How to convert a railway into a cycleway

The final part of a cycleway on a former railway line in Utrecht was opened this Summer by the alderman for traffic. Together with 30 residents, the executive councillor had cycled the full length of the park first. Then, she literally cut the ribbon to open the missing link which connects the new cycleway with the existing cycle network in the city centre. Residents had come up with the plan to convert the railway. The full conversion took 5 years from the purchase of the land from the railways to completion.

Billet en français

This cycleway between the remaining part of the railway and the new housing in the background was the last missing link to be finished in the Utrecht Park Oosterspoorbaan (Eastern Railway Line)
The south-end of the cycleway on the disused railway ends at the former railway crossing between Gansstraat and Koningsweg. This part was finished in January 2017.
Comparing Google Earth images from 2005 (top) to 2017 (bottom). The former railway line was a strip of dead space dividing the neighbourhoods it ran through. The new park is connecting the areas. (North is left)

Alderman Lot van Hooijdonk had festively opened Park Oosterspoorbaan (Park Eastern Railway Line) once before, in January 2017. So why did she do it again on 15 July 2020? That has to do with the fact that the park was built in stages. In January 2017 the cycleway was finished for the most part. It wasn’t very green at first, but that changed quickly. Right away, many foreign groups were taken to the disused railway to proudly show them what you can do with such a nice linear space.  In 2018 most of the planting was done and started to grow. The rest of the park was finalised with information panels and the playgrounds in 2019. That the cycle way could not be finished at that time had some reasons.

There was a narrow footpath between Maliesingel and Abstederdijk. There was little space to build the cycleway although some solutions would have the cycleway on the other side of the railway that had to stay here, this small strip of green would be sacrificed for the cycleway. This is the situation in March 2018.
Fast forward to 2020 and the exact same location has the footpath and the cycleway. The black patch in between the two will no doubt be green soon enough.
There were six possible solutions to the challenge of connecting the park cycleway to the Maliesingel. Ranging from Zero Plus (making the footpath shared cycling and walking) to elaborate solutions left and right of the railway with an extra railway crossing or connections to Zonstraat, not Maliesingel. In the end “Model E” was the preferred and built solution.

First of all the railway was not completely closed in 2012. The railway had been opened in 1874 and was a passenger line from the east of Utrecht north to Hilversum. The railway cut through the area where Utrecht had grown its vegetables for centuries. The fields with fresh produce, close to the city centre are all gone now, but you can still see them. There is a very nice mural on one of the buildings next to the former railway. This mural, based on a picture from 1938, was opened in 2017. In 1939 the line was closed to passenger trains, after Utrecht Central Station (West of the centre) became the main railway hub. Until 2012 the line was used for goods. At the beginning of the 21st century there had been plans for the future of the Utrecht railways that saw potential to re-open the line for passengers and thus create a full railway loop in and around Utrecht. For some reason the plans were abandoned and in 2012 the line was partly closed. The former railway station on this line was the Utrecht Maliebaan station. The building, opened with the railway in 1874, is now a national monument and houses the national railway museum since 1954. To transport future exhibition trains and for the museum train service it is essential that the building can be reached by rail, also in the future. That is why some of the line had to remain in use. However, a strip of land, 900 metres long and in total 22,000 square metres, became ready to be repurposed. After a few years some residents joined forces and asked the city to turn the disused railway into a linear park with a cycle route. This idea was taken up by the city and the plans for Park Oosterspoorbaan were drawn up the same year the city bought the land, from the railways in 2015.

Designing company Okra made the plans for the conversion of the railway into the park. This is the front page of their design report. You can see that the cycleway runs parallel to the former railway at places and also on the former railway dike at other locations.
The design kept many of the key elements of what makes a railway a railway, not least the tracks. Fortunately not on the cycleway surface, only at the crossings. The 3.5 metre wide cycleway (left) got a smooth surface of red asphalt. The footways (right) are often exactly between the former tracks.

