Maastricht may well be the most international city in the Netherlands, with the German and Belgian borders on the horizon, but the central station remains nothing more than a terminus. Intercity trains from the major urban areas in the Central Netherlands go no further than Maastricht and the slow train between Visé and the Limburg capital is hardly worthy of the name. The rail connection to Aachen, which will be extended to Liège in the course of 2019, marks a new beginning. ‘Not so long ago, we had a regular and direct connection to Brussels, the Maastricht-Brussels Express’, says Rik Lebouille in a stylish café with a view of the striking central station. ‘It was a success, but it eventually succumbed to technical and political wrangling. It was a crying shame, because that train could transport passengers to Brussels Airport and the city centre without having to change. And let’s face it, that’s the heart of Europe with connections to Paris and London.’
rik lebouille, maastricht’s senior policy officer for mobility: maastricht is focusing on international rail travel
In December, Maastricht will have a direct rail connection with Aachen. How will this development fit in with the ambitions of the Limburg capital? We asked Rik Lebouille, Maastricht’s senior policy officer for mobility.
If the Maastricht municipal authorities have one ambition, it’s improving the connection to Brussels. Rik Lebouille, who has been focusing on international mobility for Maastricht for the past nine years, nods his approval. ‘Of course’, he says with a copy of the brand new ‘Maastricht City and Rail Ambition Document’ on the table. ‘And not only because it would give this city a new boost, also from a national viewpoint. According to recent research, the competition on a global scale is between urban areas with 15 to 30 million inhabitants. In that context the Netherlands is a minor player. But if we establish a link with the economies just across the border, if we can really bring the Euroregion together, we can create a region with a huge potential. Given its location, we believe that Maastricht can and should have a pivotal function, which would be good for the region and good for the country.’
For the above reasons, a detailed document has been produced that methodically sets out the ambitions for the Maastricht rail zone. These also include expensive ambitions that cannot be borne by the city alone. ‘No, that will require the support of the State and the Province of Limburg, as well as private parties and naturally partners such as NS and ProRail. On the other hand, these are feasible ideas. A direct Intercity train to Belgium will require many adjustments, but it’s also possible to pursue that aim in steps. The track to Visé and Liège already exists. I understand that a frequent connection between Maastricht and Liège is only a matter of time. A connection without changes or waiting times with a transparent ticketing system would be a huge advance in itself.’
Rik Lebouille refers to the Three-Country Train that will be running this year between Aachen, Heerlen, and Maastricht and later to Liège too. ‘I am convinced that the Liège-Aachen connection via Maastricht and Heerlen will be a success. This will expand the labour market in the region in one go. Travelling will be easier and will cost less time. Those are crucial factors in a labour market. The Brightlands campuses will be more accessible and when the HiTech Campus in Eindhoven is included, you have a link to the rest of the Netherlands. In this way, the Euroregion will be a more interesting option for setting up businesses. There are also German and Belgian students who are studying in Limburg, as well as tourists and day-trippers who come and visit the city and the region. It’s all about being one big open area.’ The Aachen-Liège connection via Limburg means that the high-speed rail networks in Belgium and Germany will be more accessible. ‘Indeed and that is important. For South Limburg, it’s vital to think across borders. International train connections help in that respect.’
Rik Lebouille is well aware that an Intercity to Liège does not automatically make Maastricht an international transport hub. ‘No, far more needs to happen. Firstly, we must ensure that the zone behind the station is more accessible from the eastern part of the city. As the A2 motorway now runs through a tunnel, a splendid new district is being created with many new houses and businesses. However, the link with the city centre is currently inadequate. We have presented various ideas for walkways and cycle routes under and over the railway lines. The station is also in need of refurbishment and the NS, as owner of the building, is working on it. An international transport hub also needs bus services, and more space for cyclists and pedestrians, because we eventually want to reduce the number of cars in the city. All these measures will require major investments, which the city cannot provide on its own. As an international hub, however, Maastricht’s ambitions exceed the regional interest. We are making the Netherlands more international and competitive.’