Flemish ‘Bomb Railway’ cleared from ammunition
The first day of the extended Ascension Day weekend was by far the most exciting moment for the Belgian infrastructure manager Infrabel this year. The so-called bomb railway in Wildert near Essen (province of Antwerp) was cleaned up by a specialised explosives company.
Deep in the ground under the railway line war ammunition from the Second World War had been lying idle. Together with Essen and Kalmthout and the local police zone, a detailed step-by-step plan was drawn up to have the ammunition safely removed, and it all happened during the extra long weekend that has just passed.
Train traffic was already stopped on Wednesday 17 May at night, after the last train had passed. Infrabel specialists removed the tracks, sleepers and ballast to clear the area for ammunition detection. Then, the removal could begin.
Infrabel describes the job as follows: “When ammunition was found, there was a clear step-by-step plan. The police were informed and they in turn notified DOVO. A security perimeter was also set up depending on the ammunition found. In total, 2 old shells and a dozen burnt-out shells were found. The excavated ammunition was safely carried away and rendered harmless.”
Reconstruction and more
The operation was followed by reconstruction by Infrabel. “By 4 am on Monday morning, before the first train, the tracks, sleepers and ballast must be locally renewed to allow safe train traffic again”, the infrastructure manager said on Saturday 20 May.
During the Pentecost weekend, Infrabel will also be working on the bomb railway from 27 to 30 May. This mainly concerns so-called revisions, checks on the stability of the track. In addition, other places (Essen, Kalmthout, Kapellen, Mariaburg and Antwerp-Luchtbal) are still working on the modernisation of the rail infrastructure.
Why was there munition under a frequently used railway line? Also this question was answered by Infrabel. It describes the war scene at the location as follows:
“On 9 September 1944, an ammunition train full of German artillery shells slowly sets off from Hoogboom near Kapellen towards Roosendaal in the Netherlands. Five days earlier, Allied soldiers liberated the city of Antwerp. But in the Northern Kempen there is still fierce German resistance.
“That particular day, American fighter-bombers patrol the airspace in the area. Suddenly the pilots see the 300 meter long steam train near Kalmthout station. The fighters duck down and aim their machine guns at the ammunition train. Local residents flee into their shelters. The aircraft skims over the station and opens fire. The train stops on Wildert territory, where the driver and stoker jump off the locomotive.
“The second airstrike is a direct hit, the ammunition train explodes. Of the presumably 32 wagons, only four remain, the rest burns out. In front, where the train stood, is a large crater. After the liberation, the damage to the infrastructure was repaired, but there was still a lot of ammunition along the track. The line is therefore nicknamed the ‘bomb track’. Unfortunately, during a clearing operation in 1946, five Walloon deminers were killed when a grenade exploded. Their memorial is in Kalmthout.”
No risk of explosion
Although the shells have now been removed, Infrabel explains that the munition was not at risk of exploding as long as the ground remained untouched.
“In the past, Infrabel already renovated the rail infrastructure in the area with a large work train. But at the exact place where the ammunition train exploded, only the rails were renewed so as not to manipulate the underground too much.”
The reason why the removal operation was carried out now is because there the railway line required an upgrade. The sleepers and ballast (pebbles) have to be renewed over a distance of about 150 meters. “This is deliberately not done with a heavy renewal train, but manually because this is more careful work.”
The remediation and track renewal works in Wildert (Essen) are part of a series of planned major rail infrastructure works between Antwerp and Essen. These works will be spread out over several weekends and will impact train traffic between the Netherlands and Antwerp.
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