How a former railroad was turned into a cycle route

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.

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The former station of Capelle. There is a hedge on the edge of the platform and the tracks have been replaced by the asphalt of the cycleway, but the situation is still very much like it used to be when the station was really a station.
The station Capelle, Noord-Brabant in the 1930s when the line was at its peak. Picture Regional Archive for the Langstraat.

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.

There are information panels alongside the cycle route with pictures and information about the former railway.

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 cycleway is called Halvezolenpad. The former nickname of the railway became the official name for the cycleway.
One of the works of art consists of two giant steel shoe soles. The work is called “footprint” it is 5 metres tall and was placed in 2016.

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).

One of the longer remaining bridges in the line is this bridge in Waalwijk that was the first part of the cycle route to be opened. A similar bridge in the same former railway line near ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Moerputtenbrug, has become a pedestrian bridge, but I did cycle on it once to film the sun set.

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.

This plan from the federation for the preservation of the railway line would have extended the existing cycleway ending in Raaamsdonk (blue line to the right) further to the west on the former tracks. It would require two new underpasses under the motorways A59 and A27.
In the governmental motorway expansion plans of the two motorways and their intersection the former railway dike is visible as a strip of “nature” not as a cycle route.

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.

On 9 May 1992 a group of people cycled on the first part of the cycle route on the former railway line during the opening activities. The head of the group is formed by Minister of Transport Ms Maij-Weggen and the mayor of Waalwijk, Mr Van Schaik. Picture Regional archive for the Langstraat in Heusden.

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.

Part of the original railway fence from 1886 in Waspik has been restored by volunteers from the local heritage club in 2012. Of the original over 2000 metres of fence 144 metres remain.

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.

This work of art “Het Koffijhuis” (The coffee house) was opened in February 2020. It is shaped as Tongonan, the traditional ancestral houses of the Torajan people on Sulawesi in Indonesia and covered in a layer that contains actual coffee.
This information panel explains the connection between the Togonan house and the coffee trade and the former railway line for the shoe industry that is now a cycleway.

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.

My video about the Halvezolenpad cycle route.
Ride on the Halvezolenpad cycle route.

5 thoughts on “How a former railroad was turned into a cycle route

  1. As a resident of Waalwijk, I find it a pity that the longest bridge of the cycle path is not mentioned. Many bridges are still there because the railway ran from den Bosch to Lage Zwaluwe. Just east of Waalwijk is a 200-metre-long bridge, built in 1891. The moerputtenbrug near den Bosch is even 800 meters long, but you can no longer cycle over it, but you can walk. Beautiful history here!

  2. Very interesting text. It is important to contextualise the present with past events, so that it can be better understood. And the way people over there join to preserve things is admirable. Where I live (Coimbra, Portugal) a former regional railway line has been closed for nearly 20 years, waiting for a tramway line to be implemented. Now the tramway project has been abandoned and turned into a BRT line with electric buses, and is expected to begin comercial services by 2024, connecting the regional line with an urban line. The former railway line worked for about 100 years and is very present in people’s minds to this day, so I hope this is taken in account in the new BRT bus service. But as the new project (named Metrobus) has taken so long to be built, people don’t believe it will ever work. I really hope it will work! And to end this long comment, congratulations on your writing.

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