0·5% of all fare receipts for domestic passenger traffic, and a fixed charge of €3·80 on all tickets to or from Brussels Airport (apart from staff journeys to and from work).

Meanwhile, Infrabel confirmed that negotiations are underway for a second PPP project to finance the Liefkenshoek tunnel on the Antwerpen port railway (RG 8.06 p450). Due to be signed in the early part of 2008, this is expected to provide private finance for 93% of the project, provisionally costed at €684m.

Diabolo project timetable

2004 Decision to structure project as PPP
2005 Call for financial offers and tenders for construction work
September 28 2007 Financial close and signing of PPP agreement
Award of construction tenders
October 2007 Start of work
End 2010 Completion of infrastructure
2011 Tracklaying, electrification and installation of signalling and communications
2012 Testing
June 2012 Handover of line for operation
June 2047 End of PPP; infrastructure assets transfer to Infrabel