to carry international freight

FROM THE END of next year, up to 15 freight trains a day will begin running across the south of the Netherlands and northern Belgium. The revival of the so-called ’Iron Rhine’ corridor linking Germany’s Ruhr industrial area with the port of Amsterdam follows the signing of an international accord between the Dutch and Belgian transport ministers in April.

The Iron Rhine was opened between Duisburg and Antwerpen in 1879. Running via Krefeld, it crosses the German border near Dalheim to reach the NS line between Venlo and Maastricht at Roermond. It then continues through Weert to Neerpelt in northern Belgium, and runs via Herenthals and Lier to reach Antwerpen. Although parts of the line are used for domestic passenger traffic (Antwerpen - Neerpelt and Weert - Roermond), through freight traffic ended after the Second World War, and the cross-border sections linking Neerpelt to Weert and Roermond to Dalheim have been mothballed for decades.

Meanwhile, Netherlands Railways has been facing significant capacity problems on its east-west main lines following the rapid growth in rail freight traffic between Germany and the port of Rotterdam. This is the primary justification for construction of the 25 kV electrified Betuwe Line, which is currently getting under way between Rotterdam and Eindhoven.

During the planning of the Betuwe route, the revival of the Iron Rhine was suggested as a more economical solution. However, the preference for Rotterdam over Amsterdam and the concerns of environmentalists in the border region tipped the balance in favour of the new line. But delays over raising private-sector finance and awarding E&M contracts have pushed the completion of the Betuwe route back to around 2008. With traffic continuing to rise, Netherlands Railways risked running out of capacity before the new line was ready.

Discussions earlier this year between Railion, DB Cargo and the Belgian and Dutch transport ministries led to an agreement that the Iron Rhine should be reopened as a stop-gap, to provide additional capacity between 2002-08. The Dutch government has commissioned a study into the environmental impact on nature reserves along the border, and will pay compensation for any intrusion. The Belgian and German governments will fund the renovation of their parts of the route, and the three governments will continue to monitor the environmental impact throughout the operating period.

The ministers have also agreed to set up a round table to discuss the future role of the Iron Rhine after freight traffic switches to the Betuwe line. Some traffic may continue to use the route to reach Antwerpen, and there may be scope to reinstate cross-border passenger services.

CAPTION: An SNCB diesel loco waits at Neerpelt with a local passenger service. The line from Herentals was electrified at 3 kV DC in 1998-99, although the cross-border link will be reinstated as a diesel operationAll photos: R R Rossberg

CAPTION: This bridge carries the now single-tracked Iron Rhine over the Schelde-Maas canal east of Neerpelt

CAPTION: Above: The Belgian - Dutch border crossing between Hamont and Budel

Right: Crossing the Venlo - Maastricht line at Roermond

CAPTION: Key to reopening the Iron Rhine are the cross-border links shown in red

CAPTION: Below: Undergrowth surrounds German semaphore signals and Dalheim West signalbox, though the eastern end of the station is still used by DB passenger trains