A very pleasant cycle route was created in the early 1990s on a former railway line in the province of Noord-Brabant. That railway line had connected Lage Zwaluwe (which was in turn a gateway to the port of Rotterdam) to the provincial capital ʼs-Hertogenbosch. It had functioned for about 60 years from the early 1890s to 1950. The cycleway that came in its place is now almost 30 years old. Because the railway was never as successful as it was hoped during construction, many of its elements, such as a number of bridges and buildings, were never upgraded or altered. As such they have now become a monument to 1880s civil engineering.
The railway line from Lage Zwaluwe to ʼs-Hertogenbosch was officially called Langstraatspoorweg, after the region it traversed. It was to be an important east-west connection south of the rivers Maas, Waal and Rhine. In the 1870s, the time the line was planned, there had been only one connection between the railway networks north and south of these three big rivers that divide the Netherlands. The railways north and south of the rivers operated almost like two separate networks. The first part of the line (Lage Zwaluwe to Waalwijk) was opened in 1886. It took until 1890 before the connection at ʼs-Hertogenbosch was finally finished. There, the entire station area had to be relocated first. This line is the reason the current station of ʼs-Hertogenbosch is at a different location than the first station was.
The railway was deemed necessary to open up the region that was very vulnerable to flooding because of the different type of rivers flowing through it. Some rivers were fed by rain, others by melting snow. This resulted in one or the other being at its peak during different times of the year and flooding for many months every year making it hard to reach destinations. The leather and shoe industry of the Waalwijk region would benefit most of the railway. It was only built as a single track at first, but it was believed the second track would follow soon enough when the line had proved its success. All the bridges where therefore ready for the second track which gave the line the appearance that it was only half built. This “half” line and the shoe industry gave the line its nickname: “Halve Zolenlijn” (literally “Half Soles line”). This refers to the shoe soles but “halve zool” is also a mild swear word in Dutch which means something like “blunderer” or “loser”. It is a corrupted and much less vulgar version of the very similar sounding English swear word “a**hole” which found its way into the Dutch language through contacts with English coal shippers in the port of Rotterdam. By the time that the railway was converted into the cycleway the nickname was so commonly used that the cycleway was officially named the “Halvezolenpad” (“Half Soles Path”).
The railway was never really a success because by the time it was finally finished the rivers had been tamed and the year-round floods were a thing of the past. This opened up opportunities to finally build better roads leading into the villages and not just past them like the railway. At its peak the line was still only used by 8 trains a day. In World War II the line became useless due to war damage and when that was finally repaired, in the late 1940s, the world had changed so much that passenger services stopped in 1950. The railway was then used for the occasional goods train, but the very last train used the track in 1972 (or 1970 at other locations).
The cycle way on the former railway runs from Raamsdonk (in the municipality of Geertruidenberg) to Waalwijk. There it connects to the fast cycle route to Tilburg (F261) and the planned fast cycle route to ʼs-Hertogenbosch that will also use the old railway line for the most part. I wrote about these plans last year. From Raamsdonk there have been plans to use the old dike of the railway tracks to expand the route all the way to Geertruidenberg proper. The society which has been instrumental in preserving most bridges in the line had the plan to use the expansion of two motorways and the expanded junction between the two to create two underpasses in the original railway route to expand the cycle route. Unfortunately, there is no mention of new underpasses in the final plans for the motorway expansion, that is currently on hold for environmental reasons. Some organisations, including the Cyclists’ Union, do still hope the cycleway will be expanded and turned into “a cycle route from the Moerputten to Moerdijk” (which is the original route of the railway but in nicer alliterating place names). The name Geertruidenberg should sound familiar to you. There, the old railway bridge is directly parallel to the huge cycle bridge I showed you in last week’s post. The railway bridge is in dire condition but recognised as endangered industrial heritage.
The entire cycle route was finished in 1995, but the first parts in Waalwijk had already been opened in May 1992 by the Minister of Transport at the time, Ms Maij-Weggen. That the minister came to open a cycle route must have had much to do with the cultural heritage of the former railway line that was considered to be of national importance. That the path was designed in the early 1990s is clear from its modest width and from the fact that even the smallest crossing roads have priority. On the positive side it is very good that the cycleway has lighting. That means it can also be used to commute in the darker winter months by people going to work and by children who need to cycle to school.
Because the railway line was never really a success, the line was never upgraded or expanded. That means that 54 of the original 92 bridges have been preserved as they were first constructed in the 1880s. Most of the railway buildings, such as housing for the railway guards and their families have been kept as well, and people do still live in them. Unfortunately, the bigger railway buildings such as the Station building in Waalwijk were lost (demolished in 1964), but there is still more than enough to see of the former function of this route, including parts of the fences on some of the station’s platforms.
To make it even more a tourist destination, the cycle route doubles as an art route. Many works of art refer to its history. Very recently, in February 2020, the final work of art was opened. It is a representation of a typical home on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Much of the railway was originally financed by the coffee trade in Indonesia, at the time a Dutch colony. The coffee trade was not particularly fair to the locals. This was the theme of a famous Dutch novel from 1860 “Max Havelaar; or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company” which was an early protest against Dutch colonial policies. Through this work of art the cycleway is even connected to the way the Dutch are trying to come to terms with their colonial past.
The railway line lives on in people’s minds and much has been written about it on the internet and even the local newspaper commemorated the line in a lengthy article just two months ago. Finally, someone is building a beautiful miniature version of the line with the typical buildings and bridges, which he documents on a blog.