The Rotterdam Maastunnel has been renovated

Exactly ten years ago, in March 2011, I visited the Maastunnel in Rotterdam to film it. The historic tunnel complex has separate tunnels for motor traffic, for cycling and for walking. Together they allow people to cross the river Nieuwe Maas (New Meuse). Much has happened since that visit. The Maastunnel became a national monument in 2012 and its 75-year anniversary was celebrated in 2017. That was also the year that a three year renovation started. The tunnel has been reopened last October and it is exceptionally beautiful again. Time for another visit to Rotterdam’s pride!

Billet en français

Entrance to the Maastunnel by bicycle.
The banner announcing: “Our tunnel is open again!” has not been removed yet after the reopening of the tunnel in July/October 2020. Just before the Corona crisis about 5,000 people cycled through the tunnel on a working day.
Restoring the 552.15 metres long and 4.95 metres wide cycling tunnel under the river Nieuwe Maas (New Meuse) was an enormous task. Every single tile you see in this picture has been removed from the walls and put back again, in seven months. The original sign on the tunnel ceiling reads “mount here”.
A picture of one of the tubes for car traffic. Since the renovation the asphalt is yellow! This is a nod to the original yellow brick surface the tunnel had in the 1940s. Picture “Maastunnel010” on Twitter by the city of Rotterdam.

Construction of the Rotterdam Maastunnel took place from 1937 until 1942. At the time it was an architectural masterpiece: the world’s first sunken tunnel with rectangular instead of round elements. In 2017, the Rotterdam museum “Kunsthal” dedicated an exhibition to the then exactly 75-year-old Maastunnel. The title of the exhibition was telling: “Our Tunnel”. It focussed on the role the tunnel had played in the history of Rotterdam, connecting the north and the south bank, and how the people of Rotterdam felt about this icon over the years.

A cross section of the tunnel access and the ventilation building. Left the entrance building for the escalators for walking and cycling. Under the river the tunnel tubes for motor traffic are parallel to the cycling tunnel but you cannot see or notice that. The level for walking, directly under the cycling tunnel is even lower than the floors or the car tubes. The lowest point of the tunnel is about 20 metres under sea-level. Picture Rotterdams Archief.
In the 1940s and 1950s thousands of people used the tunnel and three of the four escalators went in one direction. Most people lived south of the river and most of the employment was north of the river. That is why most people travelled in the same direction. In the evening three of the four escalators ran in the opposite direction when all those people went home again. In the 1950s some 40,000 people used the tunnel daily with a bicycle. Picture Rotterdams Archief

Mid 2017, the big renovation started that would take until October 2020. First, the car tunnels were temporarily closed. All the concrete floors were removed, because the concrete suffered from corrosion and degradation due to heavy use and age. All the tiles were also carefully removed from the walls and cleaned. Some could be reused but most of the tiles had to be replaced. The new tiles look exactly like the originals. I took two years, until 2019, before the car tunnels could be reopened. Then the tube with the pedestrian and bicycle tunnels on a separate level got the almost exact same treatment. When you compare the before and after pictures of the cycling tunnel it is hard to imagine that every single tile on the walls was taken out and replaced in the renovation. It took 7 months, from late November 2019 to early July 2020, to restore the cycling tunnel. The tunnel was completely closed for cycling and walking during the restoration. A temporary ferry took people to the other side. While the pedestrian tunnel was reconstructed the cycling tunnel was open again. Bicycles were temporarily available for pedestrians to cross the river in the cycling tunnel. Walking in the cycling tunnel was prohibited! A rickshaw was available for people who could not cycle themselves. The reopening of the pedestrian tunnel marked the end of the entire tunnel restoration project. The final reopening could not be a large celebration due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To mark the occasion the Rotterdam alderman for finances, the port and large projects simply walked through the tunnel, alone, on 17 October 2020. The tunnel is again bright and clean. All the lighting was replaced by energy efficient LED lights, but the lights were fit in the original light fixtures. The colour of the modern lights was carefully chosen to match the colour of the original light-bulbs to recreate the 1940s atmosphere.

This is the only known picture of the construction works in the tunnel for walking and cycling. This is the pedestrian level, the ceiling of this tunnel forms the floor of the cycling tunnel which is also partly visible. Picture Rotterdams Archief.
In March 2011, I filmed the tunnel. Before the restoration it was much darker and there was a dangerous ridge in the centre of the tunnel.

