To boost rail's share of the growing traffic using the ports of Antwerpen, Gent and Zeebrugge, Infrabel has unveiled a package of investment projects totalling nearly €1·2bn over the next six years. Harry Hondius reports

THE PORT of Antwerpen is one of the jewels in the crown of the Belgian railways, accounting for around 40% of all freight moving on the country's rail network.

In terms of rail tonnage, Antwerpen is the second busiest port in Europe, accounting for 23 million tonnes in 2005. This compared with 32 million for Hamburg and just 15 million passing through Rotterdam. The bulk of Belgian rail freight traffic is still being moved by B-Cargo, followed by open access operators D&L Cargo, Fret SNCF and rail4chem.

In recent years, rail traffic through Antwerpen has declined from a peak of 28 million tonnes in 1989. In terms of market share the fall has been more obvious, from 30% in 1989 to 14% today. Total freight movements through the port in 2005 amounted to around 160 million tonnes, of which 60% was inbound and 40% outward business. Containers accounted for 45% of the traffic, followed by wet bulk cargo (23%), dry bulk (18%) and conventional (14%).

With recent studies forecasting that traffic through the port will reach300 million tonnes by 2030, of which 69% will be in containers, the harbour company wants to see much of the increasing business moved by rail, both for environmental reasons and because the local road network is becoming increasingly congested. In particular, a priority is to increase the proportion of container traffic handled by rail.

Today the rail share of container traffic through Antwerpen is only 8%, but this is expected to increase to between 15% and 20% in the not too distant future. For comparison, at Rotterdam rail's proportion of container traffic had already reached 13% by 2001, and at Hamburg and Bremen it is no less than 28%. To meet these needs, Infrabel has approved a programme of investment projects to improve and expand the rail network serving the port.

Left bank improvements

In the period 2001-08 Infrabel has budgeted to invest a total of €101·6m in the freight railways on the left bank of the River Schelde. Around 84 km of new track has been laid so far in connection with opening of the Deurganckdok (Fig 1, project 1), with plans to expand this to 240 km by 2020.

The connections around the dock are known as Line 211, and the connection from the Gent - Antwerpen route (Line 59) is designated Line 10. This last will be double-tracked and electrified by the end of this year from the junction with Line 59 as far as the marshalling yard at Bundel Zuid.

Next year will see the completion of works to expand Bundel Zuid from 22 to 32 tracks, and a new connection between Lines 211 and 10 at the east side of the yard. In 2008 Infrabel plans to complete a west-facing curve between Line 10 and Line 59. Costing €5m to build, the Gentboog (2)will allow trains to depart directly for Zeebrugge and routes into northern France.

Liefkenshoek connection

To connect the port railways on the right and left banks of the Schelde, Infrabel is planning to build a 16·2 km link from Bundel Zuid to the main marshalling yard at Antwerpen Noord. The Liefkenshoek line (3) is intended to remove the majority of freight traffic from the existing Kennedy tunnel on Line 59.

Around 6·1 km of the new connection will run in a pair of single-track bores passing under the Waaslandkanaal, the Schelde itself and the Kanaaldok. In the longer term, a balloon loop on the south side will make it possible for trains to enter Bundel Zuid yard from both ends.

Infrabel expects to raise private-sector financing for the Liefkenshoek project through a PPP concession. Invitations have been issued for a DBFMT package, and the aim is to award contracts in 2007, so that the line will be ready in 2012. The Flanders region has provided an initial €107m to start the engineering design and other preparatory works. Infrabel expects to invest €49·5m in the project, with €635m to be raised through the PPP.

The operating concession period is envisaged at 35 to 38 years, during which time Infrabel would pay availability fees to the concessionaire. However, these will not be recovered from the actual rail operators, as it is felt that this would hamper Antwerpen's competitive position.

Right bank improvements

On the right bank, it will be necessary to improve the capacity of Line 27A between Antwerpen Noord and Berchem. To achieve this, two additional tracks will be laid at Schijn, together with a short tunnel to carry both Line 27A and the extended Line 11 underneath Line 12, eliminating conflicting moves (4).

In the south of the city, the Krijgsbaan junction at Mortsel between Line 27A to Mechelen and Line 15 to Lier will also be grade-separated (5), enabling simultaneous passage of trains from Antwerpen Noord to Mechelen and from Lier to Antwerpen Noord.

