Now, for those unsure of the Belgian royal lineage, Queen Fabiola was the wife of King Baudouin. When he died in 1993, the throne passed to his brother, Albert II, as Baudouin and Fabiola were childless and thence to the current King Philippe. Queen Fabiola died on 5 December 2014, just four days before the Rail Engineer’s (and others’) royal audience so, understandably, the King could not be present.

Second largest port

The venue was to have been a remote corner of the flat, windswept and rather forbidding industrial landscape that surrounds the vast area of the Antwerp dock complex. The occasion was the official (and hitherto royal) opening of the Liefkenshoek rail link.

More of the opening ceremony and general extravaganza a little later, but first a bit of background and some statistics that may surprise you.

The Port of Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe behind Rotterdam having been expanded after the Marshall plan and through the period from 1955 – 1965.

There are now 163km of quay headings and 409km of roads. Over 60,000 are directly employed in the port with a further 82,900 in support industries.

There are also 1,061km of railway lines from which 250 loaded freight trains depart every day.

A total of €1.6 billion is planned to be invested up to 2025 in dredging, in the construction of a second lock on the west bank, dock renovation and the construction of a rail tunnel connecting the left and right banks.

The second lock is currently under construction and, when it is completed in 2016, will be the largest lock in the world with a length of 500 metres, a width of 68 metres and a depth of 17.8 metres.

But it is the rail tunnel – or, to be specific, the completed rail link – that we will be looking at.

Time savings

The Liefkenshoek rail link connects both banks of the Port of Antwerp. It is a direct route of 16.2km for freight traffic between the port facilities on the left bank, the Waaslandhaven and the Deurganck Dock, and the right bank – the Antwerp North marshalling yard. It has the longest rail tunnels in Belgium running at a depth of up to 40 metres under the Scheldt river – more than half of the railway runs through tunnels.

Antwerp Map [online]

In addition, the new link eliminates the need for trains to negotiate existing bottlenecks, including the Kennedy tunnel to the south and junctions on the Berchem – Schijnpoort line, giving valuable time savings for the majority of freight trains. The added bonus is that extra tracks and capacity are now available for passenger transport around the city.

Infrabel, the Belgium ‘Network Rail’, wishes to increase the share of rail container traffic from 8% to 15% by 2030 and actively supports the growth of the Port of Antwerp. It has already achieved greater transport efficiency by developing the rail network around the Deurganck Dock area. Its longer term aspiration involves better access to the Belgian ports and improving critical parts of the rail network to allow interoperable freight corridors from all parts of Europe.

A PPP that worked

But the Liefkenshoek rail link was not cheap and, in itself, it was way outside of the funding capability of the Belgian Railways. Contrary to the experiences of some, it seems that a PPP (public-private partnership) has worked for Infrabel. Under a DBFM agreement (design, build, finance and maintain) construction risks and the availability risks have been transferred to the private investor.

It is worth noting that this is the second PPP arrangement that Infrabel has entered into. The first was for the construction of the Diabolo project – a new railway line serving Brussels National Airport.

The total investment in the Liefkenshoek link has been €873 million, of which €183 million has been funded by Infrabel while the balance of €690 million came from Locorail NV, a private investment group made up of BAM PPP Investments Belgie, CFE NV and Vinci Concessions SA. This group will be responsible for the financing of the infrastructure and, for 38 years, for its maintenance costs. During this 38 year period, Locorail NV makes the infrastructure available to Infrabel and transfers, in 2051, the ownership of the infrastructure completely to Infrabel.

The construction consortium is Locobouw responsible for building and maintenance for the 38-year period. Locobouw is MBG, CEI-De Meyer, Wayss & Freytag (a BAM subsidiary) and Vinci Construction.

The route

Much of the new link is in a cutting or in a tunnel as it has to pass under the Waasland Canal, the River Scheldt and a canal dock.

From the fan of sidings adjacent to the Deurganck Dock on the South side, the line drops down to an existing tunnel under the Waasland Canal. This tunnel had been constructed at the same time as the parallel Beveren road tunnel in 1969, but it had never been used. Effectively it had been buried and had to be pumped out completely before renovation work could start.

After a short section, there are two single track tunnels that run for 6km. These were bored by tunnel boring machines christened Schanulleke and Wiske after some Belgian cartoon characters. The line then climbs back to ground level to make the Northern connection with the existing main line.

Work started on site in November 2008 with the bored tunnels completed in May and July of 2011. The civils works, controlled by Locobouw, were completed in the summer of 2013. The construction of tracks, the signalling system and overhead line system were the responsibility of Infrabel which started work in the summer of 2012. By the autumn of 2014, all works had been tested ready for driver training.

Fire precautions

The new bored tunnels have extensive fire safety systems. This reflects the type of traffic that will use the tunnels which will be almost-exclusively freight.

The emphasis is the suppression of potentially high temperature fires rather than the mass evacuation of people. There are, of course, conventional detection and ventilation systems, but the use of an automatic foam fire extinguishing system is a European first. Being constructed beneath an industrial area has allowed the construction of 14 evacuation shafts. There are 13 cross- tunnel connections and escape routes every 300 metres.

Open for business

The stormy weather in the run-up to the official opening finally abated and the preparations at the site of the temporary platform in a deep cutting near the entrance of the Beveren tunnel had to battle industrial quantities of mud. The final installation of the sound and light systems was on a pop-concert scale. One or two of the wheel- mounted flight cases had rolled into an open ditch looking like distraught Daleks.

D3S_8352 [online]

The press contingent had been bussed in and all seemed fairly deserted until the VIP train arrived. The eight coaches were rammed with assorted dignitaries. This then retreated discreetly out of sight to allow the speeches and the ceremonial opening of the link with a symbolic signal lever. (The link is fitted with ETCS, so the lever really didn’t have much effect). The ‘first’ train then roared through the site with containers emblazoned with sponsorship. Once clear, this was swiftly followed by the sound/light/firework extravaganza – choreographed by a twelve-foot-high illuminated marionette.

Then it was all over. The VIPs and, as it turned out, most of the press contingent decamped back in the train which made its way back to Antwerp Central. The remaining handful of souls, who were not packing up the show, made their way back to the car park to find that their coach had also made off to the city centre.

At times like this, with no immediate prospect of rescue, the site swiftly reverted back to being that remote corner of a flat, windswept and rather forbidding industrial landscape – but this time in the pitch dark!