Express tram between Hasselt and Maastricht replaced by tram bus

The decision has been made on the almost 18-year-old plans for a tram connection between Hasselt and Maastricht: the Flemish government is shelving the plans for an express tram between the two Limburg capitals.

Instead, there will be an electric tram bus with maximum free bedding. In the longer term, the aim is fully autonomous vehicles or ART (Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit).  Flemish Minister of Mobility Lydia Peeters (Open VLD) had announced this.

Headache for all parties involved

The tram connection was intended to facilitate commuter traffic from the Belgian border area, among other things, and to relieve traffic in inner cities.

The tram line – part of the Spartacus plan the Flemish government outlined in 2004 for the future of public transport in Limburg –  would transport just under 7 million passengers annually. According to earlier forecasts, the tram would be used by an average of 18 000 people a day.

The tram line from Maastricht to the Belgian border would be about 6 kilometers long. On the Flemish side, it would be 27 kilometers of track.

However, the tram line, which would cost 185 million euros, turned out to be a headache for both Maastricht and the Flemish government.  For example, the Wilhelmina Bridge in Maastricht turned out not strong enough for the planned tram, and the route was shortened. But Hasselt also asked for an adjustment to the route. Moreover, due to a lack of competition in the award procedure, the cost price of the project also threatened to rise.

Tram bus has its advantages

The Flemish government is now changing tack and opting for an electric tram bus connection instead of an express tram. According to the minister, the decision was made after a comparative study with the express tram.

That study shows that the tram bus has several advantages, ranging from a shorter journey time to a lower purchase cost per vehicle and a lower investment cost for the infrastructure. A tram bus should also allow for ‘faster switching’. Choosing a tram was still a long process ahead with expropriations, permit procedures, etc.

“Choosing a tram would take Limburg back in time”, says Peeters. According to the minister, who herself hails from Limburg. the intention is to make maximum use of a free bed with the electric tram bus.

“In the long term, that creates the possibility of betting on innovative solutions such as the ART (Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit) system, a system that combines the quality and appearance of a tram with the flexibility of a tram bus and runs autonomously on a virtual track.”

Maastricht still must react

It remains to be seen how the Dutch side will react to the Flemish government’s decision. Maastricht and the Dutch Province of Limburg had previously threatened to sue for damages if the Flemish government decided to scrap the plans for the tram. A Maastricht spokesperson said the municipality would respond to the news on Tuesday.

On the Flemish side, there are already positive reactions. Various mayors of the regions involved reacted positively, including Hasselt’s mayor Steven Vandeput (N-VA). “A tram bus is a high-quality transport solution that can be realized quickly and with limited impact on the environment. I, therefore, call on all Limburgers to support this decision so that we can start running as soon as possible”, says Vandeput.

The aim of the planned line remains a fast regional connection between the main centers of attraction along the route, such as Hasselt station, the university campus in Diepenbeek, Bilzen, Lanaken, and Maastricht Station.

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