The Brussels Direct Military Railway
Aachen West - Montzen - Visé Haut - Tongeren
Originally compiled by Gregory Beecroft and published 16 July 1994 as a supplement to Branch Line News.
Ball European Railway Atlas references are DE-37A1 and BE-10A2-9B2.
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The port of Antwerpen sees considerable freight traffic from and to northern Germany, especially the industrial area of the Ruhr. The strategic importance of the route is such that part of it became the world’s first international railway (Aachen - Herbesthal - Welkenraedt - Verviers - Liège), opening across the German-Belgian border in 1843. However this early line was not built to suit heavy traffic, and the 1-in-38 gradient up from the Meuse valley west of Liège was a considerable obstacle. A line bypassing Liège (Angleur - Kinkempois - Voroux) was opened later, but this also features difficult gradients from Kinkempois to Voroux. Relief came with construction of the more level Iron Rhine route (Rheydt - Roermond - Neerpelt), completed from Germany through the Netherlands to Belgium in 1879.
During the early years of the 20th century consideration was given to further railway construction to improve communication between Germany and Antwerpen. However, nothing was done before the outbreak of the First World War. Following the German occupation of Belgium huge quantities of munitions and large numbers of troops were transported through Belgium to the Western Front in Flanders. This brought about construction of the Militär Eisenbahn Direktion Brüssel (Aachen West - Montzen - Visé Haut - Tongeren) linking Aachen West with the Liège - Tongeren - Hasselt line. Prisoners-of-war were put to work building the railway, which was double track throughout. Most bridges were constructed of concrete, though the larger viaducts were wholly or partly steel. Over most of its length the line was laid out for fast running and had no level-crossings.
The eastern end utilised part of the existing Aachen West - Gemmenich (- Plombières - Welkenraedt) railway, opened in 1872. To handle the extra traffic a new flying junction was constructed at Aachen West, whence the existing line climbed steeply to the Botzelaer or Gemmenich tunnel, 870m long. The frontier between Germany and Belgium is within the tunnel, 230m east of the Belgian portal. West of the tunnel the new military railway diverged south at a second flying junction, Y Botzelaer, and was joined at Y Geulthal, a third flying junction, by a Ronheide - Geulthal connection from Ronheide on the Aachen Hbf - Welkenraedt main line. Approaching Montzen the new railway crossed the valley of the river Geule on the Viaduc de Moresnet, a massive structure 1107m long, with 22 girder spans. At Montzen itself a large marshalling yard was laid out, with a connection from the Welkenraedt - Plombières line at the east end. A fourth flying junction at the west end of the yard linked it with the Plombières - Aubel - Herve - Liège line.
Major works west of Montzen included the 2340m Tunnel de Veurs, the longest in Belgium. Of its two single-track bores, the one used by eastbound trains was constructed to a larger cross-section than the westbound one in order to assist dispersal of smoke from steam locomotives working against the rising gradient. This track is now signalled for bi-directional working so that westbound exceptional loads can be taken through the larger bore. Further west, the viaduct over the valley of the river Meuse at Visé also crossed the Albert Canal and the Liège - Visé Bas - Maastricht railway. A curve was constructed between the two lines, with a triangular junction at Visé Haut (high-level) permitting east-to-south and west-to-south running. However, only a south-facing connection at Visé Bas (low-level) was provided, because little traffic to and from Maastricht was expected on account of Dutch neutrality during the First World War. The military railway then crossed over the Liège - Hasselt line at Glons and ran parallel with it to the junction at Tongeren. The line opened on 28 February 1917, but the only passenger traffic was troop trains.
Following the armistice in November 1918 the line came under the control of the Belgian railways, and initially German reparations formed a significant proportion of the civilian freight traffic. A local Fouron St.Martin - Tongeren passenger service was introduced on 15 May 1919, and extended to run Montzen - Fouron St.Martin - Tongeren on 15 July. Passenger trains commenced running Aachen West - Montzen on 1 August 1920. Traffic was never very significant, not least due to competition from Vicinal tramways which provided direct services to Liège from both Warsage and Bassenge. During World War II the Germans took control again and the line was extensively damaged by bombing.
After World War II a Montzen - Visé railcar service operated, but this was withdrawn on 2 June 1957, leaving the railway again freight-only. The line was extensively used by Aachen - Liège express trains in 1965-66, while the main line via Verviers was being electrified. These works included adapting the flying junction at Ronheide to permit trains to change between left-hand (SNCB) and right-hand (DB) running, the Ronheide - Geulthal line having closed some time earlier. A new spur was commissioned at Glons in 1972, connecting the Liège - Tongeren line to the Montzen - Tongeren line. Between Glons and Tongeren the line previously used by trains to and from Liège was abandoned. During the 1980s the railway was electrified west of Montzen. On 23 May 1982 standard SNCB 3000V dc electrification was implemented Liège-Bressoux - Visé and Visé - Glons, including the triangle at Visé Haut, and on 26 May 1984 Montzen - Visé electric working commenced. Arrangements at Montzen anticipated that the Aachen - Montzen line would be electrified at 15kV 16.7Hz for use by DB locomotives, with switchgear allowing various tracks in the yard to be energised on either system. In fact DB electrified only the section from Aachen West to the German portal of the Gemmenich tunnel, and from 26 May 1968 used electric locomotives for banking. Most Aachen West - Montzen freight trains continued to be hauled by DB Class 215 diesel locomotives, though SNCB Class 51 and 55 diesels are used on some workings from Liège-Bressoux via Visé through to Aachen West, and CFL Class 18 locomotives work freight between Luxembourg and Aachen. Trains run on the right-hand track throughout between Aachen and Montzen, but with standard SNCB colour-light signalling on the Belgian section of the line.
Because the Gemmenich tunnel and various tunnels on the line via Verviers were too small to accept trains carrying heavy tanks and other military equipment, this special traffic was conveyed between Belgium and Germany via the Stolberg - Raeren - Eupen - Welkenraedt route. In order to permit closure of this lightly-used line, a third track was laid through the Gemmenich tunnel, towards the centre of the bore and gauntletted with the eastbound track. This work was completed in 1990.
The principal traffics via Montzen are steel (over 2 million tonnes annually) and coal (over 1 million tonnes), with motor-cars and chemicals also being important. It was claimed in 1994 that Aachen West dealt with more international freight traffic than any other yard in Europe, and the future for the Aachen - Montzen - Tongeren line appears reasonably assured. It has been designated the principal route for freight trains from Germany via the Channel Tunnel to Britain.