INTRO: Financing and construction of the Belgian high-speed network has had to evolve to meet changing circumstances. But work is now under way on almost every element in the jigsaw, with completion of the northern and eastern branches envisaged by 2005

BYLINE: Ir Johan Meyns

Chief ExecutiveTUC Rail SA

ALL ACROSS THE rolling countryside between Brussels and Liège construction teams are hard at work. Alongside the E40 motorway, parallelling the existing tracks, and cutting through the Ardennes hills, work is in full swing on the eastern leg of Belgium’s Y-shaped high-speed network. The story is the same between Brussels and Antwerpen. Reconstruction of the existing four-track main line is proceeding apace, and deep under the northern city’s Central Station the foundations for the new through platforms are being put into place.

The two routes will complete Belgian National Railways’ 314 km high-speed network, which will comprise 200 km of passenger-only new lines suitable for 300 to 320 km/h running and 114 km of existing mixed-traffic routes upgraded for 200 to 220 km/h operation.

Development of the three-branch network is being project managed by TUC Rail SA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNCB. The western leg from Brussels to the French border near Antoing was put into service in December 1997, and both the northern branch to the Netherlands and the eastern branch to Germany are due to be completed by 2005.

Although the western branch is in service, there is still some work to be completed. SNCB has budgeted Ecu100m to finish the line itself, and another Ecu200m for property development at Brussels Midi station.

In Halle where the high-speed line rejoins domestic tracks through the Brussels suburbs, cut-and-cover tunnels were built to carry the two high-speed tracks and two domestic tracks under the station site. Remodelling of the rest of the station and construction of new buildings will take another two years. With TBL cab signalling and automatic train protection installed, the line speed on this section will then be lifted from 160 to 220 km/h.

More important is the work at Brussels Midi, which is expected to take until 2004 to complete. The six high-speed platform tracks (two for Eurostar and four for Thalys) are at the extreme western side of the station, whilst the high-speed tracks are on the eastern side of the main line. A new flyover will solve this problem, but the rest of the approaches will be remodelled to improve domestic operations. The station itself, which dates from just after World War II, is also to be modernised. Besides the improved comfort and integration, this finishing touch will save another 5 min on the journey times to and from Paris and London.

Commercial success already

The start of commercial operation of the western branch in December 1997 quickly brought very satisfying results, in terms of both load factor and market share. The 1998 results for the Paris - Brussels Thalys service are shown in Table I. This shows how the high speed trains have won a sizeable share of the total travel market between the two cities in little more than a year, and confirm that rail is well placed for the years ahead.

At present seven Thalys trains continue beyond Brussels to K