The almost 80-year-old and partly wooden escalators were completely restored. The wooden steps were chosen -all those years ago- because bicycle wheels would have a better grip on the wooden surface. The dimensions of the escalators have a direct relation with the size of a classic Dutch bicycle. The escalators were specifically designed to be easily used with a bicycle. As an integral part of the national monument the escalators could not simply be replaced. Engineers tried to save as many of the original elements as possible. The main axles had to be replaced, but many of the steel cogwheels could be restored. All the elements that are visible to the public, such as the wooden steps and the hand railings, could also be saved. This means the escalators look the same as before, but they are fit to be used for another 75 years.

This is the tunnel tube for cycling during the restoration. All the tiles were stripped from the walls and even the plaster was scraped from the ceiling. The original concrete floor was completely removed and replaced. Picture: “Maastunnel010” on Twitter by the city of Rotterdam.
The renovated tunnel in 2021. Everything is shiny and new. The new concrete floor has a coating with an anti-slip layer. Both directions are now only separated by two painted lines. The LED lighting is much brighter than before which makes the tiles appear less yellow even though some of the tiles are the original ones that were re-used.
Due to the wet weather a yellow “wet floor” warning sign was put in the middle of the tunnel entrance. A pity, since it is now finally clear of obstacles. That temporary traffic sign is also not very nice. The word on the wall on the far left is the old Dutch word for cyclist; “wielrijder”, which is literally “wheel rider”.

When the tunnel was opened in 1942 the walls alongside the escalators had been plain white. After the restoration that was also how the walls looked initially. But in 2011 there had been an exposition in the tunnel, with old pictures on those walls. The photo exhibition was supposed to be temporary, but the pictures remained on the wall until the tunnel closed in 2019. Many people had developed an attachment to those pictures. That is why they now asked for something new on those clean white walls. In February 2021, the city of Rotterdam decided to indeed place new pictures alongside the escalators. At either end of the tunnel there are 20 frames, 10 on each side. Ten of those frames will show old pictures from 1942, the first year of the tunnel and the ten frames on the other wall will have a contemporary exhibition for three months at the time. The first set of pictures depict the recent restoration works. I filmed just before the pictures were put up, but someone else did capture them in a YouTube video, early March 2021.

The restored escalators look exactly like they did before, only cleaner. All the parts that had to be replaced after 80 years are invisible to the public. The walls have since got new pictures, after people complained that they missed the ones that were there before the restoration.
A YouTuber did manage to catch some of the new pictures early March 2021. This is the temporary exhibition with pictures of the restoration project. Still from a video by Arns Siab TV. The frames are not horizontal, they follow the angle of the handrails of the escalators.

After the recent restoration the entire tunnel has again the atmosphere of the late 1930s and early 1940s, when it was designed and opened respectively. It is not hard to understand why the people of Rotterdam were so proud of their tunnel. Much of that pride has still not worn off in all those decades. The tunnel is not only used by many on a daily basis, it is also a testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the people of Rotterdam. In more recent years, the tunnel has even become a place to visit for tourists. The restored tunnel is ready for many decades to come.

My video with a portrait of the renovated Maastunnel.

My video with a ride from North to South via the escalators.

6 thoughts on “The Rotterdam Maastunnel has been renovated

  1. Oh the joy of the more comfortable, somehow more natural wooden escalators. I miss them here in London but they did have a reason to rip them all out.
    Thank you for a surprisingly engaging video to go with the text.
    I am intrigued by the chaps at the bottom of the escalators. What are they there for? Not a particularly inspiring job I imagine but you just have to find the joy in every task you do.

  2. The Maastunnel inspired a similar tunnel near Vancouver. The Massey Tunnel (the name is similar but it’s not from Maas) over the Fraser river is very similar.

    The shape and size is pretty much the same however, being built in the 1950s in car-centric North America, instead of a wide cycle and walking path on one side, they split up that section into two narrow service tunnels, one on each side that the public cannot access.
    No cycling or walking is allowed in the tunnel. There is a shuttle van with a bike trailer that operates in the summer once every two hours. Transit buses that pass through the tunnel have bike racks. In the summer the demand to cycle here is very high and there is competition for the bus bike racks. The get there in time to catch the shuttle van is stressful because if you miss it you wait another two hours.

    There is talk of replacing it or adding another tunnel or a bridge. Hopefully they will include something to cycle and walk through. The area around there is a river delta so it’s very flat and potentially could be a great place to cycle.

  3. Living in the UK I can only dream of that infrastructure! I can’t wait to try it out when all this pandemic nonsense is over

  4. Are they still operating the escalator so that three escalators are in the same direction, with the direction changing for morning and evening rush hour?

    1. Yes three escalators two is working but in opposite directions. The other one is reserved.

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