Palais du Midi

Construction of the Toots Thielemans station is underway below Rue du Stalingrad (left), but the colossal Palais du Midi may have to be partially dismantled to facilitate work on the connecting tunnels.

BELGIUM: Citing significant delays and cost over-runs with the development of the north-south metro Line 3 in Brussels, federal project promoter Beliris has requested guidance from the federal and regional governments by July 15 over the future direction of the complex project.

The federal agency was established to finance and manage major projects in the Brussels capital region. It is responsible for design and engineering of the northern section of the proposed metro line from Gare du Nord to Bordet, which would relieve the surface tram Route 55.

City-owned operator STIB is managing the other portion of the complex M3 project, where work is already underway to convert the existing pre-metro line between Albert and Gare du Nord into a heavy metro.

This entails changing the power supply in the pre-metro section from 600 V DC overhead line to 930 V DC third-rail, and rebuilding the platforms at the underground stations to accommodate 2 700 mm wide metro trains with a floor height of 1 100 mm above rail, rather than the current 2 300 mm wide low floor trams with a 350 mm entry height.

Albert station is being rebuilt to provide easy interchange from the metro to the residual tram services on the connecting surface routes, while a metro train stabling facility has to be created at Nord.

Bypass tunnel delayed

Fig 1. The new Toots Thielemans station (green) is being built at some distance from the existing tram subway at Lemonnier (blue), linked by a connecting pedestrian walkway (yellow). (Image: STIB)

Image: STIB

The new Toots Thielemans station (green) is being built at some distance from the existing tram subway at Lemonnier (blue), linked by a connecting pedestrian walkway (yellow).

At present, pre-metro tram services use an underground station at Lemonnier, which serves the area around Rue Stalingrad, just north of Brussels Midi. This complex V-shaped junction station is a remnant of the city’s original tram subway opened for the 1958 World Expo and was not built with the idea of metro conversion. As one side of the station will still be served by tram routes 51 and 82, the Line 3 project includes a short bypass with a new metro station. Initially to be called Constitution but now known as Toots Thielemans, this will be linked to Lemonnier by an underground walkway.

Engineering for the new station and connecting links was undertaken for STIB by SM Greisch-Systra-SumProject. The construction work has been split into several sections, including:

  • the 325 m long Toots Thielemans metro station (C4A);
  • the refurbishment of Lemonnier and the passenger interchange connections (C3H);
  • a 250 m metro tunnel connecting the new station with the line through Midi (C4C);
  • another 250 m tunnel passing under the Palais du Midi to connect the new station with the existing pre-metro tunnel near Anneessens (C3).

However, the last of these elements has run into big problems.

Toots Thielemans station and the new line between Brussels Midi and Anneessens total 825 m of tunnelling, which is being developed in several sections. (Image: SM Greisch).

Image: SM Greisch

Toots Thielemans station and the new line between Brussels Midi and Anneessens total 825 m of tunnelling, which is being developed in several sections. 

Originally created as a market hall, the 150-year-old Palais du Midi retains a social function in the Stalingrad district. The 175 m long building houses a school for 1 200 students and an elaborate sports centre with a sports hall and gymnasium on different levels, as well as a lot of small businesses.

The Toots construction consortium of Besix, Jan de Nul Group and Franki Construct was originally expected to build the connecting tunnel under the Palais using diaphragm walls in the soft ground along the former River Senne, but stopped work in 2021 because of severe doubts about the water-tightness of the design. The consortium proposed using longer piles at an estimated extra cost of €170m and a two-year delay, taking the total time required to eight years. It has not been willing to restart the works under the original conditions.

STIB has contested the extra cost as excessive, and suggested the use of an alternative caisson method. This would require the roof of the Palais to be removed, along with some internal floors, to provide access for the cranes, although the facades would remain. Even though the building is not a classified monument, the proposed partial dismantling has been escalated to the regional level; the first indications suggest that permission may be granted.

Reconstruction would begin 2029, but there are suggestions that the cost could reach €400m. STIB is trying to reach agreement with the contractors, but if the stand-off goes to court it could cause an even longer delay.

Nord – Bordet over budget

Meanwhile, Beliris has been pressing ahead with engineering of the 4·5 km northern extension, employing between 50 and 100 people. Five consortia were shortlisted to bid for the construction of 5 km of tunnels plus seven new stations, but offers were only received from two. The project had been estimated at around €1·5bn in early 2022, but the agency explained to the Brussels regional government that the bids had come in at a price which would lift the overall budget to around €2·5bn, making it impossible to continue within the available financing.

Beliris has therefore proposed four options:

  • continue and negotiate, with the aim of persuading the contractors to reduce their prices in exchange for Belaris carrying some of the construction risk. This would require the agency to recruit a team of project management experts, which would add cost and may not achieve the required savings;
  • suspend the project for six months to allow for a more detailed analysis of the offers from a technical perspective, helping to strengthen the agency’s negotiating position;
  • modify the plans, scrapping three of the seven stations and splitting the scheme into smaller parts. This would reduce the level of risk for each contractor, and may bring the costs closer to the original budget;
  • stop the project altogether. This would not affect the works now underway at Gare du Nord, but all other studies and contracts could be halted. Around €70m would have to be paid to terminate the contracts already placed, in addition to the €50m spent so far.

With Beliris requesting a decision by July 15, the regional government has sought additional help from the federal government. It has already received €500m of federal funding for infrastructure works but that was not ring-fenced for the metro and some has been spent on other purposes.

According to STIB CEO Brieuc de Meeùs d’Argenteul, around €175m has so far been expended on the pre-metro conversion, excluding any extra costs for the Palais du Midi tunnel. He has also made it clear that in the long term it would be impossible to operate the converted metro line between Albert and Gare du Nord without a proper maintenance depot, for which the only available site is at Bordet, at the end of the northern extension.

Taken all together, the reconstruction of the Palais du Midi and ongoing levels of inflation could well lift the total cost of the two-stage Line 3 project to around €4bn, with the earliest opening date now envisaged as 2032. It will be up to the Brussels politicians to decide, and some parties in the regional government have always been opposed to the scheme.

In the meantime, STIB has exercised its options for all 43 series M7 trainsets from CAF, including those intended to operate automatically on Line 3. The operator is looking to introduce driverless operation on the western section of Line 5 between Ceria, Eddy Merckx and Erasme from 2025, following the installation of CBTC and platform screen doors at the three stations. Drivers would leave the outbound trains at Ceria and take over an inbound service at that point.