The Scheldt tunnel in Antwerp

The Sint Annatunnel in Antwerp (Belgium) is an 86 year-old pedestrian and cycling tunnel under the Scheldt river, connecting the city centre to the west-bank, called left bank in Antwerp. The tunnel is simply referred to as the Voetgangerstunnel, (the Pedestrian Tunnel). That is because the tunnel was part of a larger plan to give all types of traffic a tunnel to reach the left bank. The other tunnel, the Waaslandtunnel for motorised traffic, was built further to the north. Both tunnels were opened on the same day in 1933.

The lift to access the tunnel is large enough for 40 pedestrians, but it can also hold a lot of people with their bicycles.

The Sint Annatunnel feels like the elder sister of the Rotterdam Maastunnel, which I showed already quite some years ago on my blog. The Maastunnel was opened 9 years later. To access the tunnels in both Antwerp and Rotterdam on foot or with your bicycle, there are wooden escalators that look, sound and smell alike. This makes the atmosphere in both tunnels very similar. However, most of the similarities end there. The Maastunnel has a separate tube for walking and one for cycling. The Sint Annatunnel only has one shared tube for walking and cycling. From the modernist tunnel building on ground level there are two wooden escalators and a huge lift to go down to the tunnel entrance. The Antwerp tunnel was dug at a depth of 31 metres below the water level in the clay of the river bed. The city of Antwerp decided to separate the tunnels for motorised traffic and the one for walking and cycling because people would have had to make a long detour had the tunnel for motorised traffic been combined with the one for walking and cycling. The current location of the Sint Annatunnel is perfect to reach the left bank from the Antwerp city centre. For that same reason (being in the historic city centre) it would not have been a good location for a tunnel for motorised traffic. That tunnel was therefore built almost 1 kilometre to the north. The pedestrian tunnel under the river is 572 metres long between the escalators.

A lot of people also choose to use the escalators with their bikes.
Halfway down below the entrance building and the actual tunnel there is a landing where you have to change from the first to the next escalator. (Picture Mark M.)

Both tunnels in Antwerp were the first permanent connection between the right and left bank. There has never been a bridge in Antwerp, only ferries, because Antwerp is an important port. A bridge would have hindered shipping too much. The wish for a permanent river crossing was very old. Even Napoleon had already made a plan for the urban expansion of Antwerp on the west bank in 1810. That plan was never built due to the lack of a connection to the rest of Antwerp on the east bank. In 1874 the city decided a permanent connection had to replace the ferries. Initially the Belgian government wanted a so-called transporter bridge (like the one in Rochefort, France). A very tall steel suspension bridge with a moving gondola to get to the other side; almost a hybrid between a bridge and a ferry. The people in Antwerp, however, did not want such a “hellish contraption”. Fortunately for them, the delay caused by World War I, meant that this type of bridge had become old-fashioned and finally in 1931 it was decided that a tunnel would be built, which became two tunnels in the end.

The Belgian government thought such a suspended bridge with a gondola to reach the other side of the river would be a good idea. Many people in Antwerp hated this idea. They called it “the Antwerp machine from hell”, in French it was even worse:  “La guillotine d’Anvers”. Postcard issued by a group of opponents to this plan. Picture Sint Anneke website.
Antwerp Sint Annatunnel

Crossing the river Scheldt

One pedestrian/cycling tube

Separate tunnel for motorised traffic

Building period 1931-1933

Opening 10 September 1933

Depth 31.5 metres

Dug in the clay of the river bed

Two wooden escalators on either side

Length 572 metres

Party destroyed in WWII and rebuilt

Rotterdam Maastunnel

Crossing the river New Meuse
(Nieuwe Maas)

Separate tubes for walking and for cycling

Tunnel includes tubes for motor traffic

Building period 1937-1942

Opening 14 February 1942

Depth 20 metres

Pre-fabricated sunken tube parts

Four wooden escalators on either side

Length 585 metres

No war damage

The Belgian king Albert I and almost the entire Belgian royal family arrived on the 10 September 1933 to open both Scheldt tunnels. The opening festivities were huge and the whole population of Antwerp participated. A special “tunnel song” was composed and it was sung with a full orchestra. The festivities took place both on the east bank and the west bank and they were also filmed.

The tunnels did not survive World War II unharmed. The car tunnel was severely damaged at the beginning of the war in May 1940. The pedestrian tunnel suffered a lot at the end of the war, in September 1944. The west bank access building was blown up and completely destroyed, as were the escalators and the lift. The equipment had to be replaced and the building had to be rebuilt after the war which took 5 months. For a long time people had to pay to use the tunnel. This toll was only abolished in 1951.

The escalators and the lift end at the same location. It is but a small space where the tunnel tube starts almost right away.
A tile tableaux showing the most important stats of the tunnel and a cross-section. The entrance buildings are quite a long distance from the river banks.

The tunnel was built to handle a lot of traffic. Both escalators could work in the same direction in peak hours. The huge lifts can transport 40 people at the time. Right from the opening it was allowed to use the pedestrian tunnel for cycling. But in the beginning cycling was only allowed off-peak hours, which meant from the evening until the early morning. It took until 1995 before cycling was allowed all day, albeit at walking speed (which was set at 5km/h). From observing how people cycle through the tunnel you can see that not a single cyclist adheres to that incredibly low-speed, instead people watch out for pedestrians and they go faster when there are none. The people using the tunnel are every day cyclists and racing cyclists. The cycle culture in Antwerp and the rest of Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) is very comparable to that of the Netherlands. I filmed this on a Sunday with very good weather in February, therefore you see many racing cyclists who were probably underway on one of their first training rounds, but also whole families were using the tunnel. I cycled in Antwerp too (and I tweeted about it) but I was on foot in this tunnel.

Waiting for the lift which has just arrived at level -31 (metres).
Most people here know that just turning the front wheel to the side means your bicycle will be very steady on the escalators. No need to hold on to it firmly. Gravity will simply keep it where it is: on the level escalator step.

The Sint Annatunnel quickly became an icon for Antwerp and a stop in many a school outing. It can also be seen in a video clip by the Belgian band “Black Box Revelation” for their song “I think I like you”.

The tunnel is 572 metres long. That means you cannot see the end from the beginning.

Big changes are forthcoming. The lifts and the escalators will be renovated from 2019 and 2020 respectively. While the renovation of the lifts will take about 4 months, the escalators have to be renewed on site (they cannot be taken out of the tunnel without removing the entrance buildings) which means the renewal of the four escalators will take 2 years. This is necessary to meet current safety standards. The escalators may only operate when someone is there to oversee them. After the renovation they are safe enough to operate without human supervision which means they can then run 24/7 (which is not the case now). The tunnel with all the elements are a monument. This means the new escalators will have the same look and feel as the current original wooden escalators.

This week’s video shows you the Antwerp Sint Annatunnel for walking and cycling.


9 thoughts on “The Scheldt tunnel in Antwerp

  1. What a crazy contraption that suspended bridge would have been. I want to see a 3d rendering of it cause my mind can’t fully comprehend what this insane thing would have looked liked, Happy for the people of Antwerp that that abomination was never built, that would have been ridiculous.

      1. A similar working gondola bridge is in Bilbao, Spain and a World Heritage listed site.

      2. So, it’s a intricate ferry in a way. Is there a reason they couldn’t have just gone for ferries? I imagine that maybe smaller ships could go under this thing while the gondola is passing so it would have advantage over that as opposed to a ferry, but that seems way over the top when you consider the money this would take to make.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.