Belgian rail freight link up & running

December 7-8, 2014: Passion4Transport travelled from Paris (by train of course!) to Antwerp, Belgium, to attend the inauguration and commissioning of the milestone Liefkenshoek Rail Link.

Under construction since November 2008, the opening of this new route is a major coup for both Belgian rail infrastructure manager (IM) Infrabel and Antwerp Port Authority. As from December 14, the 16.2km line will provide a sorely needed, direct route for freight trains between the strategic banks of the Scheldt river, along which the Port has grown up and out.

On the Left Bank, the Liefkenshoek is set to improve access to the Deurganck dock, the largest tidal dock in the world, as well as to other port areas located here; on the Right, it forms a crucial connection for goods traffic travelling to and from Antwerp North, the second-largest marshalling yard in Europe (after Maschen, in Hamburg), and largest in Benelux.

Brains & brawn

Over half the route runs in its 2 x single-track tunnel tubes, built to a depth of up to 40 metres (below river surface level) by means of computer and laser-controlled boring techniques.

The duo of tunnel boring machines (TBM) brought into play, from German Herrenknecht, each measured a gargantuan 102 metres in length and each excavated an average of 15 metres a day (peaking at up to 45 metres). By way of comparison, for the Diabolo  Infrabel’s other milestone accomplishment, in commercial service since 2012  the 66-metre long TBM was considerably smaller fry!

In the summer of 2012 up to April 2014, Infrabel begin installing the rail infrastructure: around 18km of tracks and catenaries on the track beds, and 15.5km of the same combined in tunnels.

Signalling works along the entire route required the installation of  50 signals and 244km of cabling.

Testing and certification activities ran from the spring to autumn of 2014.

All angles covered

The safety measures in place are everything they should be, and possibly more besides. Despite being designed to carry cargo rather than passenger trains, the tunnel is nevertheless well provided for in the case of an emergency. It is served by no less than 14 evacuation shafts (each 600 metres apart), 13 tunnel connections, plus access and escape routes every 300 metres.

Sensing & eyeing temperatures

Fire and access detection is keep under control by equipment such as temperature sensors and CCTV cameras (including infrared and axial dome), plus there are gas sensors that automatically trigger ventilation fans if necessary.

Starving fire with foam

Making its debut in a European rail tunnel is an antomatic foam extinguishing system.

“This is already used in other sectors, such as packing,” points out Dirk De Backer, construction contract manager, TUC RAIL. “One of the reasons we opted for this solution is that cargo trains often carry highly flammable goods and when they burn, temperatures soar. In these cases of extreme heat, water is ineffective. The foam, on the other hand,  which essentially acts by removing oxygen to starve the fire, is capable of both containing and extinguishing it rapidly.”

ETCS signalling

Another key safety feature is state-of-the-art signalling technology in the form of ETCS – European Train Control System.

“Although not absolutely necessary today, we took the opportunity to install it anyway,” explains Frédéric Petit, spokesman, Infrabel. “The benefits are that it avoids trains passing through red lights; it acts rather like a ‘cruise control’ in a car, i.e. by controlling the train speed throughout the whole journey; plus it adjusts the train speed according to the braking distance required.”

Twelve percent (>755km) of Belgian’s rail network is currently ETCS equipped. And the country is moving ahead fast with the technology:

  • By the end of 2022, Infrabel plans to have all its tracks covered
  • All trains operated by Belgian Railways (SNCB) are due to be ETCS-enabled by 2023
  • By 2025, only ‘ETCS trains’ will be allowed to run nationwide.

Funding the future

The €873 million Link is being financed by a public-private partnership (PPP), the second experience of such scheme for Infrabel following the Diabolo.

And while the two models are quite similar, there are subtle differences, e.g. for the Liefkenshoek agreement, concluded in November 2008, while the construction and availability risks are both transferred to the private investor, there is no demand risk.

As the PPP party, LOCORAIL NV  a private investment group comprising BAM PPP; CFE NV; and VINCI Concessions SA  brought  690 million euros to the table for the construction works. Responsible for the maintenance costs of the asset for a period of 38 years, in 2051 it will hand over full ownership  of the infrastructure to Infrabel.

Infrabel, as the public entity, has  contributed 183 million euros to the project. Plus the IM will pay an availability fee of +/-€51 million annually up to 2051.

Construction consortium THV Locobouw – MBG; CEI-De Meyer; Wayss & Freytag; and VINCI Construction Grands Projets  was charged with completing the building works, and is subsequently responsible for maintaining and upkeeping the end product for the next 38 years.

TUC RAIL, the consulting arm of Infrabel, has been responsible for coordinating the project as a whole.

Keeping Antwerp on the map

Located 80km inland from the North Sea, the Port of Antwerp straddles two Belgian provinces  East Flanders (Left Bank), Antwerp (Right). Extending over a total surface area of 13,057 hectares, the sprawling site is so vast  both on the map, and when experienced first hand  it appears, and feels, boundless.

Other size-worthy figures include:

– 163km of quay length

– 409km of roads

– 560 hectares of covered storage space, and

– 1,061km of railway

The harbour has many cards up its sleeve, of which good hinterland connections by road, rail, and inland waterways, coupled with a prime location in the so-called ‘blue banana’ zone of north-western Europe; the latter being home to Europe’s main centres of production and consumption. Furthermore, 60% of European purchasing power lies within 500km of Antwerp.

Given strengths such as the above,  surely the world should be the Port of Antwerp’s oyster? Well, almost… but not quite. Road traffic congestion is an issue that is seriously hampering the efficiency and modal share of its activities.

Saturation on the roads is a major problem, largely because trucks carry 57% of the container traffic, compared to trains taking on a meagre 7%.

“We want to increase the modal share of rail to 15% by 2030,” points out Annik Dirkx, spokeswoman, Antwerp Port Authority. “We haven’t yet succeeded in growing this percentage, but hope the opening of the Liefkenshoek will help us ahieve this goal. There is a lot of work to do… but it all starts with infrastructure.”

“We expect to see around 100 goods trains  using the route daily by around 2030,” estimates Mr Petit.

By permitting goods trains to avoid  saturated urban rail  junctions, and make meaningful time savings by slashing 20km off the circuit previously available, the Link mustn’t fail in its roles as economic and competitive stimuli for the Port.These catalysts are critical in a world where cost reductions and the efficient movement of goods are vital for international production chains.

In the ranks of European ports, Antwerp is the second largest behind Rotterdam, and ahead of Hamburg. Competition between the trio is extremely fierce, to say the least!

Passage to Europe

The Liefkenshoek Rail Link is not just Antwerp-orientated in function. It also forms part of Infrabel’s freight strategy on a wider level, i.e. to improve access to and from the Port at national, European, and international levels. Indeed the Belgian city is linked to three of the EU’s TEN-T freight corridors – the Rhine-Alpine, North Sea-Mediterranean Sea (most important for Belgium), and North Sea-Baltic.

Last, but not least, this piece of landmark infrastructure is set to deliver benefits beyond the realms of rail freight and intermodality. By taking goods trains elsewhere, the line has now freed up existing rail tracks and capacity for overstretched passenger services, e.g. between Antwerp and Ghent.

Cover photo ©Passion4Transport

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