Five years ago the railway underpass at Bilthoven station was opened after a three year reconstruction. That project converted a very dangerous level railway crossing in a busy road into a pleasant and safe space for walking and cycling. The possibilities to improve urban spaces are endless when you divert motorised vehicles to another location.
Bilthoven station was opened in 1863 but the current building was finished in 1907. The station has a central platform which means both tracks are at quite some distance from each other. This resulted in two separate level crossings and the station entrance in between them. The crossings were separately operated, meaning one crossing could be closed while the other would be open. Traffic lights made sure traffic would not be stopped on one of the tracks while the other was closed with a possible other train approaching on the track they were stopped on. Does that sound like a dangerous situation? It was! And then there were the people walking past the closed gates to catch a train. Many lost their lives here. This notorious crossing was one of the most dangerous level crossings in the country. It had been on a top priority list to get it changed for years. A video shows the last day of this crossing in 2013.
The only real solution to improve the safety here would be to make a grade-separated crossing, but there was very little space on the busy narrow road so close to the station. The space issue was solved by simply taking motor traffic out of the equation. Not having one, but instead having two underpasses would solve the problem. The second underpass was designed at the other side of the railway building, with a diversion around the station area, just for that motor traffic. With the cars gone there was suddenly more than enough room for a spacious underpass for walking and cycling. That the cars now take a detour west around the station also made it possible to create walking routes from the station to the shopping heart of the town centre south-east of it without having to cross a main car route.
In 2012 the reconstruction started. First the 222 metre long car tunnel, 6 metres below street level, was built west of the station building. Since this was at a new location traffic could continue to use the old route. That new tunnel was opened in 2013 and then the old level crossing was closed. A temporary level crossing east of the original one was built to be used for walking and cycling during the construction of the new underpass. The raw-built for this underpass was constructed next to the railway and shoved in place in one weekend in June 2014. The trains were only out of service for 100 hours. In June 2015, the new 210 metre long underpass, which is 3.5 metres below street level at its deepest point, could be opened and the entire three year project was finished. The builder mentions that this project had a budget of 13.3 million euros.
Even for this clever space saving two-tunnel solution several buildings did have to be demolished. A row of buildings south of the railway was not considered valuable and these buildings made way for the south tunnel entrance. North of the track was the original station master’s house. This building from 1900 was a landmark for Bilthoven and residents joined forces to save the monumental building. It could not be saved at this location, but the national railway museum in nearby Utrecht showed an interest. The most characteristic elements of the house, such as the wooden porch and the roof tiles were carefully preserved in the demolition and they were reused in the reconstruction in the Utrecht museum. Painted in the original colours you can now rent the former station master’s house as a meeting location.
The new underpass is beautifully landscaped with a lot of green, which had turned into beautiful golden tones when I filmed for this post in Autumn 2019. The underpass is completely integrated in the updated station. It gives access to the platforms and also to an unmanned but guarded bicycle parking facility. At the south-side of the station, next to the new car parking area, there are extra two-tier racks to park more bicycles. Thanks to the new car parking space here, for rail travellers and for people who want to shop in the town centre, a square in that town centre could lose the parking and that whole area has now become car low. This station reconstruction drew some international attention.
The people of Bilthoven are generally very happy with their reconstructed station area. The opening festivities in June 2015 drew thousands of people. The only negative comments I could find were concerns about the steepness of the cycleway (but that was before the underpass was opened) and about some of the stairs. The west side of the tunnel consists of a stepped design with a lot of green, at an angle. That means the stairs are also at an angle and that has apparently caused some nasty falls. Fortunately, there are also lifts to get to the platform and the stairs at the east side of the tunnel are straight, but people do have a point that this was a case of form over function.
All-in all the situation improved massively here. The station itself was also upgraded as part of a national plan to improve not only the largest stations but also the smaller ones. The two parts of Bilthoven are now connected rather than divided and you can see in the video how attractive and well-used this connection is. This was all filmed in November 2019, so before the Corona crisis.
My video portrait of the station underpass in Bilthoven.
(Filmed before the Corona crisis.)