Costing a total of €165m, these two projects are expected to be completed by 2011, allowing a 30% increase in freight train movements from 360 to 470 per day.

In the longer term, a second connection to the right bank docks from the east is seen as an important project which may be incorporated in the 2008-12 investment plan, although the estimated cost is already put at around €1bn.

The intention is to build a new 28 km route, Line 16A, from Schijn through Mersem, Schoten, Deurne, Wijnegem, Wommelgem and Ranst to join the Lier - Aarschot Line 16 at Lier (6). From here trains will be able to join Line 35, running to Montzen in one direction and in the other to Leuven, Namur and the Dinant - Athus route.

To and from Germany

In order to handle more rail traffic to and from Antwerpen, SNCB has been lobbying for several years for the re-opening of the Iron Rhine connection between Antwerpen and the German industrial heartland in the Ruhr. Reviving the corridor via Neerpelt, Roermond and Mönchengladbach would cut the distance from Antwerpen to Duisburg to 162·3 km, compared with 211·2 km on the existing line via Montzen.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in Den Haag ruled in May 2005 that the Iron Rhine should be re-opened to handle up to 15 trains a day. Infrabel has therefore prepared plans for upgrading the 18·5 km Neerpelt - Budel - Weert section, which is budgeted at €40 m. Yet to be addressed is the 15 km Roermond - Dalheim section, where the route runs through Dutch territory.

Meanwhile, work is underway to complete the electrification of the existing route into Germany. At present the 162 km from Antwerpen to Montzen via Lines 16, 35, 34 and 24 is wired at 3 kV DC. The final 8 km from Montzen to the German border will also be equipped with 3 kV by December 2008, at a cost of €3m. Meanwhile, DB Netz will electrify the onward route through the Botzelaar tunnel to Gemmenich at 15 kV 162/3Hz, with a voltage changeover section at Moresnet viaduct.

With the completion of electrification, it will be possible to operate heavier freight trains from Aachen West to Antwerpen, providing that the operators have suitable dual-system locos.

Zeebrugge and Gent

Although the majority of port investment is targeted at Antwerpen, Infrabel is also planning improvements at Zeebrugge and Gent.

At present rail only has a 15% market share of the Zeebrugge traffic, which stands at 34·6 million tonnes a year following enlargement of the artificial harbour in 1985. Around 90% of the rail traffic is containers, although these only account for 45% of total port business. Another 34% is cars and the rest bulk freight.

The investment plan envisages spending €90m to enlarge Zeebrugge marshalling yard in 2009-13. A connection between the eastern and western harbours at Bocht Ter Doest (Lines 51A and 51B) is to be built in 2008-09 at a cost of €8m, and the tracks in the western container terminals will be extended in 2007-08 at a cost of €22·3m, Finally, a third track will be added between Zeebrugge and Dudzele by 2016 for €63m.

At Gent, rail handled 4 million tonnes of freight, out of the 22 million that passed through the port in 2005. The existing marshalling yard is due to be upgraded with computer control in 2010, at a cost of €15m, and the same year will see the opening of a 16-track facility to serve new Kluizendok for a total of €21m.

Meanwhile, work continues on quadrupling Line 50A between Gent and Brugge. This project, which started in 1995, is now expected to be completed in 2018 at a total cost of €311m.

  • Picture caption: Fig 1: The rail network serving the port of Antwerpen, with the principal planned improvement projects:

  1. Gentboog curve;
  2. Deurganckdok improvements;
  3. Liefkenshoek tunnel;
  4. Schijn-Noorderdok remodelling;
  5. Krijgsbaan grade-separation;
  6. Proposed 'second connection' to Lier

  • Picture caption: Fig 2: The connections between the right bank and Berchem, with north to the right. The purple route is Line 25 from Brussels serving the four new low-level through platforms at Antwerpen Centraal and joining end-on to LGV 4. The black route is Lines 27 and 15 running to the four middle-level terminal platforms, whilst the blue shows Line 59/1 from Gent and Line 12 from Essen which use the six high-level terminal platforms. In green is Line 27A connecting Antwerpen Noord marshalling yard with Mortsel and Berchem. The planned improvements are shown in red
  • Picture caption: Hub of the docks rail complex is this highly-automated computer-controlled marshalling yard at Antwerpen Noord
  • Picture caption: Zeebrugge outer harbour, showing the new western container terminal in the background and the marshalling yard next to the sea dyke