The small part of railway line that was still in use made it a bit harder to connect the new cycleway to the existing cycling network at the north-end. There was a small footpath between some buildings and the railway that could be converted. But houses were planned to be built there too. That meant the builders needed an access road to the building site for their tools and the building materials. The strip of land where the cycleway was planned was exactly where the builder’s road would be best located as well. That meant the city gave permission to build the nine houses first. Once they were finally finished the temporary road could be converted into a cycleway. Quite a few possible connections were explored, but in January 2020 the construction of solution “Model E” started. There would be a new cycleway with a wider new bridge, next to the existing foot path that would remain where it had always been. The old pedestrian bridge was repurposed in another park in Utrecht.

The cycleway switches places twice to run parallel the to railway for a part, creating even more space for flower beds.. You can see that an old buffer stop and the posts of the overhead wires remained. The old catenary is now what holds the light fixtures up. It is very hard to miss that this once was a railway line.
A man walks his dog in the linear park. The planting was meticulously planned. There is always something in full bloom. This was filmed on a grey day in July, but the flowers sparkle!

This delay also had an advantage. When the ribbon was finally cut for the missing link, most of the park had been developing for over three years. This means the plants have grown and the young trees no longer look like twigs. Park Oosterspoorbaan lives up to its name. It is a beautiful linear park right in the city centre that includes a useful link for cycling to the south-east of the city from the city centre and vice versa. When I filmed for this post. last July. the route was very well used in the evening rush hour. An almost surprising number of people found the new route quickly. The rides show a much quieter situation. They were filmed at a dreary rainy day outside rush hour. Both videos make clear, however, that Utrecht has gained yet another beautiful space with this park.

Video about the park

Video with a ride on the 900 metre long cycleway in the park

7 thoughts on “How to convert a railway into a cycleway

  1. This is so brilliant, and those flowers are lovely – the planting style reminds me of Piet Oudolf.

    The route has much in common with the Fallowfield Loop, the old train line in Manchester that is now used as a walking and cycling route. However, it was converted by a charity (the city could never have afforded to buy the line from the rail infrastructure group), so it was done very very cheaply – it was literally just asphalted and nothing else. As a result, it doesn’t even have lighting, is often covered in broken glass, and can be very overgrown in places. This means it is dangerous, and despite it being well used, many people have been assaulted and/or robbed on the route.

    Here, Utrecht demonstrates what it could have been like if the UK was governed properly – open, safe and beautiful!

  2. Hi Mark,
    thank you for your great work. I only came recently across your blog and youtube channel.
    Have you considered creating a account or is there another way to support you? The question has probably been asked before… sorry for that 😉

  3. Beautiful to see such a cycle way. Also interesting to see the alternatives. Thank you.
    Three details:
    – A lot of bushes put so close will interfere with the bike path as soon as they grow. So they need a cut several times a year (If you don’t cut a lot), which hardly will be done (If you don’t cut a lot).
    – Avoid putting a bike crossing in a slope. This is common in front of tunnels. All who enters will accelerate into the crossing with a possible urge to break and loose their momentum. Looks strange to have to yield in a slope. If the crossing was put more to the right on an even plane, no speed would be lost and negotiation without stopping would be easier. Also turning in a slope enhances the risk of slipping the grip, especially at frost.
    – Why 90 degrees corners at Maliesingel? Never for motor vehicles. Pedestrians make desire lines, but with the curb cyclists cannot.

  4. Hello Mark, here in the Ruhr Area (Germany) a 100km fast cycle path from west to east is being built (“RS1”). It is supposed to be inspired by the dutch “Fietssnelwegen”. I’d love to see a review from a neutral, dutch perspective just like yours. Is there a chance that you could make something like this at some point in the future? Greetings from Duisburg

  5. Looking at the map, the stretch of rail that still connects Maliebaan to the main railway net is much longer than the part that was repurposed as a cycle path. Do you know why the short southern bit was converted rather than the much longer northern part of the line?

    1. I believe it had to do with the new light rail that was constructed to the south. It was complicated to create a possibility to cross the new tracks for that.

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